I never declared myself a good writer. I can’t write witty fiction or profound essays. However, when I saw an essay contest in Real Simple about understanding the meaning of love, I felt compelled to write something just because I have so much to say about my mother and the love I have for her. Naturally I didn’t win (the winners are always amazing and often actual writers in life…you can read the winner here), so I thought I’d paste the essay in as a celebration of my mom on Mother’s Day. Not that any real-life words can describe the love and adoration I have for her.
Blackberries, Cancer, and Love, written in August of 2011.
Funny, I always thought love was just something I was really good at. Can you be “good” at love? I could hug and send care packages and give pep talks and do good deeds for my friends and family. I said “I love you” a lot, so I had to rank higher than the average person when it came to love. I expected the same amount of love in return. Give and take, right? Isn’t that what love is? 50/50?
As these things often happen, the way I thought of love changed when faced with loss and I’ll never think of love the same way again. First, love isn’t a “tit for tat” kind of thing. The joy is in giving it out rather than waiting for it in return. Second, love isn’t to be taken for granted. At any moment, one of the people we love the most could be taken away.
There are days you just don’t forget. March 18, 2011 is that day for me. My parents had been living in New Hampshire (transplanted from New York State) for just five months. I was overjoyed to have them closer to me and happy they were beginning a new and exciting chapter in life. I began that day in March by cursing at the traffic (completely normal) and then scrambling to get ready for a late afternoon co-presentation with a colleague who had just flown in from California (also normal). For some reason, I looked at my cell phone between meetings and ho hum work chaos and saw several missed calls from my father (not normal). His message indicated that my mother, who went to the doctor that morning for an exam, would be staying overnight, but I “shouldn’t worry because everything is fine and we love you!” Something wasn’t right. I tried calling him back. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. My legs felt like Jello as my heart pounded.
This brought me to a series of random events that are imprinted in my mind forever. I walked over to my boss and told him I had to leave with a calm, automatic smile on my face. I went over to my California colleague’s desk, told her I had to leave as I dramatically burst into tears, and then I walked out of the building, leaving my presentation behind me. I must have known that the alignment in the universe was off or something. There was no one thing that proved that something was amiss, but I could feel a change buzzing around me. I remember looking at my shoes on the way out and noticing the scuff mark on the front in detail. I remember the pants I had on that day. I remember fiddling with the locks on my car door that often pick and choose when they feel like working. I remember the color of the car in front of me as I sat at the first red light (burnt orange). I remember trying so hard to keep the speedometer under 90 as I drove the two hours to a little hospital in New Hampshire. There was an odd clarity in everything and my senses were all on high as I tried to tell myself that everything was fine. As it turns out, everything was not fine. There was a large mass discovered in her body that needed to be investigated further.
We didn’t find out that day that she had cancer, but we did the next day when the doctor called to confirm the biopsy. I couldn’t hear the phone conversation, but I saw my mother’s beautiful face turn white and I just knew what she was hearing. “Your surgery will be scheduled quickly…there may be something on the liver…don’t worry, this doctor is the best.”
From then on, there was nothing that mattered more than being with my mother as much as I could while she spent long and painful weeks in the hospital recovering. It was a horrible recovery, painful and emotionally traumatizing for her. 15 long days away from her kitty and her home and all sources of comfort – even food.
Let me tell you about this woman. Her laugh is like soft, tiny bells ringing. Her voice is sweet and feminine. She looks beautiful in pink. She is fragile and sensitive, yet strong and steady. She likes to make people smile. She has these adorable facial expressions that can’t help but make other people—even complete strangers—enamored by her. She is kind. Too kind in fact, and easily stepped on by people that aren’t so kind. If there were 10 people in a room, you’d find yourself drawn to her the most. She loves music and dancing. She loves to write letters to God asking him to watch over everyone else. She is in love with the cat that shares her home and is convinced they sometimes share the same language. She likes to read and loves to discuss the books afterwards. Her passion is learning about nutrition and homeopathy. She feels everything more than the average person. If the world is suffering, she carries that weight on her shoulders, yet when there is joy, she immerses herself in it. She is the epitome of “the glass being half full.”
One night, when she was home recovering and I was leaving to drive back to Boston, I went into her bedroom to say good night and goodbye to her. She took my hand, touched her face with it slowly and drowsily, and told me she loved me. I felt the cool softness of her cheek—the cheek that belonged to this woman that I loved so much—I felt a panic-induced wail start to bubble up inside of me. This lovely creature gave me her body and blood to give me life and it seemed like her life could be ripped away from me at any time. In the car on a dark dirt road, I was able to let that wail out and realized that I was utterly shattered. Seized with terror that I’d lose her. Intense, debilitating terror that was unlike anything I had felt. I couldn’t stop thinking, “What if I am not able to touch her skin anymore? What would I do if I couldn’t hear her dreamy, girly voice say my name? ” Along with this panic came love that took me by surprise. A love too overwhelming for words.
“Maybe if I wear the ring she gave me every day, she’ll feel how much I love her and it will take her cancer away.”
“If I buy her yet another thing with bluebird on it, it will make her happy and happiness can take cancer away, right?”
“I’ll take her to yoga. Yoga involves mind and body. I swear I’ve heard of yoga curing cancer.”
“Blackberries. She needs blackberries. I’m going to make sure she eats blackberries as much as possible. They will take away the cancer.”
Look, this is not a sad tale. This incredible woman immediately set the tone for how things would be while living with cancer.
And just like that, our little family slowly started to crawl out of the dark, scary cancer cave. My mother was healing from the surgery and hadn’t yet started chemotherapy. My father and I were healing from the six hours that we sat in the hospital during her surgery, clinging to one another for sanity. The panic faded a bit and the days started to feel beautiful and syrupy and delicious. It was a “Summer Breeze” kind of time and we did feel fine. We hugged more and gardened and talked for hours. It was a time in life that moved at a lazy summer pace and consisted of lemonade and laughter. I remember standing in the new garden my father had created as my mother brought out a tray with waters on it (one for the cat of course) thinking, “I am happy. I am lucky. I want to stay in this moment forever.”
I had the realization one day of how much I’d learned about love through this experience. Someone referred to having a sick family member as a burden. A burden? No, I realized. Not even a little. Not even for a second. I would sacrifice anything for my mother and I don’t expect anything back. Love isn’t about dishing out so that you can be sure you get it in return. Love is about showering someone else with love. Lifting them up without wanting anything back and giving all the energy you have to someone else just because you love them so much. I wanted to send every ounce of love I had to my mother to heal her, to make her feel joy, to ensure she knows she is never alone, and to take any fear she may be experiencing away from her. I wanted to also send that love to my father, to lift him up because his fears could maybe even be stronger than mine. Both of my parents have a way of loving so unselfishly and I hadn’t noticed until my mother became ill. Sometimes it takes that to realize the important things.
Every day with those you love most is precious. I’ll never take for granted a single day I have with her and I’ll shower her with overflowing love and tenderness. I’ll hug her constantly and touch her skin as much as I can. I’ll call her all the time just to hear her soft voice say, “Hi my sweet girl.” I’ll always hope that bluebirds, blackberries, and my love take away her cancer for good.