I was on the phone, the old, push button kind with an extra, extra long cord so that I could walk from room-to-room and still yap. It was post-college, right before graduate school — I guess the time where life is really about to begin, or I had found my rainbow, or some cheesy Hallmark saying. I was in my childhood room: sky blue carpet, heavy white and sky blue curtains. The walls were still painted light purple because of my high school obsession with Prince (that still continues to this day).
My mom walked in wearing a black slip (because women actually wore slips back then) and said, “Feel right here,” and she slid the left side of her bra to expose a visible, red, lump. It looked similar to an infected spider bite.
“Mom, how long have you had this?” I questioned.
“A couple of months. I’ve been meaning to get it checked out.” She sheepishly replied.
“A couple of months?!! Mom, we are going to the doctor, today. Get dressed!” I ordered firmly.
It was the early 90’s. Estee Lauder, the makeup company, had just established the pink ribbon as a symbol for breast cancer; NFL players weren’t donning pink socks; every other package in the grocery story wasn’t outfitted with a pink ribbon; you weren’t able to buy everything from pink socks to soccer balls in order to promote breast cancer awareness, research and prevention.
But, my gut knew something was wrong — really wrong about that large lump on my mother’s breast.
At that moment, we switched roles: I became her caregiver and she the cared for. I can imagine that this is the one time that parents hate to see how much we have grown, how strong we have become: when we are stronger than they are; when we can do more for them than they can do for themselves. Simultaneously, grateful and woeful.
We made an immediate transition from child to caregiver; mother to cared for. She, a typical bossy, talk-a-mile-a minute, take charge, 5’4″, chubby dynamo was quiet as I got us on the road: to her doctor, to recovery, to our new normal.
My mom had a car phone, at a time when it was still a big deal to even see one on TV shows like Charlie’s Angels, so while we were driving to the doctor’s office, I called to let them know that we would be there in 15 minutes and that my mother needed to be seen immediately. This pushy behavior was 100% my mother. I learned from the best.
The doctor saw us immediately when we arrived; and then he immediately sent us to a radiologist. That day, my mother went from the doctor’s office to the radiologist’s office to the hospital. She was in Stage 4 of one of the fastest moving breast cancers. By the end of the week she had a double mastectomy. In 5 days she went from fearless to frightened; seemingly healthy to critically ill; whole to cut; leading to be led. There was no time for being nervous. No staying up late nights pondering over the “right decision.” No second opinions. There was no time. No time.
So we acted and didn’t feel. Things happened faster than our brains could process and were larger than our brains could handle—so we functioned numbly on auto-pilot.
I wish I could say that we at least felt love–that we at least bonded. I guess we did, in the way people bond during war. It was a brutal time and we struggled in different ways; and then were annoyed when the other person wasn’t reacting in the same way. My mom, a religious woman, was simultaneously prayerful, yet, pissed with God for allowing her to get sick. I was pretty pissed off at her for allowing herself to continue being sick. She was the strongest person I knew. She was the person who made me go to school with a temperature as a child; and who hung up in my ear whenever I showed a sign of weakness as an adult—now she was going to lay her ass on the couch all day?! How dare she stop being my impenetrable Wonder Woman?
Yeah, I was that selfish.
After my father died many years prior, she looked at the almost nine-year-old me and said, “It’s me and you now.” I felt like she wasn’t fighting hard enough to keep her part of our deal; and that wasn’t acceptable. I depended on that deal. Everything was that deal: me and her. So, she needed to fight and hold up her part of the bargain.
It wasn’t that she didn’t go to all of her doctor’s visits and chemotherapy treatments. She did. She just wasn’t that “Chicken Soup for the Soul” type of cancer patient. There was zero positive attitude. When anyone cheerily asked her, “How are you,” she would reply, “I’m here.” Never again, post-cancer, did she ever say that she was “great” or even “good.” She was just “there.”
Before she got cancer, I’d never seen her in the bed sick. I had never seen her cry—nope not even when my dad or her mother died—until one day after a stem cell replacement surgery she looked at me, and cried and begged to go home. I did exactly what she would have done to me. Though I wanted to cry too–just at the sight of seeing my hero crumble; but, I firmly told her, “pull it together. You know I can’t take you home. We will be home soon. Until then, we will make it through. We can do this.”
And that’s what we did: we made it through.
Once we made it through, and made it home, we made a life, post-cancer. I think that if anybody is honest, your life is different post-cancer because you are different. Some people are better, some people are worse; but everybody is certainly different.
My mom stopped doing the stuff she didn’t feel like doing. For instance, she stopped getting dressed up. She owned her own company and had approximately a hundred t-shirts with her company logo on it. Guess what? She wore one of those damn t-shirts every day. Not cause she was trying to advertise, but because she didn’t feel like thinking about what to wear anymore—so she didn’t.
And then there were the trips. She started taking my husband and me on these mini-trips. One of my fondest memories is of my overweight mother, my husband and me flying around in the Flying Dumbo ride at DisneyWorld with her holding on to her wig and laughing louder than any kid on the ride.
Lastly, if she didn’t’ like something, she let you know it. Wig half crooked, if you gave her bad service or cut her off, my mother who rarely cursed, would curse you out or give you the middle finger without hesitation. We were taking a tour bus one time and she walked up to the front of the packed bus, and let the bus driver know, in front of every body, that he was an absolute asshole. When he looked at her with shock, it only made her say it louder, “You are a fucking asshole.” I grabbed her by pocketbook and dragged her off of the barely stopped bus.
For five years, she lived her new normal. She was sassier, yet more sentimental. Impulsive; yet more quiet.
Then she called me one day. By that time I was living 2.5 hours away with my husband of two years (I believe that she ensured I was married and taken care of) and said, “I need you to come down here and clean my house. It’s a mess.” I did what any Southern, Black only-child does, I got in my car, with my husband, and drove 2.5 hours to clean my mother’s house.
I didn’t know that she was calling me to say goodbye.
Though we talked daily, I didn’t know that the cancer was back. She didn’t want me to know because I would’ve made her fight again and she always told me that she wouldn’t. I respect her choice now; but I don’t know if I could have then.
Actually, I know I would not have. Because . . . we had a deal.
She died that night — on her terms.
She did it her way, but she protected me for as long as she could.
And she is still protecting me. I like to say that my boobs are felt up more than a Vegas hooker’s. I get my breast examined, MRI’d, mammogrammed multiple times per year. I thank my mom every time.
For the most part, I don’t do much that I don’t want to do. I thank my mom for that lesson about the value of time.
I take the trips I want to take. I thank my mom every time.
And I curse out just about everybody I want to curse out — and I thank my mother every time.
(Now that last part is a joke, but seriously get your damn mammograms folks. I mean that! Take care of those boobies and take care of each other). You promise? We’ve got a deal.