Have you ever heard three words that completely changed your life? Three words that had the power to rip away everything you had ever known and turn your world on its head forever more? Three words that absolutely broke you and held you down? I have.
It all started in Australia when she started complaining about stomach pain. My mom, usually healthy, usually the one that always told us to suck it up and get over it was now the one going to the doctor to figure out what was going on inside her body. They did an endoscopy, and exploratory surgery while she was under general anesthetic. Their conclusion? Stress, mental health problems, maybe trouble at home. At this, she scoffed, decided she was fine and carried on. The stomach pain continued, but she continued to war against it, not wanting to believe that it had anything to do with her mental health, as she didn’t believe in mental health problems. She didn’t want to see a therapist. She didn’t want to see a psychiatrist, she decided she was fine. She carried on this was for years, and she was fine. She was herself, she was happy, she was healthy, she was beautiful, she was thriving. She just had a stomach ache, pretty much all the time.
This carried on for years, and we moved back to South Dakota. She was still doing well, and she still had a stomach ache, thinking that it was just stress and all in her head. Finally, in 2015, she decided to go to another doctor. “No, I’m not depressed, I’m not that stressed, there’s no trouble at home. I just have a stomach ache all the time.” Well, they started checking it out, being more thorough than those doctors in Australia.
Then finally someone found a solution. “They think it’s my gall-bladder, and they are going to do a CAT scan to confirm.” Awesome, finally a reason, finally an answer, finally a solution that would be fairly quick and easy. But on the day of the CAT scan, something didn’t feel right. I was waiting for her and my dad to get home from the appointment, in my bed doing homework, and I texted my sister that I had a bad feeling. She agreed, she was scared, worried that it was more than just a gallbladder problem. There was no reason for either of us to be scared or worried, but we both were, at the same time, and we were both praying for the Lord’s will and his provision in this situation.
I heard the car drive on the gravel, and walked up the stairs for the family meeting I had been told was coming. My parents walked in and sat at the kitchen table, my little brother joined us. And here came those three words, the three words that would change everything. My mom looked at both of us, and said with a sad and vague smile, “I have cancer.”
Um, what? Excuse me? What did you just say? This happens to other people, but it’s not meant to happen to me, this can’t happen right now. Is this a sick joke? What do we do now?
“I have stage four cancer. But *tears* I know where I’m going.” This faith shook me to the core. I had been a believer for years, but suddenly I had no idea if I would go to heaven or hell when I died. I was wrecked, confused, and in so much pain. But the Lord was so gracious and used a dear friend to remind me that God is still good even in this and that I was saved and would always be saved.
Mom and dad told us not to tell anyone at first because they wanted to tell family and close friends before announcing it. Mom called my sister, and I remember that she burst into tears at work and had to take some time before returning to work. I texted her. Have you stopped crying yet?
I feel like I didn’t cry enough, but at the same time, I can’t believe how many tears were shed. My sister and I cried so much when we heard the news our mom had to tell us. We both couldn’t stop for a long time.
Mom was doing well at first, even though she was in pain. She joked that now she had a cancer diagnosis she could complain about her stomach pain without getting flak from anyone. And we did give her flak. I did anyway. She complained about her stomach pain all the time and I would get so annoyed with her. Now that she had an actual diagnosis, she joked about how I needed to leave her be about it. I should have always left her be about it.
At first, she didn’t want to do chemo. She knew it would mess her body up big time, and she didn’t want to go through that. But somehow, she got it into her head that people would accuse her of not trying hard enough to fight if she didn’t do chemo. And the doctor’s said she was a good candidate for it because she was otherwise healthy. So, against her better judgment, she decided to do chemo and see how it went, even though she had a very aggressive cancer in stage four. Before chemo, we all wanted to do something fun as a family, all eighteen of us (mom and dad, their five children, three who had spouses and children of their own) and we went on a Disney Cruise together. Mom had so much fun, but she struggled. She had a hard time with nausea most of the time. Being on a boat did not help, for sure. And she had a hard time with pain. But she enjoyed herself. She loved to watch her nine grandkids play and hang out together, and just be generally good friends with each other. She loved that we were having fun, and she also enjoyed it through the pain. Dad, on the other hand, wasn’t enjoying it nearly as much, but he loved that mom was having fun. He loved that she was loving it, that she was smiling, laughing, loving on her kids and grandkids, enjoying the ship activities that were definitely not up his alley at all. And yet, even though it wasn’t fun for him, he found joy in it.
On the last day of our cruise, our family came to the dining room for breakfast, but mom didn’t seem to be doing well. She kept crying, and she had to keep sitting down. I thought it was odd, but that she must just be in pain. Later, after the trip, I asked her why she had been so tearful that morning.
Were you in pain?
No, I thought it would be the last time I got to see all my grandkids together again.
And it was.
After the cruise, we went home and began to live in a way I never thought we would. We lived with a mom, a wife, who was sick. That changed everything. At first, she could still cook, but not for long. When all of a sudden, the main person in charge of the house falls ill, it changes the dynamic of the home in a drastic way. And she started chemo, which was probably the worst decision ever. Chemo isn’t evil, it isn’t sinful, but it isn’t for everyone. And it wasn’t for my mom. It was not in her favor. It didn’t want her to get better, it wanted her to shrink and shrivel, ravaged by nausea, unable to eat, losing forty pounds in three months. I know it can’t be the chemo’s fault, as if it was a person, but I have no one else to blame. And sometimes it feels good to cast blame somewhere. So, I will blame it on the chemo, which attacked her life and her vibrancy, somehow missing the cancer altogether.
I watched her shrink into nothing but skin and bones, purely skeletal. It was monstrous of the chemo to destroy her in such a way. If I could talk to the chemo that hurt my mom, I would yell, I would scream, I would probably curse. It was the chemo! It’s the only thing that makes sense, the only thing I can blame, the only thing I’m allowed to be angry at.
But anyway, she lived for a while, wasting away, afraid to eat because she couldn’t keep anything down. Soon, her hair fell out and she chopped off her beautiful braid, that braid that I had played with, curled, straightened, braided and re-braided in the past fifteen years. Soon, she could barely walk, staying still and quiet in her favorite chair all day, watching cooking shows with me, with her mom, with my sister.
I remember one day I came home aching because a friend had treated me badly. It was a friend who my mom and told me to just leave alone, suck it up and back off from her, but I hadn’t. I came home expecting a lecture from mom about how I needed to walk away from this girl who had hurt me over and over again, and I told her what happened. Instead of a lecture, she gathered enough strength to stand, give me a hug and tell me she was sorry, that she loved me. I had to be careful when I hugged her, I was afraid I would crush her delicate, sickly form. But this simple gesture of gathered strength from her was something that touched my heart, and still does, knowing how frail she was, how much energy that action took, energy that she didn’t have. She gave me everything, she always had. That’s what moms do, they give us their everything, but it doesn’t sink in how much they do for us until it’s too late. And by this point, it was already too late. I couldn’t make up for the years I had treated her badly, for all the horrible things I had said to her, the horrible things I had wished upon her. There was nothing I could do for her, but in this moment, she gave me everything.