Everyone should have a mother for a long time. Tonight, after coming home from work and hugging both my girls, I leaned into my own mother and let her hold me up. Even after everything I’ve been through, part of me still feels safe from any danger when I’m in my mother’s arms.
I just celebrated my dear friend Rachel’s 35th birthday, alongside her closest friends. One of them is an old, special friend, Maureen, who like Rachel, lost her young mother to cancer. Maureen came to dinner ready with a series of birthday questions for Rachel, one of which was “What is your birth story?” Rachel shared the story, which was told by her mother many times when she was alive, but also in great detail in a journal she wrote in her last years. We were all moved hearing Rachel speak her mother’s memory.
Many women affected by my blog are not actually cancer survivors, but those who lost their mothers too soon to a terminal illness. I hope that my writing opens a window into what their own mothers might have thought, felt, and possibly kept from them. The truths I speak, however painful, might bring them closer to their mother, to what their mother experienced, and ultimately help them move through and survive their own fears of death. I am more connected to those women now and wrote about it in a previous post called “Look for Signs of Me.”
It is with them, all of you, and my daughters in mind that I share these thoughts with you today.
As a mother who has survived cancer, I wish I could say now that I revel in every mothering moment, that every time I look at my children I thank my lucky stars that I am alive and able to be there for them. But just like any other parent, I have moments when I want to shut down, escape, or crawl into bed with the covers over my head. I try not to feel too guilty about this. I often tell myself that it is good that I am able to get frustrated with parenthood – it means I am healthy and able to take all the good stuff for granted.
On the other hand, I have moments that most mothers do not have. Every time I look at Ayla walking, who is now 15 months old, I am in complete awe and gratitude that I lived to see this milestone. I am also a little angry. This is supposed to be a time when I only think of beginnings. As she takes her wobbly steps, arms up, beaming a proud smile, it reminds me that I am not only a mother who had cancer, I am such an incredibly young mother who had cancer. There is so much more I am supposed to see without having to worry about whether or not I will live long enough to see it.
I recently disclosed a dark thought to my mother, one that has been plaguing me for a while. I told her that if the cancer is going to come back and kill me, I hope that it happens soon, before my daughters really get to know me, remember me, and lose me. I immediately regretted saying this to anyone, especially her, but through her tears she reassured me:
“No, Adina. That is not true. Not at all true. Their lives would be so much richer for their memories of you.”
I was grateful that my mom did not give me a “don’t worry, honey, you will be fine” response because just like the radiation monster, you cannot tell people that their fears and worries are not real. You only can help them cope and see their fears in a new light.
I knew my mother was right. I thought of all of my friends who have lost their beautiful, loving mothers and how not one of them would trade anything for the memories they have. Those memories hold them up every single day, just as my mother held me up tonight.
So here is a memory for Yael. Someday she will read this and while I know life is uncertain, I am going to bet on being alive to share it with her.
It starts out as a tough parenting moment, that time of night when we stare at the clock and daydream about our children going to bed on their own.
We have just moved across the country and are staying with our close friends in Boston. The move has been particularly hard on Yael. She misses her bed, her friends, the only world she has known. The end of the day is often the toughest – she is tired, testing us at every step, and emotionally on edge.
After tripping through every wrong parenting move possible, I finally pull Yael into the bathroom to brush her teeth. As I squeeze her toothpaste out with one hand, the other holding up her limp body, she starts to cry. Something about her cry sounds desperate. I get down on my knees and get close to her.
“I want to go home,” she says. She is no longer a toddler trying to get her way out of bedtime. Her tears look grown up. I know that she expresses herself honestly. I know it is right to stop pushing her to do the next thing. So there we are on the bathroom floor of our friend’s house. Yael sits in my lap with my arms wrapped around her tiny body.
I hold her. I tell her that I will be there for her. But I am also at a loss for words. Her sadness penetrates my being in loud, crashing waves on my heart. I know that she echoes something I’ve felt now for awhile—that even though I will live in the house I grew up in from birth to college, that even though I will have my own mother every day, I will never be able to go back home either.
In this moment I am profoundly aware that there is nobody else who can comfort her like her mother. Just me. I feel alive in my body, my blood moves, the warmth emanating from my skin to hers. I think about all the times she will break down in the bathroom and need her mother to hold her. I hope I will be there every. single. time. until I am old, old, old, but even if I miss one time or a few, this memory is there for her to remember how it feels.