My mom runs her fingers through her curly dye hair in frustration. “I hate these curls!” she exclaims. I can’t help but laugh at her frustration and offer tips about how she can manage those new curls of hers. I feel a sense of calmness, though, knowing what that hair represents. I never realized how dense growth or thread-like structures influenced by heredity and color choices on top of one’s head could mean so much to an individual and their loved ones. That hair, though, means that a long and painful journey is finally heading towards an upward direction; those curls mean my mom is okay.
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Normally I do not look very optimistically at situations that are beyond my control, but when my parents came to me and told me that it was a possibility that my mom might have breast cancer, all I could do was hope for the best. I remember praying, talking to friends, but also not being that concerned about it.
Cancer? No, that word was too heavy, too serious, and too dangerous to officially enter and affect my life. I refused to let it; I remained calm and I was confident in my belief that everything was a mistake. I guess I never thought of myself as a person who feels copasetic living in denial, but being in a situation this heavy, an unfamiliar territory; it was the only strategy for coping that made sense. My mom took care of herself.
She went in for her yearly check-ups, had the uncomfortable mammograms, and watched what she ate. If this world made any sense at all, good things wouldn’t happen to good people. At the time I considered this faith, but now I realize that this refusal to accept the possibilities was a mere defense mechanism. I wanted to delay what could be the inevitable for as long as possible. I wanted to stay strong at that moment because subconsciously I knew if I was wrong, I could no longer be. So I kept telling myself Cancer could not happen to her, to our family, to me.
Looking back those moments are fuzzy. I went about my daily life, not letting the thought of Cancer penetrate my mind. The day was fast approaching that the biopsy results would be revealed. Although I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, I began to get nervous, so I kept myself busy. If I let the thoughts of Cancer sink into my mind I would have been weak, I would have broken down, and I NEVER would have been prepared for what laid ahead of me. No one wants to be a drama queen, and I certainly did not want to draw attention to the situation, especially if it was a false alarm. I finished all my homework ahead of time, went and worked out daily, and submerged my fears by pretending they did not exist. Those around me were surprised with how well I was handling things. “Handling things?” I would think. I hated that question. I became angry and frustrated with those who asked me. How dare they remind me of what could happen? I refused to let them get to me, I kept thinking there’s nothing to handle, my mom is fine, she does not have Cancer.
You know it’s true what they say about knowing exactly where you were, what you were wearing, and who you were with at the most significant moments in your life. As I arrived home from working out with my roommates on that cold October day, colder than usual in fact, I heard my cell phone ring the ever so familiar “twinkle twinkle little star” tune I’ve grown used to. Oh good I thought, we can finally put all this cancer stuff behind us. “Hello?” I said kind of curious but searching for relief. “Stef” the voice on the other end expressed seriously, a voice I had rarely heard on the other end of my cell phone, my dad. The second I heard his voice my denial shattered, my stomach dropped, and cancer entered my life. This was it, it was going to happen. I couldn’t have stopped it, and neither could she. The process of dealing with Cancer was now inevitable, and all we could to was prepare for the bumpy ride.
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Death is a concept our society does not face until they are forced to. Our relationships with others are what make us feel alive and complete as a person. The possibility of someone close dying is an idea that is difficult to grasp. Without those we are the closest to we feel as though a piece of ourselves has gone with them and we are forced to reevaluate our lives. I began to think about what it would be like if my mom was no longer around. Who would help me with financial issues, who would give me advice on moral dilemmas and roommates, who would coach me on how to take care of my own children someday? Out of the six family members she was the one I was closest to, she was the one I turned to, cried to, and asked for advice from. What would I do if she was no longer there, and how would my life change? These thoughts consumed my mind, and although there was something natural in being concerned with my own survival, I felt selfish for thinking of myself at all. I went through a time where I was literally pissed at God, at the World, even myself. My mom did not deserve this. I was confused, upset, and frustrated. I tried to accept her fate, but how could I possibly accept something I didn’t understand? I would have done anything, but I could do nothing. I hate the power cancer has over someone’s body, mind, and life. It has no right to sneak in and take over.
Although Cancer itself can rarely be seen, the images of chemotherapy, radiation, and the dramatic affects including nausea, hair loss, and fatigue can all be associated with battling Cancer. At this point, there is little confusion about what Cancer can and does to people. We all realize the seriousness of the word, and we can imagine the effects, the possibilities, and the probability of certain outcomes. This story is not about the process, the persistence, the suffering, or even my mother’s strength. That is a story only she can tell. And this is not a story limited to my mother’s survival; it’s a story about how we all endured this experience as a family.
Although there were a couple of best friends that truly stuck by me, there were some close friends who didn’t know how to handle the thought of my mom possibly dying. Having a parent die is not an image people are comfortable with. Even though it was my mom, it forced them to look at their own lives. I saw many friendships fade away because they didn’t know how to be there for me, and comfort me in my time of need. At first I thought they were all just being selfish, but now I think they were just as confused and lost about the situation as I was, and that distance was the only outlet for their own personal fears. Being around me was a reminder, it seemed as though my life consisted only of my mom having cancer. I wanted their support, but also wanted to still have the same kind of care free friendship complete with trips to the mall, laughing about boys, and pigging out on ice cream. They didn’t know how to make these two worlds exist simultaneously. I no longer blame them knowing that they could not have given me what I had wanted and needed, but I did blame them then not realizing at the time whose role it was to get me through.
My relationships with acquaintances, and people I barely even knew also began to change. Instead of the awkward, “oh how are you, I don’t really know anything about you or what’s going on in your life it’s just polite to ask” greeting, it changed to a look of fear and hesitation along with the question, “How’s your mom doing?” If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that, we could have paid off my mom’s hospital bills. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice that people show consideration and try to be caring and supportive, but sometimes it just felt rather intrusive and awkward. They invaded, much like the Cancer, swooping in and negatively altering a perfectly good instant in my life. I often wondered how some of these people even knew my mom had cancer. And although I could sense that they were nervous about asking they never failed to do so. I still wonder if they ever considered that maybe I didn’t want to talk about my mom being sick while out at the movies or while shopping in the mall. I really started to feel like these people were inhabiting my life. They served as a constant reminder of a reality that could not be escaped, much like the way my life functioned in the eyes of some now distant friends. It felt like a mirror that I could not escape looking into, and sometimes I just wanted to be normal again, or at least appear that way.
In retrospect I realize the Cancer, although not in my own body, was something I was forced to take ownership of. It was something that my entire family now possessed, and this exclusive club was limited only to those who have gone through the same experience. Although this club has many members throughout the world, the only members I knew directly were my immediate family.
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I was never a daddy’s little girl. In fact I never really spoke to my father at all. He worked long hours, was rough around the edges, and I knew very little about him. It’s funny how you can live in a house your whole life with someone and not really know them. I knew the facts, his job, his family background, his love for sports. There was even a time during high school in which I would never even say hello to my dad when I walked by him in a room. I didn’t hate him, but I also didn’t really respect him. How could I respect a person I knew nothing about?
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As the only female in the house other than my mom in many ways I felt and still feel that my connection and fears attached to my mom’s cancer have had more of an impact on me. When I chose to face reality I understood that breast cancer was now something that had a greater chance of happening to me. For once in my life my gender made me different and it labeled me within our family’s structure. Even though I was the only girl I never felt that biological detail made me a unique entity within our family. I was a Pehr, I was one of them, I was no different. Now, however, heredity singled me out, just like Cancer did to my mom, and it wouldn’t matter how my family treated me, it would always be there, a possibility. I also began thinking about how I would have to step up if my mom did die. I was only twenty years old. How was I supposed to take care of the family, when I could barely take care of myself? Because my brothers and Dad didn’t know that feeling they were able to provide me with the strength and support I needed without me even realizing how much I needed it.
The most significant transformation that I’ve noticed looking back is the growth amongst my immediate family relationships, a bond I had taken for granted earlier in my life simply because I felt blood meant forever and that it wasn’t something that took a lot of energy and work. All relationships take work, though, even the ones you are born into. Thinking about how rare real conversations with my dad were before the cancer makes me wonder how I ever got through some of the most challenging times in my life without his words of encouragement and support. Being vulnerable, I allowed myself to need him and felt that leaning on him was the only way to find acceptance and handle the intense emotions I had attached with my mom’s cancer. Sadly, I don’t know that our friendship and bond would have grown without this added hardship and I wonder why it took something so awful and substantial to bring us closer together, but regardless I’m grateful it has. I’ve gotten to know him, and I love and respect him now for the person he is, not just because he’s my father.
My brother Drew and I were polar opposites. I was the goody two shoes and he was a bad boy. It was if we were existing in different worlds and neither of us seemed to mind. During my junior year of college Drew decided to follow my lead and became a freshman at the same University I was attending. We didn’t see much of each other in the first month of school, but when I found out about my mom he was the only person I wanted around; the only person who could understand what it is like to have a mom that had cancer. I convinced myself of this knowing in the back of my mind that all of the people that had abandoned me did not posses this undeniable link. This needing him just seemed natural, though. I never once felt as though I was burdening or bothering him. I required his alliance, and it was ok and necessary. I never felt more grateful and at ease to have my brother five minutes away on foot. He had dealt with a close friend committing suicide and another best friend losing both parents. He had gone through a lot, and I admired his strength. He was my rock, the main person I talked to, and the only person I felt could truly understand my pain and confusion. When our parents would call to update me on my mom’s condition after hanging up I would immediately call Drew. If I cried he would offer a positive outlook, if I got angry, he would agree with my frustrations, and if I was hopeful, he would encourage that optimism and build off of it. For once in our lives, we talked to one another, and we became friends; a relationship that I never expected to exist amongst any of my siblings. I have even seen little improvements amongst my interactions with my other brothers as a result of the relationship Drew and I have built. No matter how far apart we are geographically, my brothers remain significant people in my life; they are my true best friends.
The relationship I had with my mom changed as well, but not necessarily in a direction I had wanted or expected, and it is an experience that is not as easy to talk about. Of course we have grown closer, but our path has been a lot bumpier. I felt like I had to walk on egg shells around her for the longest time. I felt guilty for being upset when I saw her with no hair. I hated that I felt embarrassed when she wouldn’t wear her wig while out to dinner or shopping, and when she would come home from chemo there was nothing I could do for her. I felt so helpless, and I felt like I was of no use to her. As her only daughter, I should have done more, or at least attempted to. I experienced a lot of anxiety for getting mad at her about anything when she was enduring so much. I always feared that if I expressed any kind of frustration with her she would play the, “I have cancer” card, and it’s not that I didn’t feel she had a right to; it was just that she wasn’t just my mom anymore. She was my mom with breast cancer. I felt like I had no right to cry about boys, or stress, or anything, because nothing was comparable to fighting cancer. I no longer could turn to her with everyday struggles. I now turned to my dad or Drew. At first, I feel like we grew apart. I didn’t understand, and in a way I was scared of being close to her. I guess I became one of those people who felt distance was the best way of coping, too, which may have been a factor in my lessened bitterness towards them. I could tell it hurt my mom, but I couldn’t be her strength, especially when I was in search of my own. Only now that her hair is growing back, and the tests have come back negative do I feel like I can talk to her again, but the cancer will never be completely gone. It has left an imprint that cannot be erased or forgotten because it changed my mom, it changed me, it changed all of us.
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It’s Saturday morning at 10:00 am, a time that Drew and I are not very used to being awake for. We all pile into the mini van, complain about the lack of room, and the look of tiredness is stretched upon the majority of our faces. My Dad heads in the direction of the zoo. I cannot remember the last time I was at there with my entire family, and at the ripe age of 21 I should think that it’s a little lame, but I don’t. I look at my mom observing the scenery out the window as we drive on with an expression of pure contentment at the thought of us all being together, a family that has grown and been through so much, and I smile, overcome with happiness, not knowing completely how she feels, but proud of how much she has gone through, how much we’ve all gone through.