A little while ago I had to write a narrative about an experience that changed my life. I couldn't think of anything greater than the years with my Mom. My life with my Mom. The speech that I wrote is below.
All of this I know and I don’t know. All of this has been warped and changed with memory and time. All of this I remember through slanted eyes, hurt eyes that have changed. All I know now is that I miss her. All I know now is that she is gone.
I was fourteen years old when my world changed in ways I could not yet imagine: my mother had breast cancer. She was thirty seven years old. My mother. Her struggle to live was more amazing than her struggle to fight the cancer that ate away at her. She fought for eight years, with chemo failing and doctors shaking their heads at her. She fought for so long, fighting for us. Fighting to live was different that her fight against cancer. And even though she eventually lost her fight against cancer, eight years after learning about it, she had lived. She had made a home, played with and raised her children proudly; she was not a pitiful woman. She was my mother. My mother: A woman who would not let the cancer stop her from building a beautiful one acre garden in our backyard. It would not stop her from decorating our home for birthdays, going above and beyond, even to the point of embarrassment. It did not stop her from smiling. Living. My mother fought cancer. Her illness and death will always shape me, will continue to shape me, and I will never be the same because of it.
The cancer was stage two breast cancer. She had chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and eventually reconstructive surgery. I learned these terms alongside Advanced Algebra and AP English. I learned them because it was my life. I wanted to learn everything I could about the disease and where it would take us. When her hair started falling out, she bought a wig, but didn’t want to wear it. It seemed less depressing to have a bandana and it worked well for her. It fit the spirit that she carried with her her whole life. The wig acted as cancer décor in the house. Soon more décor came, prescription bottles, souvenirs from the hospital like the chapstick they gave you. I remember that chapstick, always too dry and it stuck to your lips in clumps. We were all strong then, laughing and having bonfires when she was feeling fine. She continued to garden and to build a home for us. My Dad worked more often then and my brother, then nine years old, and I were taking care of her. My brother, my sweet brother, who will only remember my Mom with the cancer. It seemed okay though, we were doing our part. I swallowed this responsibility, wore it like a badge. I did not rebel. I didn't scream that I hated her or fought with her like most teenage girls my age were doing. We laughed. We were best friends. We would watch Law and Order in bed together and laugh at the silly plotlines. We created nicknames for each other. Most importantly, we lived.
We earned ourselves a reward after that difficult year and a half. The chemo ended and after many tests, it was announced that her cancer was gone. She was cancer free. It was over. My Mom was free. We were free. Her hair grew back, thicker and curly. The wrinkles in her eyes were deeper, she had aged from this time, but she was more beautiful.
What we didn’t know, couldn’t know during that time, was that the cancer was growing in her body. It had metastasized. While we celebrated, it grew to consume 90% of her liver. When they discovered it a year and a half later it was too late. They gave my mother a year and a half to live. I was then eighteen years old. I was older. My family was older too. We all knew what would happen and we were resigned. My mother, especially, was resigned to this new death sentence.
She changed. Slowly. Slowly. She changed.
She was able to take chemo at home, in a pill form, and she didn’t lose her hair. And the good news is she continued to fight. She gave herself and she gave us three more years. But it was a death sentence. Both the emotional memory I have of her and the physical person began to die. She spent more and more days in bed, started taking antidepressants because she was so depressed, and she yelled more often. Her pain never went away. All day every day the cancer hurt her as it grew. It metastasized to her pelvic, spleen, and brain. As the years went on, I graduated from high school, started college, but was always her caregiver. I moved away and moved back, living with her, living with cancer, living with the heavy cancer umbrella.
For a few weeks in August of 2007, my Dad went out of town and I was left at home to care for her alone. Someone had to be there for her now. She was hardly eating then and slept almost all day.
The pictures of that time show a woman we could not recognize at the time. Her face was drained of color, her hair thin, her smile weak. She was dying, but we did not allow ourselves to see it. If you look close, look into her eyes, she knew. She knew.
In the few days that my Dad was out of town, the cancer that had then spread to her bones pushed calcium into her bloodstream, making her confused. She took days and days of pills at once. It made her even more confused.
When my Dad returned from his trip, we took her to the hospital. The doctors told us that the chemo she was taking had failed and that she could take a break. We didn’t know that they meant forever.
We didn’t know. We couldn’t know then. Mom had more tests and they discovered that the cancer had grown so much that there wasn’t anything more we could do. We had a few months to say goodbye. She was sent home.
Goodbye? How could we?
We had hospice come in and they set up a bed in the living room. It was the our Christmas tree and stockings. I still remember my Mom’s face when she saw the bed for the first time. She knew what it meant.
But she was still herself. She continued to fight to live, even if she couldn’t fight the cancer anymore. The night that she returned from the hospital she had a glass of wine with my Dad, her close friends, and me on the deck. She was laughing and joking with the hospice nurse. She fought.
Four days after that she slipped into a coma. She just couldn’t wake up with what was happening to her and the pain medications. Ten days after that, on August 18, 2007, she passed away. It was peaceful, and my Dad, brother, and I were all able to be there. She had a smile on her face as we held her hands.
The fight to live is strong. The fight can last for years, it can last the rest of your life. My mother fought for eight years. Now I fight for her. I will fight for the rest of my life.
I will always need a mother. I will always need friends to get through this. I will always need a therapist to get through the many issues that will come up over the years – for instance, when I got married and she wasn’t there or when I had my son that I knew she would never meet. No matter how long she has been gone, no matter how much I have mourned for her, I will always need journals, friends, and therapists to get through this. She will always be with me. I can see that now. She will always be here.
It has been five years since her death. First I mourned, now I fight for her. Now I fight for me. Breast cancer is hereditary. Two of her sisters had breast cancer and survived, but I may have the gene. I may get cancer. When she was sick, I gave my life to her. In the years after her death, I gave those years to my Dad who mourned. Now I am standing up and I will fight to live.
I fight. This year I participated in the Susan G. Komen 3 Day Walk for the Cure. It was an exhausting 60 mile walk over three days in Chicago. I raised over $2,700 myself and all of the walkers that weekend raised 4.2 million dollars to help find a cure. I now run half marathons, exercise, eat organic and healthy foods, and get regular mammograms. When I get the gene testing in the years to come, I will see if I have the genes. If I do, I will take whatever other preventative measures I can.
I live. I enjoy time with my son, learn to savor the moments with friends and family, and take things slow. I can safely say that my mother and the years that I spent loving and living with her are greater and more inspirational than the depressing year of her death and funeral. I can safely say that those years have weighed on every decision I have ever made in my life.
My mother fought and she will always win. I will always fight and I will win. I am strong because I am me and I am strong because I am Molly’s daughter.