For most of my life, I, secretly, feared that there may have been a hint of truth behind people’s accusations that I was crazy. I emphatically denied it, but still, there was this nagging sense that maybe I was lying to myself. I could say with all honesty that this was my greatest fear. That was until March 4, 2012, the day my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. This diagnosis annihilated any of my previous ideas of fear and what arose was a terror that I never could have imagined.
It seemed like any other day until Jerry, my step dad, called. He wanted to let me know that he was taking my mom to the hospital for the stomach flu. I asked if I should meet them there, but Jerry’s calm hum suggested that it was routine and there was nothing to worry about. So, I didn’t worry and the thought slipped from my mind like water down the drain. That was until two hours later, when Jerry called back, the gravity in his voice was unfamiliar. I knew that whatever he had to say, it was serious.
Jerry began to state that my Mother had cancer and the doctors feared the worst because of the size of the tumor in her intestinal tract. Despite Jerry’s carefully articulated words, I heard his fear echoing through the receiver. Jerry never over reacted. In fact, we counted on him to counterbalance the rest of our family. My mom, sister and I were passionate and can have knee jerk reactions. Somehow, Jerry always kept us in check, but not on this day.
I had no words, just searing pain that tore through the depths of my soul. Jerry explained that my mother was being wheeled directly to the OR so they could remove the tumor; the surgery was expected to take 5 hours. Still no words, no voice, I nodded into the phone. Only when Jerry asked, “Are you still there?” did I realize that he couldn’t see the nod so I croaked, “I’ll be there in a few hours.”
Like an automaton, I made the motions but my thoughts were reeling around the words: cancer, serious, tumor, surgery. It was like explosions that continuously detonated in my thoughts. I stood in the middle of my bedroom staring at the wall, numb. Suddenly, the realization that my mother could die today swept over me and I fell to the floor. Crumpled and alone, I began to sob so deeply that it felt like the sorrow arose from over the space of many lifetimes rather than just this one.
The drive to Vallejo was usually 45 min, but that day, it felt like hours. I couldn’t stop the tears from pouring. My sadness refused to be contained. Fear strangled. It was difficult to wrap my mind around the thought that my mom, a paragon of health, could be teetering between life and death. More than that, the world appeared bleak without her in it.
I walked through the sliding doors at the Hospital. The grand piano in the entrance seemed perverted as I scurried up the stairs. Nothing could alleviate my sadness and the piano simply reminded me of that fact. As I made my way through a labyrinth of hallways, I thought there would be relief when I saw Jerry, but there would be no relief this day.
Jerry stood there with his aviator sunglasses on. My mom had bought them on one of their excursions down south. They loved traipsing off together on the weekends. Jerry’s tears had caused his sensitive blue eyes to burn under the fluorescent lights. Neither of us had words of comfort. All we could do was wait.
After 8 hours of surgery, the doctor meandered into the waiting room; desperation was etched into every pore of our beings. I thought, “Please have some good news, please, please, please!” Exhaustion hung on the surgeon as he gave his update, “The tumor had completely blocked her colon. Not even air could get through. I’m surprised that she did not have more substantial side effects early on.” Automatically, a smirk peeked out because clearly, the surgeon did not know who he was dealing with. If my mom was tired, she’d plow through it; if she was sore, she’d continue through the pain. Despite her petite frame, my mother was a force to be reckoned with.
After a pause, the surgeon continued, “I believe that I removed all of the cancer in her colon, which is the good news, but it has spread to other organs in her body. She will be groggy for the next few hours, but you may now see her.” As we headed to the med surge floor, Jerry asked me for words of hope. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I turned to him, “I’ve been blindsided and the fear is hard to contain. I’m sorry. I have nothing.”
As Jerry and I entered the hallway, I could see my mother’s placid face, eyes closed. Out of the blue, several nurses rushed to my mother’s bedside. One nurse shouted out that her lung collapsed and we were immediately shooed away. With my nose pressed against the tiny plexi-glass window in the door, I watched the team surround my mom while the presence of death hovered over her body.
A doctor came out and asked us if we wished to intubate my mother? Jerry and I puzzled said “Of course, we want to intubate her.” With his eyes downcast, the doctor quietly stated, “She’s going to die soon; the cancer has spread to her liver. Are you sure this is her directive?” Jerry scoffed and stated, “You don’t know her. She’ll leave when she’s damn ready and not a moment sooner!” The doctor looked as though he had been smacked, but obeyed our wishes.
Once intubated, my mother was moved to the ICU. Jerry and I watched her chest move up and down. It was the only sign of life and we clung to it like a life raft at sea. After a few hours, her eyelids fluttered. As consciousness flooded through her, my mom’s hands went straight for the tube taped to her cheek. She was trying to pull it out so that she could speak. I stood by the side of her bed and gently explained that her lung collapsed after the surgery and the tube was helping her breathe until healed. Her hands fell to her side.
Tears poured from my eyes. This time, it was not out of sadness; it was out of relief. My mother was alive! I was grateful to have a chance to tell her how much I loved her and I did just that. I then explained what the surgeon told us and that her cancer may have spread. She nodded in understanding. I then asked her the hardest question that I’ve ever asked, “Mom, this is going to be a painful journey and I love you. My question to you is whether you wish to fight this cancer or not? I will respect whatever decision you make, but understand this will be the biggest fight that you’ve ever faced.” Without hesitation, my mother held up her tiny fists and began to punch the air. At that moment, I loved her even more!
March 4, 2012, turned out to be the scariest day of my life. Worst part was how unprepared I was to face my mother’s death. I mean before Jerry entered our lives, it was just her and me. She was my best friend. How could I lose the one person that believed in me no matter what? She believed in me when I was incapable of believing in myself. Without her, this world seemed too dark to navigate.
This day irreversibly changed the course of my mother’s destiny, but its effects were far more reaching. My mother spent decades having my back, being my pillar of strength. Now, it was my turn to be her pillar of strength. In order to be there for her, I needed to start believing in myself and I needed to do so pronto. This wasn’t just my mother’s fight, but mine as well. Let’s cut to the chase; built within me was a fear based disorder and now, I was dealing with the greatest fear of my life. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this would be an immense challenge for both of us.
Fortunately for me, I’ve inherited my mother’s might and determination. I’ve learned to trust not only in my own strength but also my mother’s as she fights the impossible odds against her. In so doing, I’ve come to accept that I will always be scared of my mother’s death but that doesn’t mean that I have to live in that fear. I know that this sound like a contradiction, but it’s not; let me explain.
I wanted to be strong for my mother so at first, I pretended that I had no such fears. If my mother spoke of death, I rerouted the conversation to more hopeful topics like the vaccination trials and the radical surgical procedures being performed. If people asked me how my mother was doing, I always answered “amazing.” Clearly, this was a way of coping with the fear of death, but this was not the most effective way because cancer treatments were more of a roller coaster ride rather than a straight path.
There were just as many disappointments as there were miracles with my mother so I had to rethink my coping strategies. I began to realize that changing the subject matter and only focusing on the positive prevented both of us from addressing our fears. And, not acknowledging our fear allowed it to grow. Surprisingly, our fear did not affect our outlook in regards to my mother’s cancer; instead, this unrequited fear created doubts in other areas like our friendships, careers, dreams, and etc. It spread uncontained into every part of our lives.
Here’s an absolute fact; cancer’s scary! There’s no magic or miracle that detracts from this fact. By accepting the reality that this entire process is frightening and there are no guarantees that my mother will live, I’m able to release this fear unto my Higher Power. For my mom, she finally has the space to release her fears of death, of leaving us behind, of not being there for her grandchildren and etc.
Fear, whether you have an anxiety disorder or not, has a greater momentum when it is not addressed. Admitting that one is scared instantly diminishes its power; fear is contained and unable to wreak havoc in all areas of one’s life. Since my mom and I have come to terms with our fears for the future, we are now able to enjoy the moments before us, an invaluable lesson. Our conversations are filled with dreams and laughter. We no longer tip toe around certain subjects. We are finally free! “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.” (Bill Keane)