My mother has always been an exceptionally strong woman. After many health problems following the birth of my younger brother, I had grown accustomed to openly discussing her well being and new treatments and surgeries she would undergo. So when I started hearing fragmented and hushed phone conversations with family and friends, I knew something was going on. "No, it's going to be fine . . ." I heard her say. "I mean in terms of reconstruction . . . I just don't know . . ." Her voice trailed off. I can't say exactly when it was that the pieces of the puzzle fell into place for me, but over a short period of time it became strikingly clear that this was not just any health complication.
"I know there's something really wrong." I told my best friend, Tyler, who guaranteed me that my mom would tell me if anything was going on. I simply waited. One day, after neglecting to put my flat iron away after using it, my mild-mannered mom came storming into myr oom in a rage, loudly reprimanding me for never helping around the house or being of any assistance to her. Taken back, I sarcastically replied in an equally as loud voice, "Yeah, I'm a terrible daughter. Must really suck to be you.? Immediately regretting what I had said, I saw her face contort and she shrieked "No, actually sucks to be you! What are you going to do when I'm not around? I have cancer. So, really, good luck." And with that she left my room, got in the car, and drove away.
I sat in stunned silence at the events that had just unfolded. My dad quietly entered my room and sat beside meas I broke down in tears. "She's just upset. It's okay." He soothed. "God, what is she even thinking by leaving like that?" I said through broken sobs. "She's just . . . running away from herself for a bit. Taking a break from what she's got on her shoulders right now."
My mom returned home that night a different person. We sat and talked for a while about her diagnosis and treatment options. She had breast cancer, and was leaning towards a double mastectomy (the surgical removal of both breasts) and a chest reconstruction surgery. I was now more at ease with the situation, but still fearful for the toll the coming months would take on my mom and my family. She assured me everything would go smoothly.
That summer was filled with countless doctors' appointments. My mom, dad, brother, and I attended every one of them. I always waited in the lobby and babysat my brother, who was 9 at the time. We both looked on at the many bald and frail looking patients that surrounded us in the cancer ward, and wondered if mom was going to look something like that in the near future.
In the winter she was scheduled to undergo her operation. The morning of her surgery I awoke to a hand-written letter on the kitchen counter. "I love you so much," it read. "Please help Dad out. I know this is really difficult for him. Tell your brother I love him. Both of you, please behave." I read through my letter in full and then reluctantly ripped it up and threw it away. I didn't want to believe these were the last words she was leaving me with. The entire letter just sounded like a big final goodbye, which I wasn't ready for.
After a long day of waiting, she emerged from her operation. It had gone well, and I was relieved. My dad and I were allowed access into the recovery ward immediately after she exited surgery. She looked so small and weak in the giant hospital bed. Tubes exited her body in every direction. My dad bent over the machines and kissed her pale forehead. The scene was simply surreal and felt like something out of a daytime hospital drama. I was overcome with emotion and asked to wait outside until we hastily exited the hospital for the night.
In time, my mom gained her strength back. However, several months after her surgery we discovered chemotherapy was necessary to her recovery. I spent many sleepless nights picturing my beloved mother bald. I imagined she would look wise and regal. Then one day she came home with a shaved head. "I'm going to start losing my hair soon and don't want it falling out in patches. I figured now was the right time." She said matter-of-factly. And that was that. For the first several weeks she clung to a short, brown wig whenever she was out in public. She constantly complained about it being hot and itchy.
One hot summer day we stopped into a Dunkin' Donuts and, before getting out of the car, she took her wig off and simply stated, "I don't need that anymore." We entered the store and immediately all eyes were locked on her shiny bald head. I received stares of sympathy from everyone I made eye contact with. It was as if we were part of a traveling circus, and my mom was the main event. But my mom, strong as ever, just sauntered up to the counter and ordered two iced coffees as if not a hair was out of place (pun intended.)
We endured many more months of passerby's stares at my mom's lack of hair. By early winter my mom had completed all of her chemotherapy sessions and was deemed "cancer free". Slowly but surely, life regained normalcy. My family didn't live in fear of my mom's fluctuating health any longer. To this day, she remains very healthy and we all remain very thankful.