A day late and a dollar short, but some thoughts on the word survivor nonetheless. As the 12th anniversary of my mother’s death approaches, I find myself thinking more and more about that summer- about that entire year.
Due to my experiences with cancer, survivor is a word that instantly makes me think of someone beating cancer. My mother, in that sense, wasn’t a survivor. I do, however, consider her a fighter because let me tell you, she did not lay down easy.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994. I was twelve, on the verge of entering my teenage years. My sister had just turned ten. My mom didn’t even cry when she told her little girls that she was sick. She was so strong and so, so brave. I wish I could say that I had been that strong, but I know my first thoughts were of death and living a motherless life.
Throughout the next year my mother went through hell. She started with chemotherapy and after multiple sessions she was declared cancer free. She may have been cancer free, but by this point she was also free of hair. I can remember going shopping for wigs and then her cutting her hair to make it look more like the wig would. The wig still never looked quite natural.
If cancer had stayed in remission, i might interpret the word survivor differently than I do now, but cancer had other plans. By January of 1995 it had returned. By April it was obvious that the standard means for fighting this weren’t working and she was put into the hospital for 24 hour high-dose chemo sessions.
In June the doctor told my mom she had six months left to live. She was given the option of trying another experimental drug, but she was told that it would not save her life. It may prolong it, but she would likely be miserable and sick. She chose to live her remaining time in as much comfort as possible. That night was the first time throughout the entire cancer debacle that I saw or heard my mother cry.
The month of June was tumultuous. Mom was in and out of the hospital depending the degrees of pain that she was in. She would sometimes be there for days at a time. My grandparents drove up from Oregon- another sign of how very very serious this was.
July put Mom in the hospice, not to return home again. At the time I was attending a support group for children with a family member fighting cancer and my good friend in the group lost her father that month. I think I still held some naive hope that a miracle would occur. I couldn’t lose my mom, I was too little! Sometimes the things that I wrote in my journal then frighten me with their intensity.
July 11, 1995:
Mommy’s doing pretty good. I think. I hope. She’s probably not going to be home any more. I don’t know what to think anymore. I wish there were something I could do but there’s not. She’s slowly dying. And I’m watching it. It’s pretty hard. I never know if one day she’s just going to be really bad like she was Thursday. I’m not sure whether I like the idea of Mom being cremated. It’s kind of weird thinking about her burning up but it’s what she wants.
God. What little girl writes about how weird the idea of her mother burning up is? The entry five days later says, “I hope Mom is alive when I get back on Sunday.”
On August 5th I celebrated my 14th birthday and while many of my birthdays will blur together, this one- for better or for worse- is tattooed on my memory. I was away at a summer camp and I called my mom from the payphone there. She was in really bad shape. There were so many drugs pumping through her blood that I’m surprised she was even capable of words. The words that she could speak were far from coherent. Twelve years later, I suspect that my dad was coaching her on what to say. She kept repeating, “Happy Birthday, I love you. Happy Birthday, I love you.” It didn’t matter what I said- that’s all she could get out.
Ten days later my mom let death take her. It was time. She had given all of herself to the fight.
Do I think she’s a survivor? In the literal sense of the word, no. But she gave it her all. I think, without a doubt, that she stayed alive long enough to leave my birthday unmarred.
My family is the survivor of this battle. My dad, my sister and I are all here and while we didn’t come out unscathed- how could we- we have taken this experience, this loss, and grown from it.
I have learned strength. I have learned grief. I have learned passion for a cause and that is why I walk in The 3 Day. My life will never be the same, no thanks to breast cancer, and if I can do anything to prevent another little girl from having to write, “My mother died today,” in her journal, than goddamnit, I’m going to do it.