Family, Heartbreak

The Strongest Among Us Are Those Who Silently Smile Through Pain

Photo: iStock
The Strongest Among Us Are Those Who Smile Through Silent Pain

For a long time, you'd never know my mom had cancer just by looking at her.

Right after her diagnosis, after the hours-long surgery to remove the parts of her touched by the filthy fingers of tumors — after the first chemo treatments that took her hair, her vitality, and whatever measure of innocence she had left in the world — she looked sick then.

But it was brief. Her hair grew back faster than we'd ever expected, the soft fuzz shooting up into longer locks with a slight curl that had never been there before. She put weight back on. Each day became cause for a tiny celebration, and as her tumor markers steadily decreased, her hope began to grow, a beautiful sunrise of optimism that was almost blinding in its faith that everything would be OK.

Mom and I had been doing a slow dance of role reversal for a long time before she got sick. It began in my late teens: mothering her, moving my daughter designation to the side to make room for a different kind of loving. There were some cycles she tried to break and never could, and some cycles she held on to like a security blanket.

It was sometimes dramatic and often dysfunctional but it was what we had, and we made it work, she and I. When the diagnosis came, it was a bolt of lightning straight out of the blue. Stage IIIC ovarian cancer. I googled survival rates and almost fainted.

I really thought she'd fall apart. She had always been so childlike and I couldn't imagine how she would deal with and work through a long, lingering, life-threatening illness. I prepared myself for the oncoming hurricane of emotions from her, but for years we stayed in the eye of the storm.

She was calm, clear determination. Maybe she knew she was living on borrowed time, and it cut straight through her to a steel in her spine she never knew she had. Maybe it was faith, a rock solid belief that God had mapped out every moment of this journey before she was ever born. Whatever it was, it sustained her.

For four years, we lived like death wasn't lurking around every corner of our lives. Mom was almost endlessly positive, even when the tumor markers started climbing again, even when a suspicious lump turned into a second primary cancer.

Being sick broke some sort of shell around her, allowing her softest parts to turn toward the sunlight and bloom. She was inspiration in every movement.

Her bad days were like summer thunderstorms, charcoal clouds that built and built before breaking open the sky, sheets of rain obscuring the day, over and gone in moments with a rainbow trailing in its wake. Even when she hurt — even in her most heartbreaking vulnerability — there was strength in her smile.

She started dying last summer but it took until September to happen. It felt like such a shock in the moments after her last breath but in hindsight, I could see how long a process it had really been. She was so brave for so long.

When we knew for sure it was coming, when death stepped out of the corner and into the room, she comforted us. If I close my eyes and concentrate very hard, I can still feel her hand on my head just days before she died, smoothing back my hair as I sobbed face down on her bed, talking to me in the hushed nonsensical tones you use with an inconsolable infant.

For so long, I had traveled through life as her companion, as her caregiver. What a gift she gave me in the last days of her life by mothering me so completely through my journey from daughter to orphan. She took her silent suffering and used emotional alchemy to transform it into the kindness and courage she knew I would need in the motherless days I faced ahead.

That final offering from her still serves me well.