It is often said that one day we’ll look back on the hard times in our lives and appreciate them. I had done that with a lot of situations before, but this one seemed impossible. There is nothing positive about stage four brain tumors. My mother was diagnosed with one at the age of 57. She merely had a full exam a month before and the doctor said she had the vitals of someone twenty years younger. No surprise there, the people in her family live to be very healthy and old. I always figured I’d bury her when she was 100 years old, and I was a 70-year-old. I figured our close relationship would always be a constant in my life until I was old enough to be ok with dying myself. Instead, I buried her right before I turned thirty.
I’ll never forget the night she called me to tell me doctors found a brain tumor in her head. I was already apprehensive. Her vision had abruptly messed up. I knew it was serious before the diagnosis ever came. Everyone stayed calm, and said, “Wait for the diagnosis before you freak out”, but I knew. She never got sick. It is the people who are always healthy that get the freak, terminal, cancers.
The stage four diagnosis is quick. Without treatment, you have a matter of weeks. With the treatment you have roughly five to eighteen months depending on the tumor’s growth. She was given five. She lasted twelve. When she passed away, it had been months since we’d had one of our chats about the everyday things in life. These used to happen regularly, multiple times a week. But her tumor affected her ability to form sentences, and her words became jumbled.
The Chats Stop
It had only been five months since her diagnosis when we stopped having those chats. On our last call, she called me by my brother’s name and told me a story about “someone”. It was the story I’d just told her about me. I hung up the phone after the call and sobbed.
She now could not walk without a walker and her hair was gone. She walked around with a feeding tube pack on her hip and her face swelled from the treatments. People didn’t know how sick she was but I couldn’t shake it. It was weird to mourn someone that was still alive, someone who you prayed wouldn’t die. But, I was actively grieving the loss of my mother, and our friendship, while she was alive.
Until this point in life, I had always been afraid to be near severely ill people and the infirm. Something about their fragility scared me. It broke my heart and made me turn away from them. I guess I was afraid that I’d do the wrong thing or be unable to empathize. Something about their appearance made me uncomfortable. My mother began to resemble one of these people. It was mostly the eyes. All the pain the body is going through, the pain of realizing your diagnosis, and the pain of knowing your family’s hearts are breaking manifests in the eyes. She looked like other people I’d been afraid of only I couldn’t be afraid of her.
I remember the first time it happened after she died. I saw a woman at the grocery store. Her head looked like it had been recently shaved and her skin was pallid. I recognized it immediately. She was the color of chemo treatments. I know that isn’t a Pantone-recognized color, but if you have seen it, you know. The skin becomes a grayish, yellowish, greenish, sickly hue. I saw her eyes. They were my mother’s eyes. The mother I had buried a month before. I stopped and stared at her for a minute. Every fiber of my being wanted to run over to her and hug her. Say she was incredible and she should never stop fighting. Say I loved her even if we’d never met. Say she was one of my heroes.
It was then I knew her cancer had given me a gift.
The traumatic, heart-wrenching experience of losing my mother had given me the compassion I’d always been missing. Suddenly, I could spot a cancer-fighter in any crowd. I recognized the way they wrapped scarves around their heads or the beanies they wore. I recognized their sagging shoulders, their plump cheeks from treatments making them retain water, and their fatigued expressions. There is a look. Most people don’t realize who these people are. We don’t notice them in passing. We think they are a little haggard or sloppy. You often can’t see it unless you’ve experienced it. Now, I can see these beautiful, pain-stricken souls and I’m grateful. I’m grateful that even though I have endured a loss, I gained compassion for people I never had before.
The other day, I saw a beautiful, young, vibrant woman with a haggard-looking elderly woman. When I looked into the older one’s eyes, I realized she wasn’t as old as she looked. Then I saw it. She was the color of chemo too. I looked at the young woman again, and thought, “this must be her daughter.” There was a lump in my throat. I immediately said a prayer for those two beautiful, broken-hearted souls and felt an unspoken connection to them. They were fighting a battle I’d just finished.
We’re all fighting battles. Some teach us how to love others. I am a better person after losing my mother. For this new gift I am grateful, even if I miss her always.