According to the American Cancer Society, almost 41,000 women a year die from breast cancer. Those women are mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. In 2003, one of those women was my mother.
There are some moments in life that imprint so heavily on your heart and in your brain, just thinking about them makes it seem like they just happened.
Fourteen years ago, my mother called me to tell me that her oncologist had found breast cancer. I forget the details of the conversation — she was going to fight, my dad’s hospital had great cancer treatment, and she didn’t want me to be scared. I just remember pacing back and forth in my bedroom, biting my lip, and trying to think about how I’d live without my mother. It was Stage IIIB and I knew that wasn’t good, despite her attempt at a cheery voice.
I am, and always have been, a realist. Those who know me think I am Mary Poppins with a positive spin on everything, but that’s just because I’m a good actress. That day, April 24, 2002, I had no doubt that my mother would die before she ever got to see any of my yet-to-be-born children.
Not even a full year later, on April 10, 2003, my principal called me off a bus headed for an out-of-town field trip with my third-graders. I wondered what I’d done to get called off the bus — and knew it was something really bad when my principal said she’d tell me what was going on in her office. There, she put her hand on my shoulder and said my mother had died, and she was so very sorry.
I fell to my knees, crying and looked out the window. My husband was deployed to Japan for a year; I didn’t even know how to get in touch with him. My sister and her children were living with me, as my sister was coming out of a messy divorce and lupus flare-ups. I felt the world crash, and the one person I knew would help me make sense of getting it back up and running? She was gone.
I was barely 30 years old. I’d not had any children yet, as we’d been trying for years to no avail. I didn’t just cry in those initial minutes for what I’d lost, because I didn’t even know. I cried for what my children would lose — their GiGi.
I cried because I’d never hear, “Happy Birthday!” from the one who was there for the very first one again. I cried because my mom was the person I talked to nearly every day, even briefly to check in, and I felt like her phone number was now just a dangling and endless taunt of what would never happen again.
I cried because I didn’t have enough pictures. My mom was always the one with the camera, but she was rarely in front of it. I cried because our last conversation had been one of frustration and anger, and I’d told her I’d call in the morning, but never got the chance.
I cried because I lost my champion, my advocate and the woman who’d fought many odds to bring me into this world.
And now, fourteen years later, I still cry. The loss of my mother threw me into such depression some of my anxiety issues (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, particularly) got out of hand. I spent nearly three years in therapy learning how to live without my compass, and how to live without the terrifying fear that one day, the same thing would happen to me.
I still wish I could pick up the phone and call her. I look at my son and know that she’d be head over heels in love with him, and I cry for what he misses out in knowing her, and learning about his Mama as a little girl. I wish I could ask her questions I wasn’t ready to hear answers to before she died, and I wish she knew how many times a day I hear her words come out of my mouth.
Breast Cancer robbed me of my mother, as it does many mothers every year. It’s relentless and non-discriminatory, and losing her has changed me forever.
I make sure I am in pictures. I make sure my son has my words not just to his ears, but in print, so he always knows things that I might not be able to answer one day. I make sure I take care of my breast health, as well as any other preventative cancer care, and I make sure to encourage others to do the same.
One day, our mothers will not be with us. Make every day until then count.