When my Mom was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer last Fall, it felt like the world stopped. It all happened so fast and the prognosis was so bad that I sort of feel like I’ve been holding my breath for six months, praying and searching for answers and grappling with our new reality. All I thought about was my mom, her illness and the future and it sort of ate me alive. I felt guilty talking about anything other than that and much of the time I didn’t have anything else to talk about anyway. Cancer became such an elephant in the room and it was too easy to let it be the focus. For a while I stopped knowing what level of enjoyment in life was acceptable when my Mom was so sick. Watching someone you love suffer is such a helpless feeling.
I had planned to share a lot more about all of this here but I could not bring myself to write even one post, aside from a brief mention in my 2015 recap. I think I felt like if I wrote all of it out it would feel too real, as stupid as that sounds now. I couldn’t acknowledge it because I was so petrified of how things might turn out. I didn’t know how to write about the details and specifics and I also don’t think that is my information to share so I avoided the topic totally on my blog.
I finally feel like I can say this: nowadays Mom’s doing much better after months of aggressive treatment. I think it’s safe to say that she has defied a lot of odds and her doctors marvel at her improvements at each visit. I am so, so grateful I can’t even put it into words. Mom’s doctor is a wonderful man, big and bald and jovial. He is very optimistic and we cling to that desperately. Until very recently I was fully prepared to postpone our wedding or move the date up depending on the circumstances but we are less than two months away now and it feels like things might just work out as planned after all. That’s the funny thing about life. You may feel like your world is falling apart but time still passes and the sun still rises every day like nothing has changed. You really do have to find a way to carry on and find your new normal no matter how hard things are.
Something I’ve struggled with is knowing how to treat my Mom since she’s been sick. I didn’t know if I should coddle her or treat her as I always did. I didn’t know if I should ask her hard questions and talk about the really scary stuff or if I should avoid it altogether and keep our talks more upbeat. I didn’t know if I should give her some space for herself or if I should spend every single second with her to the point of being overbearing. It was hard to find a balance because her diagnosis was so serious but at the same time I didn’t want to treat her like we were spending our last months together. I wanted her to know that she could fight it and beat it and if I acted like she was going to die, then how motivating would that be? I didn’t want her to feel like she was just a cancer patient, because she is so much more than that.
At her most recent chemo Mom and I were having a discussion about making oneself a priority. I was telling her how much I admire (and occasionally envy) Tom because he is so good at prioritizing his needs while still caring so much for others. He is a rock star about fitting in his busy career, drum practice, CrossFit, wing night and so much more and yet he is still the most giving partner, son, brother and friend. I told my Mom that I wished I was better at taking time to do the things that I really enjoy but that I tended to get too caught up with worrying about the dishes in the sink, or the meal that needed prepping or the little white Chihuahua who would cry as soon as I stepped out the door. Then Mom said, with great clarity, that I had to take the time for myself because that other stuff just didn’t matter. She said, “For years I did the same thing. I put everything else first and look at me now. So I don’t worry too much about the other stuff anymore. The dishes in the sink can wait. You have to do the things that make you happy too.” Anyone who knows my Mom knows that she is absolutely the kind of person who puts EVERYONE before herself. After she was diagnosed I lost count of the number of people who told me that this couldn’t have happened to a nicer person, which is so true. So to hear my Mom learn that lesson at this stage in her life made me feel happy for her. I’m happy she knows that you have to fill up your cup before you can share with anyone else. My Mom has spent most of her life devoting everything to others which is beautiful but what a shame it would be if she hadn’t lived some of it for HERSELF, too. I’m glad she’s starting now because she deserves that. And it inspires me to live life that same way.
I’ve learned that no matter what might be going on, laughter helps. One day I was booking hair appointments for my bridal party and asked my Mom if she wanted one. Mom, who had already been bald for weeks and was sitting right in front of me, just smiled quietly. I felt so embarrassed at first but we had to laugh about it. Slowly we’ve injected a little more humor into things and I really do think it helps lighten the load of all of the heavy stuff.
Something else huge that I’ve learned: if someone seems grouchy or rude or closed off, don’t take it personally or assume they are just a crappy person. I can’t even begin to estimate how many days I came in to work on the verge of tears after another fitful night of worrying and it made it really hard to interact successfully with others. I started to retreat into myself a lot and I dreaded conversing with just about anyone because my emotions were so all over the place. I’m still learning to navigate that because I am pretty guarded about sharing my feelings to begin with but I’m learning that people for the most part will listen and be empathetic. I’ll never forget the first time someone came to my desk just to ask me how my Mom was doing. It was so simple but it made me feel like I didn’t have to hold it all in anymore. It was such a huge relief and comfort to me. Try to be gentle with everyone, because you truly never know what is going on in the background of someone’s life.
My first day back at work after Mom’s diagnosis a co-worker told me, “Don’t give up just yet! There’s always hope.” I appreciated his words but hope evaded me a little at the beginning of all of this. I felt so guilty for not fully believing that everything could be OK but at that point all we were hearing was bad news. I had to work on developing hope but I have it now. Tom got challenge coins to carry with us when we want to pray for Mom and send love her way. I chant the words on the back of it in my mind constantly. Cancer cannot shatter hope. I believe that Mom will make it through and this will just be a (big) bump in the road in our journey as a family. The last few months have felt like a huge mountain to climb but I feel like we’re finally starting to see some sunshine peeking over the top.