What a blessing it is when someone asks you for your story. It’s one thing to have one…and yet another to have the time & space to share it with a willing and interested listener. The time to tell and to listen is clearly an orchestrated gift of God.
My cancer perspective is that of “caretaker” and has a bit of a back-story. The 90s began with a bang for me with an engagement in 1990, a wedding in 1991 and four active children in 1994, 1996, 1997, and 1999. My favorite quote from that time is that of my then 5 year old son in the grocery store saying to onlookers, “YEP! WE’RE ALL HERS.” We were far from my Tennessee home and healthy teacher parents, raising our children in Michigan, my Sis in Kentucky with her brand new husband.
The 2000s took an extremely different turn as my father was killed in a car accident in our small town. He was a beloved college professor and a pall-bearer for a long-time Kiwanis friend when an elderly driver failed to stop for the funeral procession. He was 57 and died on the scene as his friends were on the way to the bury their mutual friend. Mom was understandably devastated and began searching for her “new normal” without her childhood sweetheart and husband of 34 years. With constant visits and more frequent phone calls, the three of us muddled through our new grief.
About 16 months into her widow-hood, friends back home alerted my sister and me that Mom “wasn’t herself” and thought we needed to check on her in person. They said she had “aged overnight.” When Sis got there, she noticed mom was unable to process even the simplest directions. Though she was alarmed, somehow Sis managed to get Mom packed and into the car and they drove the 5 hours to Kentucky. I met up with them a few days later after an emergency room visit gave us the news we had no idea was a remote possibility. The strange behavior wasn’t a medicine interaction as we had pieced together as a potential explanation. No. Mom had a “lesion” in her brain. Later appointments confirmed it was cancer.
I made several trips to Kentucky to visit–sometimes with my kids, now ages 18 months, 3, 4 and 6. (No wonder God had called me to homeschool that year!) Mom gave Sis a difficult time as they both…once again…tried to establish a NEW “new normal.” Mom rebounded due to wonderful doctors and nurses and treatments but we were warned that this particular cancer–non-Hodgkins lymphoma–was notorious for responding beautifully to treatment (good news) but then always returning (bad news).
We were given a 3-5 year prognosis. To “glass-half-full” me, that sounded like she would rebound fully (non-Hodgkins=yay!) and we would have her back for another 3-5 years! It wasn’t enough but it was something. I’ll take it. I now know that the 3-5 years includes the time before we knew what was happening to Mom and also includes her physical decline. The clock had already begun ticking.
Mom did rebound just in time for a surprise 60th birthday. Though the diagnosis, and treatment were taxing on her and on each of our relationships, I eventually noticed a stripping away of the non-essentials and a new internal glow. She was unmasked in many ways and became her best self while battling for her life. She had always been a kind and generous person, but she truly cared deeply and gave without reservation to friends and strangers she came into contact with during that rough period. She missed my dad and mourned for him, but somehow fast-forwarded to the “peace that passes understanding” that was promised to her from God’s Word and overflowed that peace to many who crossed her path. Although everyone was touched by her battle, she sheltered her friends from her pain–both the physical and the emotional. She internalized her most difficult and personal struggles, attempting to protect her girls from hurt or fear. She stayed in KY with Sis, receiving treatment and maintaining long-distance friendships and support.
During her brain tumor “remission” she discovered a lump in her breast which was quickly removed by a mastectomy. So strong was her perspective at that point, she treated that surgery almost as if a wart had been removed (from my perspective). So in a sense, I consider her a breast cancer “survivor.”
The same weekend as her 60th birthday, she walked along with many other inspirational survivors in the Relay for Life with her sister and 96 year old mother who flew in from South Carolina to Tennessee to surprise her! My children–the Michigan contingent–also walked with her as did Sis and me. It was very meaningful and one of those moments that grows in significance over each passing year. By contrast, her 61st birthday party the following May consisted of the nurses at the treatment center singing Happy Birthday to her as she came out of the bathroom during an appointment. She was physically fading slowly, imperceptively–like the movements of the hour hand on a clock. Her countenance, however, was that of a human becoming closer aquainted with the Divine.
Mom received her second round of treatment from her home in Tennessee and a new batch of doctors and specialists. I was her primary care-giver as Sis was in the middle of a problematic pregnancy. Her baby had been diagnosed in utero with HLHS–a rare heart defect which requires a series of three surgeries to repair soon after birth and over the following months. Ella Faith was born in March as Mom was fading physically and briefly touched each of our lives profoundly as she, too, fought for her little life. She died just before Mother’s Day 2003 and at Ella’s funeral, Mom could barely walk.
By what can only be the Grace of God and His perfect orchestration of events, Mom was admitted to an Assisted Living facility, which, ironically she had been a part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony for through her job with the school system a few years prior. The owners knew, perhaps even more clearly than me at the time, that she had just a little while longer to live, and that even though she wouldn’t soon “qualify” to be a resident there, they were able to accomadate her (and me). This was really the time that she shone, even as her physical life continued to fade, her spiritual being was getting stronger by the minute.
I was on a two-week schedule of visiting her but one week, inexplicably, I decided to drive to Tennessee for an “off schedule” weekend visit. When I got there, I was met by a church friend who had also “just stopped by.” We were somehow unaware but in a different way acutely aware of our decisions, conversations and behaviors over the next few hours as the friend began calling other friends and I called Sis.
There was a protective cloud of non-awareness and hyper-awareness that enveloped me over the rest of that day and the days following. I prayed over Mom outloud a focused stream-of-consciousness prayer on her behalf that included every single family member, student, unending thankfulness and blessings brought to mind, friends, worries, concerns, humor, random thoughts, unsaid conversations and events until my brain and spirit were empty. Her friends began arriving and telling her how proud they were of her and how inspired they were. We read cards that had been sent and passed them around. We took turns having meaningful, easy conversations, being quiet and singing until someone noticed her breathing pattern changing. There was no anxiety or stress, just interest and loving focus as we inched closer in awe and wonder of what exactly was happening in our midst. I believe I saw with my spirit the process of her body being spiritually emptied. I also believe Sis was shielded and protected from this moment for God’s purposes because she arrived within the hour.
Her life is still remembered and effectively at work molding and shaping the lives of her students, her family and friends and all whom she touched throughout her life on earth and I believe she is still able to touch and shape lives, though how is still a mystery.
Though my “Survival” story is not one of cancer in my body and my Mom is not with me today, I do not agree that she “lost” her battle with cancer. She is more than a survivor. She LIVES and THRIVES just not on this earth!
Prayers to Pricilla today as she goes under the knife. I can’t wait for the rest of HER story, and thanks, Pricilla, for asking for my story!