Some people feel a distinct division in their lives: there’s a defining moment that bifurcates the segments of their lives that will never be wholly unified again. I am definitely one of those individuals, as today marks the 12th anniversary of the day my family’s universe was disturbed forever.
I should backtrack to provide a bit of context. In 1998, my six-year-old brother was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and about the same time, my mom’s lingering health problems finally reached a definitive diagnosis of lupus. Let me tell you, it was an interesting year. By itself, lupus is a terrifying disease, simply because it’s so amorphous and unpredictable. There was a woman at church who faced down death a few times with her lupus and had to walk with a cane, while my dear friend RRC’s mother languished for many years while eventually dying to renal failure after years on dialysis. We had no idea how it would play out in my mom’s body, especially since she had suspected that something was wrong shortly after she gave birth to my sister in 1987. Imagine going eleven years and giving birth to two more children with undiagnosed lupus! In short: my mom was very fortunate to not be much sicker than she already was. She spent the next year tweaking lifestyle habits and working with a rheumatologist for medicines and exercises to keep her body strong.
Fast-forward to 1999. Everything seemed to be going okay, at least on the health front. I was in the throes of adolescence with zero motivation to do anything. As with all mother-daughter relationships at this time, my mom and I just did not get along. And since I am the oldest, I was the experiment. There was a lot of complaining, while my sister, the quintessential middle child, tried to reason with me and help me get along with my parents. My brother and baby sister (ages 7 and 3) were…you know, kids. I thought life was soooo difficult at 14. But an aside comment from my mom took my mind off petty things. When I overheard her talking about a biopsy, I looked at her and she said with forced calm, “I found a lump in my breast.” It was a few days before Thanksgiving.
We had about two weeks to wait for the diagnosis. In that time, I spent hours at night on my knees, crying out in agony to a God that I had tacitly believed in because my parents did. I prayed at first for her to be healed miraculously, then I asked Him to do His will. On a sidenote, it was, in the words of the song “Amazing Grace,” “the hour I first believed.”
The phone call came on December 7, 1999. My brother was playing, while I tried to watch both him and my mom talking tensely to her surgeon on the phone. But I knew as soon as she started to respond. Tears filled my eyes, as I knew that nothing in this life would ever be the same again.
What do you do, three weeks shy of your 15th birthday, when your mom tells you she has breast cancer and has to have surgery immediately, before the insurance coverage changes (for the worse)? How do you tell your siblings, 12, 7, and 3, that it’s going to be okay, when you don’t even know if that’s the truth? All I can remember about that day is going to the kitchen and washing a sinkful of dishes by hand. We had a dishwasher, but for some reason, my hands needed to be moving, because my brain was completely numb. For the first time, I had to face the possibility that my mom could die.
Two weeks later, she had a mastectomy, because her lupus would not allow her to undergo radiation for a lump. So, at 42, my mom had to undergo reconstructive surgery on top of that, because she did not want to lose her breast. We would find out in the next week if her lymph nodes were clean. I don’t need to tell you that my 15th birthday was a subdued affair.
And then, that long-awaited call came on December 23, the day after my birthday. The nodes were clean. The cancer was gone. That moment marked the rest of my life, in which I determined never to take my mom (really, my whole family) for granted, and which I would always be grateful for the life we got to live.
Only a few times I have wondered what our lives would have looked like had my mom never had cancer. All I know is that we were all changed by it, in ways that have made me the woman that I am today. I am not glad she suffered, but I am glad we are all stronger, better, kinder people because of it.
Every December 7, I commemorate the day that has defined us, shaped us, and redefined us as a family, and this year, I am reminded of the closing lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.