My mother taught me a lot in life, but above all, I learned to “live in the moment.” She adopted this cliché saying when she was going through treatment for breast cancer… again. I was in my early 20’s when she was diagnosed for the second time and I remember cringing over the cliché. It was petty and so naïve, but I remember thinking, “This sucks. I don’t want to live in or remember these moments.” I didn’t realize then that breast cancer had shaped some of the most beautiful moments of my life.
When I look back at the agonizing breast cancer journey my family went on (twice!), I see so many moments that have made me who I am today. In one of my earliest memories of her first bout with cancer, I remember my mom storming down the hall of my elementary school in overalls and no wig, just a navy blue bandana, flapping around, revealing her bald scalp.
While that may not sound like the most extraordinary of memories, I knew she felt nauseous that day. (I had witnessed her throwing up before I left for school that morning.) Her chemotherapy treatments were destroying the cancer, but also her immunity. That didn’t stop her from bolting into a germ-laden building to confront my teacher. She was upset that my teacher wasn’t challenging me with difficult enough spelling lists despite numerous pleas. My mom was at her wit’s end. The battle she picked was peculiar, but I learned that when life gives you lemons (or cancer), sometimes you can’t make lemonade. Sometimes you walk over to the next field and get oranges instead because that’s the best you can do. That moment was oranges. It was the best she could do and a moment I’ll never forget.
Of course there are countless wonderful memories and moments that weren’t colored by cancer in between all of this. By all rhyme and reason, I had a good childhood with friends, family and so many activities and sports; it would make your head spin. Breast cancer was always a part of it after my mom’s first diagnosis though, there was no changing that.
I was 21 when I had my mastectomy and reconstruction. I came home from the hospital a few days after the procedure, and on the car ride home, my mom told me we were going to “walk houses.” I groaned… audibly. I remembered what “walking houses” meant to her. It was something she had started back when she went through her mastectomy and cancer treatments. The medical trauma had sucked all energy and stamina out of her so she would set out for a walk, just a short one. She would walk the length of one house. If she felt alright, she would go the length of another house. Sometimes she would have to turn around after only two houses, but that was okay. On her next walk, the goal would be to go one house further. Eventually, she would make it around the whole block.
So we walked houses. I’ll never forget the sun shining brightly as I kicked pebbles and complained. I tried the pity party route and then told her I didn’t need to do this, “I’m young. My recovery won’t be that hard.” I resorted to attempts to gross her out by swinging around my drain tubes as I begrudgingly moved my feet forward on that first walk. Slowly, my stamina and energy returned. It was all from walking houses and I started to appreciate the feeling of achievement I would derive from getting a house further each time. It really was a walking, talking metaphor.
In those moments, I really wanted to be out of them. I thought “this sucks” and often I said it too. I was uncomfortable in my body and downright tired. My mom knew that walking houses was the same as the metaphorical oranges though. I couldn’t make lemonade, even though life gave me lemons. What I could do in that moment was leave the lemons and get some oranges. So we did, together.
Fast-forward to November 2012. It was the day before Thanksgiving and our home was humming with activity as we prepared to host family the following day. My mom got a call we all knew was coming. The cancer was back and it was never going to leave her again. She wasn’t going to beat it again. Sure, she was frustrated; we all were. She sat on the stairs near the entryway of our home and we made plans to shop for hats because she didn’t want to relive any itchy wig scenarios again. Our dogs hovered around her, sensing something was awry and she pet them as we chatted. My mom held her only grand-baby, my son, and we made very matter-of-fact plans for facing cancer again. She asked me to take a picture in that moment and I remember being struck by her request. I thought, “I don’t want to remember today. I don’t want to remember any of this because I don’t want any of this to be happening.”
Nevertheless, I took the picture. I posted it on Facebook too. Every year this picture comes up in my “Memories” and I can’t help but share it again. I find my mom’s ability to live in the moment and embrace any little sliver of sunlight or joy as she experienced it to be so profound.
Shortly after beginning treatment again, a dear friend of our family suggested we have a Wine and Wigs party to honor my mom. It was glorious! It was one of those moments in life that reaffirmed my faith that we women can and will do anything. We gathered as many of her closest female friends and family as we could one fall evening. Sure, we were all there because of a cancer diagnosis that was an inevitable death sentence. But cancer wasn’t going to stop us from drinking wine, wearing silly wigs and living in the moment. My mom even had an alter ego the whole evening: Marilyn (Monroe). The woman who had chocolate brown hair her whole life was a blonde for the evening. The light and levity (and new locks) that time gave her was more than worth it.
Even into my mom’s dying days, I found my family embracing each moment we had with her to the fullest extent. It looked like Target runs for weird requests, like swimsuits while there was snow on the ground, Halloween costumes in the middle of March and a pastor wearing a pink clerical collar.
The last thing I mean to do is put rose-colored glasses on a horrible disease… or maybe I do. I can’t erase the damage that cancer has caused. Cancer has taken so much that I can never get back. I can control how I move forward. One house at a time, that’s how you build stamina. I can live in the moment. Sometimes that means I can take lemons and make lemonade, sometimes I have to find orange juice… or wine.