Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cancer in III Acts: Act I

Obviously all of my posts are on really hard-hitting topics, but this week I'm posting something a bit heavier and much more personal.  This week makes six years since I lost my mom, and in celebration of her life I am posting a three-part essay I wrote in her memory.  I call it "Cancer in III Acts," and will post Act I today, Act II tomorrow, and Act III on Tuesday.  No writing can do her justice, but a story of someone as beautiful and inspirational as my mom needs to be shared.

Act I:  Waged War

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune—without the words,
And never stops at all.”
— Emily Dickinson, “Hope”

My mom was the type of person who had trouble committing to one career because she was interested in everything.  She majored in Spanish at the University of Florida before later switching to education.  My dad, though he has an eclectic mix of hobbies, always knew he wanted to be a physician.  When Dad started medical school, Mom put her college education on hold to work as a long-distance telephone operator to help put him through.  After Dad finished his residency, and my parents moved to rural West Virginia, my mom became a certified EMT before starting nursing school.
My parents were thirty-one and had been married for eleven years when Dad’s older brother, Rod, asked if they had thought about having children.  The way Mom described it, she and Dad had talked about having kids, but were enjoying their time together so much that they hadn’t felt any urgency to do so.
“We will have children later,” Mom told my uncle.
“This is later,” he said.
Within a few months Mom was pregnant with my brother, Matt, and four years later, with me.  She put school on the backburner again, this time to devote herself to her children.  We flew kites at the park, rented boats at the local lake, and made picnic lunches.  She read us stories, took us to play baseball at the little league field, and volunteered at our schools.  She sang me “The Owl and the Pussycat” when I didn’t feel well or couldn’t fall asleep, and taught me to be kind, courteous, and forgiving.  Mom’s variety of interests made her an amazing parent, and while I often took her for granted, I loved her as much as any child could.
After my brother and I graduated from high school, Mom returned to college.  Once again she switched her focus, and after a brief stint as a geology major, she enrolled in the school of fine arts.  Mom and I attended Marshall University at the same time.  I studied history, while she worked on a degree in pottery.  She was a functional potter who made beautiful bowls, plates, platters, and tea sets.  She had a natural talent, and won several awards for her work.  Despite her prolonged and indirect path, Mom graduated from college, and re-enrolled as a graduate student.
            During my sophomore year of college, Mom’s doctor found a lump in her right breast, described in the medical report as “highly suspicious of malignancy.”  Mom was immediately scheduled for a biopsy, and my family tried, unsuccessfully, not to worry until we learned more.  When the results came back, the doctor called my mom personally to tell her that the tumor was benign.  That night, my family celebrated the good news at the nicest restaurant in town.  We spent the evening joking and laughing, enjoying the complete relief we felt.  I remember thinking I had been silly to even worry.
            Five months later, while I was driving six-hours back home from Washington, D.C. with a friend, Dad called. 
“Come over to the house as soon as you can.”  He sounded tired.  “We need to talk to you and Matt.”
I felt sick the rest of the drive home because I knew something wasn’t right.  When I walked into my parents’ house, Mom, Dad, and Matt were already standing in the kitchen.  Mom was the one who told us the news.  I went numb as she explained that the biopsy we celebrated five months earlier had been taken from the wrong section of her breast.  Mom noticed that the tumor had grown, and scheduled an appointment with a different doctor.  A chest x-ray showed nodules in both of her breasts, and a second biopsy confirmed it was cancer.
My chest tightened and it hurt to breathe.  “Are they going to cut the tumors out?” I asked.
“No.  By the time they did the second biopsy, the cancer had spread to my nodes and lungs.  It is already stage four.”  Mom’s voice cracked.  “I am going to fight it though.  I'm starting chemotherapy soon, and agreed to try an experimental treatment.”
“Did they give you a prognosis?”  Matt asked.
“Two to six months.”
            We stood quietly for several minutes, processing everything.  Then, for the first time I can remember, my family cried together.

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