Last Saturday I remembered my beautiful, courageous mother. Wherever I am, on the anniversary of her death, I observe sunflowers – her favorite flower – in the sunshine. I spent the day looking at them, remembering her expressive eyes, her laugh, and how she loved my siblings and me unconditionally. I ached, as I often do, to hold her hand one more time.
And then I think of how my mother’s decisions about her illness influenced my own. Decisions that, at the time, my siblings and I didn’t really understand.
My mother was diagnosed with an aggressive Stage II breast cancer in early 2006. She had a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and a perpetual regiment of hormonal therapy drugs. While the initial threat had been removed with the surgery, chemo and radiation, three dormant cells had escaped. Despite two remissions, the cells eventually metastasized into secondary breast cancer of the bone, and this is what eventually killed her five and a half years later.
She was in her second remission when I was diagnosed, and a more selfless human being I had never known. My mother was at my side every step of the way. She did wonderful little things for me, like cutting her newly re-grown head of hair close to her skull so that I wouldn’t feel the odd man out when I shaved my head the day before I started chemo.
Yet, throughout my treatment, she never once told me what to do to get through it. She knew that no one could do that for me, because it would not make it better. She later told me how she cried inside each time she saw me after a treatment. And how proud she was of how I persevered in getting my strength back.
I remember back to when her first remission ended, before my own diagnosis. My mother sat my siblings and me down and told us she didn’t want to do chemo again. We were completely flabbergasted, not understanding why she would choose certain death over fighting. In the end, she went through chemo again. And again. I will never know if she did it for us or for herself.
It was only when I had to make decisions about my own treatment that I truly understood what was going through my mother’s head when she was hit with the reality that her cancer was back. If the treatment was hell for me, what must it have been like for her?
For me, chemo was hell. It was the many nights I would lie awake, a burning nausea trailing through my belly and throat, never manifesting to give me release, for hours on end. It was aches behind my eyes that made me want to cry if I closed them to try to sleep. It was the bleeding sores in my nose making it hard to breathe, some so deep in my nasal cavity that I could not treat them with the prescribed medication. It was my hands constantly shaking, and my legs barely holding me up when I tried to walk it off. I wanted to die.
So, I no longer question why my mother didn’t want to do it again. Her reasoning was that she didn’t like killing things, and the cancer cells were hers to do with as she pleased. It was her way of telling us, without letting on how bad it had been for her that the fight was hard and she wasn’t sure she could do it again.
And it wasn’t until I had gone through hormonal therapy that caused severe collateral damage that I understood why, in the end, my mother juggled her meds around to find a balance that didn’t make her feel like crap all the time. I no longer question whether or not she would have lived longer if she had followed the prescribed methods.
What I do know is that my mother still teaches me that I will never permit another person to make a choice for me about how I handle cancer, my life or the next adventure.
She teaches me that I can live another year, or five, or ten, or however many I have left in this world. Cancer may kill me or some other illness or event most certainly will. But, I will die happy knowing that I followed my life’s path and placed my quality of life first.
In my last post, I wrote of new beginnings. It’s apt that in my final week in New York City, I see my mother still teaching me life’s lessons. As I pack up my car next week to drive to my new home in the green paradise that is Virginia, I will think of how my mother often looked at me, placed her hand on my cheek and said, “I’m so proud of you, my baby.”