I remember the worst Christmas I’ve ever been through. It was in 2010, when a love of my life succumbed to cancer four days before Christmas.
Cancer isn’t some obscure disease nobody has ever heard of—unfortunately. At best, you know someone who has lost a friend or family member to it; at worst, you have experienced the loss yourself. Of course, while it isn’t a rarity to hear about its survivors and to revel in the miracles of such occurrences, it is the stories of those who died during their battles that seem to touch our hearts the most.
I was in elementary when I first heard about cancer; fourth grade, I think. My grandfather was given six months to live after he was diagnosed with cancer of the liver—but he never made it that long. He passed away a couple of months after, and when that happened, I just knew that cancer was a terrible and cruel monster. A few years later the same monster with a different name, this time called Leukemia, claimed the life of one of my classmates. Everyone in school was shocked and heartbroken to hear about Angeli, one of the loveliest and friendliest faces in school, slowly deteriorating, and eventually passing, at such a young age.
But I got up close and personal with cancer during my first year in college, when I found out that my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and countless medication and hospital visits later, she was a survivor. Less than two years later, my eldest sister was diagnosed with Non-Hodgekin Lymphoma, another type of cancer. We found out that her cancer developed during her pregnancy with her firstborn, who we now consider as the family’s miracle baby. My mother did everything in her power to help my sister recover, which she eventually did (on this month, she is now officially 5 years cancer-free).
But none of those experiences can compare to learning, in the summer of 2010, that my mother’s cancer recurred, in a worse way. The doctors all predicted that this time, no treatment could help her recover. Upon hearing this, my mother refused any type of expensive treatment because she thought it would be pointless in the long run. She agreed only to regular blood transfusions and check-ups and took some medication for her condition, which bought us some time, Mid-year, the doctors told us we’d have her for maybe another year. By the time October/November rolled around, they said we’d be lucky to have her until Valentine’s the following year. Unfortunately, she never even made it to Christmas.
It was difficult to try to live a normal life while watching your mother weaken before your eyes. To see the pain in her eyes, which she barely ever expressed in words, to keep us from hurting, too. I remember one morning, during her stronger days, when she started talking to me about how she wanted her funeral, and how she wanted us to live after she had passed on. I covered my ears and refused to listen to any of it. It was morbid, I told her, to talk about such things that might not even happen. Even as her condition started to fail, I believed with everything I had that she would get better, that doctors were proven wrong all the time. Deep down, I knew this was a nightmare that we wouldn’t ever wake up from, but I refused to acknowledge the feeling. She will get better. She has to get better. She couldn’t not get better. For a while there, she was getting better. And we honestly thought things were looking up.
Then one day, while I was on my way home from school, all excited about the prospect of Christmas vacation, I got a call from my dad. He had accompanied my mother that day on one of her regular blood transfusions (which is done on an out-patient basis)—but they never made it back home. My mother was taken to the emergency room after collapsing on the way out after the transfusion. I rushed to the hospital only to see my entire family gathered around her, and she was extremely pale and barely comprehensible. Five minutes later, she slipped into a coma.
We spent days in the hospital, alternately believing she’d snap out of it and crying our goodbyes by her hair. Several people came to see her, and everyone—EVERYONE—in her life was able to say goodbye. People overseas either made a special trip home or called us and had us place our phones by her ear. She could hear everyone, we knew, it was evident in the unbidden tears would slip down the corner of her eyes during the most poignant moments.
My dad woke me up on the morning of December 21st, saying “She’s gone.” I will never forget his face as he said that. He had felt her starting to struggle to breathe, and she took her last breath with my dad by her side, holding her hand. He was done crying by the time he woke us up, a pillar of strength we used to recover as the weeks rolled by to her burial. We did not blame him for not waking us for her final moments—it felt right that her final breath be with him alone.
Cancer’s a bitch, though, that tosses around a lot of blame. Blame the doctors, blame the stress, blame the medicine, blame the genes, blame, blame, blame!
Blame yourself, for not listening when she told you she was ready to go. Blame yourself, for your crazy outbursts when all she needed was for you to be calm and understanding and obedient. Blame yourself, for your wayward moments as you were growing up. Blame yourself, for not telling her enough times how much you loved her. Blame yourself, for every single second you spent not thinking about her after she passed on.
Blame cancer, for taking away someone who was too wonderful to go, too young to pass, a life too lovely by half.
Slowly it got better. I could think of my mother without bursting into tears every single time. I could remember her smile without my heart twisting for a love that I had lost.
Even three years later though, the pain of her passing never left. It only became bearable. Time, I learned, helps you bear the pain, but never really takes it away.
I have gotten over losing her, as much as I ever really can. But even as I write this, I can’t help but cry, remembering her. Some things you can never really forget.
Like losing a love to cancer at Christmas.
To borrow the words of Luther Vandross:
I would love, love, love to dance with my mother again… Sometimes I’d listen outside his door, and I’d hear how papa would cry for her. I’d pray for him even more than me, I’d pray for him even more than me. I know I’m praying for much too much, but could You send back the only woman he loved? I know You don’t do it usually, but dear Lord, he’s dying to dance with my mother again.