For My Hero

As I pushed Lauren’s stroller through the Kaiser parking garage on my way home from a postpartum appointment, I heard my phone ding.

“I got a text from your dad. He and your mom want to talk to us tonight when we are all together.”

My stomach immediately sank. My parents had news, and they thought it was so important that David be with me when I heard it that they went to him first.

A couple of hours later, I sat on the couch, phone in hand, with eight-week-old Lauren fast asleep on my lap and David’s arm wrapped protectively around me.

My mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

I was very calm and painfully clear-headed. I asked a lot of factual questions. I asked about timelines. I asked my mom and dad how they were feeling, and when it was ok to call and check on my brothers.

Surprisingly, I did not cry.

We hung up the phone and as Ellie scampered into the room David said with a sweet smile, “You might want to give Mama a hug right now, she is feeling a little sad.”

I squeezed Ellie with my free arm and set a smile on my face. “Mama just heard some hard news, but I promise it will be fine.”

The tears didn’t come that night. They didn’t come the next morning as I nursed Lauren or ate breakfast with Ellie. It wasn’t until I was loading the girls up in the car for a morning of errands that the floodgates opened.

I cried on the way to Target. I cried all through Target, and just as I had myself under control something random like the frozen food aisle would make me cry again. I cried driving home from Target. I cried as I unloaded the car.

I texted friends, panicked a little, gave myself permission to do nothing but snuggle the girls and watch feel-good TV. I prayed. I thought about how my mom is the single biggest influence behind how I parent.  

All the while, a sole question plagued my thoughts over and over.

How would I do this without her?


I flew to Southern California for my mom’s second chemo treatment, leaving Lauren for the first time, David armed with a freezer full of pumped milk. It was a day I didn’t realize I desperately needed until I was there. It sounds strange to describe hours of doctor appointments and chemotherapy as fun, but my mom and I managed to make it just that.

I was gone approximately 12 hours and Lauren rewarded me with constant comfort nursing for days after, staying on my breast for up to two hours at a time, her desperation to hold on to me matching my desperation to spend time with my own mom.

There literally weren’t enough hours in the day to nurse her and take care of everything else. It was also Christmas time and I was trying hard to squeeze in some magic, despite feeling out of control.

I know my mom must have had days like these too, but when I think back on my childhood, I just remember feeling safe and happy. My mom could do anything and make any situation wonderful.

She still does.

How would I do this without her?


The baby’s cries faded over the monitor, and as she drifted off to sleep, I sat on the couch and pulled Ellie onto my lap. Every morning during Lauren’s first nap of the day we have “Mama and Ellie time” and today we were reading a very special book.

My mom’s hair was gone, bravely shaven off between her second and third chemo treatments. We had talked to Ellie about the cancer, telling her that Gammy has to have a lot of check-ups at the doctor and they were going to help her feel all the way better very soon. I had kept my tone light and Ellie wasn’t worried at all. But, I could not for the life of me figure out how to explain my mom’s hair loss.

Then a box came in the mail with a children’s book about a rabbit who gets sick and has to take medicine that makes her fur fall out. Of course there’s a children’s book on that subject, and of course my mom thought to find it and send it to us. That kind of thoughtfulness is just one of the reasons we still need her so much.

That morning we read the book over and over, talking about how Gammy’s medicine also made her hair fall out, but it’s making her feel better. There were assurances that Gammy’s hair would grow back and I threw in a Daniel Tiger song for good measure, “You can change your hair or what you wear, but no matter what you do, you’re still you.”

The book ends with the rabbit, aptly named Hope, fully healed and realizing her dream of jumping over the moon. “Mama,” Ellie piped up, “When Gammy feels better she will jump over the moon and I will jump with her! Can I, Mama? Can I?”

“Yes baby,” I replied holding back tears. “You absolutely can.”

How would I do this without her?


On chemo days I found myself anxious and preoccupied, with less patience for Ellie and Lauren than they deserve. If the days were hard for me, I can’t even imagine how hard they must have been for her, the one actually going through chemotherapy.

The funny thing is, you would never know it. She sent us upbeat texts from the hospital detailing the latest news from her doctor and always took a smiling selfie with whomever her chemo buddy was that day, showing whatever number treatment she was on with her fingers.

I marveled to one of my friends about how my mom had handled the whole situation, recounting that she spent a week with us shortly after Lauren was born. She cooked us dinner, played with Ellie, helped me get out of the house with both girls, changed countless diapers… all while waiting for the results of her biopsy. She suspected she might have cancer, but she didn’t say a thing. How’s that for strength?

My friend smiled and simply said, “That’s what moms do.”

How would I do this without her?


My mom’s sixth round of chemo came the day after Ellie’s third birthday. At 6:30 a.m. I sat in the “Mother’s Lounge” at the Sacramento airport simultaneously pumping and leaking everywhere. I joined the group of others waiting to board the flight down to Southern California – them in their crisp business suits and faces full of makeup, me with my messy bun and chambray shirt covered in breast milk.

There was a news story on the terminal TV about a relatively new disease called COVID-19 that seemed like it might be spreading. I hoped I wouldn’t catch anything on the plane and thought about how I almost canceled this trip down, reasoning that it was hard for David to take the day off of work to be with the girls and I would see my mom in another month for her surgery. But I didn’t cancel, thank goodness.

A few hours later my mom and I sat in the infusion center laughing until we cried about trashy TV and Super Bowl commercials while my sweet dad sat in the waiting room, giving my mom and I time together we cherished. We ate Oreos and endured dirty looks from a man in the corner. I giggled to my mom that I thought we were the rowdy chair as a nurse stopped by to discuss the latest episode of “Below Deck.”

It was a perfect day, besides the cancer.

How would I do this without her?


March 2020.

My brothers and I had it all figured out. We booked flights into town for surgery day and planned to show up at the hospital wearing funny matching shirts emblazoned with the motto our family had adopted during the cancer fight. We wanted my mom and dad to know how much we love them and would do anything to support them. Mostly, we needed to be together.

Willie was the first one to cancel, when the COVID outbreak started getting really bad in Seattle. I canceled next, when Northern California appeared to be on its way to becoming the next epicenter. Stephen held out a little bit longer, but finally decided he needed to cancel his flight from Tucson a few days before the surgery. None of us were willing to risk any chance of getting my mom sick, even if it meant we had to ride out surgery day alone and she had to go with a few less hugs and smiling faces cheering her on.

Never in a million years did we think my mom would have to ride out the day alone as well.

COVID protocols were getting stricter by the minute, it seemed. First, my mom was only going to be able to have one visitor with her. Then, the night before her surgery she let us know that she wasn’t allowed to bring anyone. My dad gave her a hug in front of the surgery center and that was it.

“I only cried once!” she told me over Facetime the next day after she had been discharged and made it home.

She is my hero. 

How would I do this without her?


Radiation started and radiation ended, just like that. Well, it seemed “just like that” to those of us not experiencing it. I know it was a grueling 20 sessions to endure.

The week she finished radiation, my mom had a follow-up appointment with her oncologist to go over how effective her treatment had been and figure out the next steps. I felt very apprehensive about it and I couldn’t figure out why, but I prayed like crazy and I know many others did too.

The day of the appointment came and my mom called me in the early afternoon.

“Hey sweetie, we’re leaving the hospital and I just wanted to let you know it went really well. I’m done!”

DONE.

“Mom, that’s amazing!” I said in between bouncing Lauren on my hip and trying to keep Ellie’s persistent interruptions to a minimum.

“So, no further treatments at all? (Yes, Ellie, I see those bell peppers in your kitchen. Go play, please.)”

We talked about the medicine she will take for the next several years. We talked about how her reoccurrence rate is only 15%, the same odds of anyone being diagnosed with cancer in the first place. We talked about answered prayer.

A few minutes after we hung up, it hit me.

Relief.

I was making Ellie a sandwich when I started to shake. I suddenly realized that I had not taken a full breath in seven months. I had been taking care of my family and trying to cultivate joy in a season of quarantine all with restricted capacity – part of my brain always distracted, my lungs constantly tight with the fear of “what if?”

I was brought out of my stupor by Lauren crawling in front of me at lightning speed, making a beeline for the steps she wanted to climb. I scooped her up and smiled because doesn’t life always have a way of doing that? It continues on in the most special and mundane ways, no matter what we are going through or what kind of revelation we just had.

Yes, life goes on and I get to continue living it while taking deep, full breaths.

She does, too.