You never think it will happen to you. Never. Not in a million years.
Then it does, and the entire time, it feels like you’re in the eye of a hurricane. There’s a sense of calm because the worst has yet to come, but at the same time you can see the world around you in complete chaos, crashing down on the verge of disaster with every day that passes.
This storm changed my life. It came in with no warning and lasted 7 years. The longest and hardest 7 years of my life, only to bring even harder years in it’s wake. This storm almost killed me, and changed the course of my life, but, even if at times it seemed I was barely hanging on, this storm did not win. The winds have stilled, and the rains have stopped, but there isn’t a day that goes by that a wispy breeze can’t remind me of the hurricane’s hay day. A hurricane who’s name I’ll never forget…
This storm was called Cancer.
I still remember the day. I was in 7th grade and in the height of my awkward stage. We’re talking frizzy hair (that my mom used to iron on the ironing board because that’s how they did it “back in the day,”) braces, and a closet full of Limited Too and American Eagle that did nothing for my pre-pubescent figure. Not to mention trying to be fit in and be included in all of the “cool girl” activities. That was a job in itself! I was decently popular, lived on the west side of town, and had everything I could ever want, and despite being in said awkward stage, I was happy. Nothing bad was ever going to happen to me. I feel like it’s those times in your life when you realize how naive you can really be, because little did I know the worst thing that could ever happen was knocking on my door.
I arrived home from my daily carpool only to recognize a foreign car parked at my house. Walking inside, I didn’t think anything of it until I saw both of my parents home, speaking with a lady named Linda Cady. I had no idea who Linda was. When she left, they sat my sister and I down and said that my mother had found a lump in her breast and that it was in fact cancerous. At that moment, my world stopped. Immediately I thought my mother was going to die. Although they tried to reassure me that it had been caught early and there was already a course of treatment in place to fight this, nothing helped.
That night I ended up in my parent’s bed, crying into my mothers arms. A scene that would be frequented far too many times over the next 7 years.
The next few months kind of flew by in one big blur. This time was filled with many questions, lots of planning and even more uncertainty. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was how serious her situation was. The reality was that my mother was diagnosed with stage 4-breast cancer, and because of this stark reality, she was due to have a double mastectomy and 6 rounds of chemotherapy. However, no matter how bad the news was, she always made us feel that she had it under control. This was just an obstacle that God had put in her life, to give Him glory, and she was going to be just fine.
Before any of this happened though, we started spending more time together. Thankfully for her, my sister and I were not the kind of kids who once you hit a certain age, you want to be dropped off a block before school. We always had a great relationship, and, for now, this had brought us closer. I remember, shortly after her diagnosis, she set up a photo shoot with our good family friend, Joy. She wanted to have photos taken with us before she lost her hair. I held it in pretty well, but this was one of the hardest days yet. I was on the verge of tears, did not want to be there, and sure as hell didn’t want to be the girl whose mom had cancer, but those were all realities I had to deal with.
Next came the surgery, and a summer full of chemotherapy. I remember seeing her for the first time after her double mastectomy and still thinking of how beautiful she looked. How a woman could have both her breasts chopped off and still be looking gorgeous is beyond me. I could only hope to look that good on my worst days, and I didn’t even have cancer. The chemo was a strange adjustment that came with lots of exhaustion, nausea, and downtime. Her white blood counts got down so low that when we would come home from school, we had to change our clothes before we could even go into her bedroom due to risk of infection. I hated this. I hated that she was so fragile and weak, and that life wasn’t the same. It was bad enough that I had already become known as “the girl whose mom has cancer”, but the fact that my life was changing so rapidly just didn’t set well. The funny thing is, is that even though she was in such a fragile state; drain tubes coming out of her body, no hair on her head, severe exhaustion, and not to mention having no breasts, she was amazingly positive. I remember one day my sister and I were lying in bed with her and she took off her scarf and started bobbing her head like an ostrich, which sent us into fits of laughter. It was little things like this that kept our spirits up. Her positivity was radiant and never ceasing. Every time I had a weak moment, she would remind me that God was in control, and that this was happening for a reason, and that most importantly she would be fine. Strangely enough, I started to believe it.
Slowly but surely that summer seemed to wind down, and with that came the end of chemo. This would be the first and the last time that we got good news throughout this ordeal. According to the doctors, after her stints of chemo, radiation, and the effect of the double mastectomy, she was finally in remission. I couldn’t believe it! Life was finally going to get back to normal. Her hair was growing back, she was on track with a plastic surgeon to set up re-construction and things were all settling down. Nine months of normalcy passed before we found out that the cancer was back, and little did I know at the time, it had come back with a vengeance. You see, my parents never let my sister and I know how bad it was. Something I was grateful for at the time, but ended up resenting them for at the end.
This time the cancer was back and it had metastasized to her bones. No big deal, I thought. We had all gone through this before, and we could do it again. Somehow, even though I was so bitter through the first bout of cancer, this one brought me strength. I was ready to fight with her. The upside was that I was in the middle of my high school career and had matured a bit and was stronger – the downside was, I was in the middle of my high school career, and with that comes lots of “coming of age” times in a young girls life. Dances, sports, boys, clothes, braces, acne, etc; I went through it all, and despite my mother dealing with exponentially more serious things in her life, she always managed to make my problems her own, and carry me through with strength beyond measure. Again, her display of strength was something to be marveled at. Despite the fact that she yet again lost her hair, was going through continuous chemo and radiation, and saw some of her greatest “friends” leave her in the dust, she never let go of her hope and determination to weather this wicked storm.
The next few years kind of flew by in a blur. I went to prom, graduated, and went away for my freshman year of college, and all the while the cancer never left our lives. Cancer had become a part of our everyday routine. Her chemo was now on an oral basis, and was taken regularly just like your morning vitamin. It all seemed too easy, too convenient. Then, the days would come that would remind me how strong and how very real this storm still was. It was raging like it never had before. These days were scan days.
My dad (my rock and my refuge through everything) would always inform me of a scan day, but would make light of it so I wouldn’t worry. Little did they know that I mentally and physically shut down these days. I wouldn’t go to class, I wouldn’t eat, and couldn’t sleep. I was too wrapped up in a toxic routine of begging, praying, and bargaining with God to please have her scans come back clean, and save my mother’s life. They never did. Not once in this seven year long storm did those scans come back clean. Not only that, they came back worse every time. I remember once during my junior year of college I was sitting across from my dad in his office and he showed me one of the said scans. It was horrifying. It didn’t take being a doctor to see what was going on inside her body. The cancer was everywhere. From the top of her head, to the very tip of her toes…every bone in her fragile little body was ridden with this sickness, and none of us could do anything to stop it. In December of 2008, I drove her up for a chemo appointment and some Christmas shopping. Sitting in that office with her and hearing the doctor say that they weren’t going to give her anymore treatment was the biggest blow I’ve ever felt in my life, and, for the first time, I saw fear flash across her face.
By this time, my aunt Mary had come out to stay with us. She had come lots of times before, for various surgeries and radiation periods, but this time she was here for months. One day in February 2009, I was packing up to head back to school and had a stark realization: my mother wasn’t going to make it, she was going to die. Immediately I sat my parents down and said that I was not going back to school, and without ever mentioning the words death, or dying, I expressed that I knew she was very sick and I wanted to stay home. My mom, being the strong woman that she always was, assured me that things were going to be fine and that I had no reason to worry. She said she was just going through a rough time and that this would pass, that the doctors would find yet another chemo drug for her to try and everything would be fine. Somehow, she managed to convince me and I decided to go back to school.
The last time I ever saw my mother outside the confines of a hospital bed was on Mother’s Day of 2009. We were sitting around watching Gilmore Girls all day in our pajamas and eating our favorite foods. Nothing could’ve been better. The next day, my dad was taking her to the doctor in San Diego, and to be honest, I can’t even remember what exactly for; all I knew is that she didn’t come home. Then a few days later he came home, and she didn’t. I knew something was horribly wrong. After work one day I asked him when she was coming home and he explained to me how serious it was. She wasn’t going to come home.
I absolutely lost it. This wasn’t fair! These kinds of horrible things didn’t happen to me! I was not going to be the girl without a mother. Crying hysterically I demanded to see her. I had to hold her hand; I had to be there. My best friend Kenzie drove me up to San Diego that night to be with her, and at that point, even I didn’t know when I’d be coming home. As soon as I got into her hospital room, we locked eyes and both started crying. She didn’t hold up a guard anymore, she didn’t hide the seriousness or her emotions from me anymore – it was time to be real, and raw. She and I cried and cried. We told each other how much we loved each other, and then I remember her saying to me “I don’t want to leave you. I don’t want to leave you because Christmas won’t be the same.” (she knew it was both of our favorite holidays). And as trivial as that statement was, all I could do was cry because I knew it was true.
In the weeks that followed, friends and family came from all over to that hospital room. We all knew she wasn’t going to leave. Talk of hospice began to come into the picture as more and more distant friends and relatives came by. My sister’s 18th birthday was even celebrated in that hospital room (along with a Taylor Swift concert), and that was the hardest thing for my mom. All she wanted, the last thing she desired, was to see my sister graduate from high school and, believe it or not, she would get that wish. The doctors figured out a way for her to come home. A hospital bed and 24 hour care was set up in our home, and allowed her to be taken via an ambulance right on to the football field for the graduation. It was a magical night filled with hopes, dreams, laughs, and contentment. It even ended with her being taken, on a gurney, to have one last glass of chardonnay (with ice!) at the local social club. It was the stuff that movies are made of.
Things happened rapidly after that. It was like she knew she had completed what she was here to do, even though by all of our opinions, she still had much more to do. I remember the night of July 7, 2009. I was at my aunt Lisa’s house and completely broke down. Mom had been in that hospital bed at home for a few weeks now, and at this point she was no longer conscious, and in terrible amounts of pain. Her time was coming soon, and we all knew it. But at this point, I had had enough. As much as I wanted her here forever, I sat on that couch and screamed and cried for God to just take the pain away. After leaving there, I headed home and saw my mom for the last time. They had moved her out of her hospital bed and into her own bed. My aunt Mary was lying right next to her, and my mom was looking as peaceful as ever. I stood in the doorway and watched her for what seemed like hours. Telling her I loved her and just watching her take those last pained, shallow breaths. Eventually I went to bed. I was on the verge of a panic attack so I put on some worship music and went to sleep. The next thing I knew, I was awoken by my dad shaking me, and telling me it was ok – apparently I had been hysterically crying, and had no idea. He calmed me, and I went back to sleep.
The next morning, I woke around 9, but didn’t get up right away. I was experiencing a sense of calm that I hadn’t felt in years, so I decided to savor it. While lying there I could hear rumbling and talking outside my door. I didn’t rush out though, I already knew what had happened…she was gone. A while later I got up, and found my brother, dad, and sister outside my door, and as much as I expected to walk in to crying, screaming and utter sorrow, that wasn’t the case. It seemed that we all had understood she had gone, and was no longer in excruciating pain, and for that fleeting moment, we all had a sense of peace as well.
A lot has happened since that fateful day in July 2009. A month later, I spent my 21st birthday in Las Vegas, and a month after that I returned for my senior year of college. Graduation followed, and so did “the real world” as my dad likes to call it. The real world was hard; explaining to people you didn’t have a mom was a tough adjustment. There were days in that last year of college where the panic attacks were so bad, that I thought I was going to be joining her soon, because surely I was going to die. Turns out that was just the drama queen in me.
I never turned to drugs, alcohol, or sex to numb my pain. Thankfully, my amazing friends and family were there to bring as much comfort as they could, and the rest I found in my faith in God. You see, the whole time my mom was sick, she always told me that she was sick for a reason, and it wasn’t until she was gone that I realized that. During all of her time in the hospital she was always making friends with strangers, and I can’t even tell you how many people she shared her testimony with. So, as mad and as sad as I was that she was gone, I knew that by God taking my mom from me, he had used her to save others. It’s a harsh reality that took me a long time to come to terms with, and I finally have.
I actually learned a lot about myself through her death, most things I think I wouldn’t have, had she not been gone. I realized that I am so much like her. I’ve learned to take each day for the gift that it is, and not hold anything back. I’m loud, and fun, and not afraid to say the things that need to be said. I love too much, and too hard. Sometimes that’s a blessing, and sometimes it’s a curse, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I learned that it’s okay NOT to be okay. It took me a long time not to be ashamed of who I’d become, but I have learned to be 100% unapologetically myself, and not care if people have a problem with that. I know the sanctity of life, how precious it is, and how your whole existence can change in an instant. I know that darkness can be so dark that you think you never will find a light again, but let me let you in on a little secret…you will.
This past July was the 4th anniversary of her death. So much has changed. My dad remarried, my brother is married with kids, my sister graduated college, and me, well, I’ve grown so much despite still finding my way and encountering lots of bumps along the road – especially in this past year. I still miss her and think of her every single day, but now it’s hardest when I think of the future. She’s not going to be there to see me get married, or hold her grandbabies. She’s not going to help me pick out a wedding dress, or assure me that I’ve picked the right man. She’s not going to be able to help me, guide me, or direct me in the ways of things I know nothing about, and when I think of these things, the things she’s going to miss, that’s when I miss her the most.
It was windy today. As I stepped outside to get the mail, while taking a break from writing this, a huge gust blew upon my face. I turned to the sky and it was grey and stormy and leaves were blowing in the distance. I grabbed the mail and was browsing through it, and shortly after that, a soft breeze touched my cheeks and the sun peeked through the clouds. It was in that moment that I felt her. I had forgotten the simplest thing I had learned early on after her death. You see, the storm is over. I fought my hardest and made it through, and though at times I’m reminded of that horrible hurricane called Cancer, the sunny day always comes. I can miss her and be sad about the things that she’s going to miss, but she will be there. In the smell of her old Lancomè perfume, the taste of her classic chardonnay with ice, in that soft breeze on my face, and the sun that peeks through the clouds, that’s where she is. That’s where I hold my peace, and remember that even in my darkest hour, I can weather the storm.
Something she always told my sister and I while we were growing up was to “Have a good day, unless you’ve made other plans!” I’ve taken this to heart, and she would be so proud, because let me tell you… I’ve got BIG plans.