I was sitting around a bonfire a few weeks ago with friends when the topic of cancer came up. I quickly glanced around the circle, and I realized that no one knew my story and how cancer had affected my family, even though I considered a few people in the circle my good friends. The conversation continued for a few minutes, with one person commenting on how much more prevalent cancer is today, and another stating that his roommate had lost his mother a few months ago.
And I just kept silent and stared at the fire.
I should have said something. I should have spoken up and shared some of my story. I wanted to. I lost my mom two years ago… I thought the words and opened my mouth to speak them, but no sound came out. It turns out not talking about her is a hard habit to break…
Two months after she died, I moved halfway across the country from Virginia to Texas. (That’s another story entirely. Maybe someday I’ll write about it.) I met new people who didn’t know anything about me or my mom, and most of the time, it was just easier not to tell them. At first, the pain was still too raw, and sometimes it just seemed awkward to me. After all, nothing changes the mood of a conversation quite like telling someone you’ve just met that your mom died from cancer when they ask about your family, right? Over time, it became a part of me I only shared with a select few, like a secret, even though I often longed to talk about her and remember her.
It’s been 2 years, 3 months, and 16 days since she died, and hardly a days goes by that I don’t think about her. So many things remind me of her, and she is often still the first person I want to call to tell my news to or ask for advice.
Sometimes it is the little things I remember and treasure the most.
I remember making Christmas cookies every year, complete with festive shapes, frosting, and sprinkles. I remember our shared love of reading, and all the books I read at her recommendation. I remember many, many shopping trips. (She will always be my favorite shopping buddy, and not just because she spoiled me and bought me things!) I remember all the birthday parties she gave for me when I was young, and how she served as my Girl Scout leader in elementary school. I remember her patiently teaching me how to drive, how to make meatloaf, how to apply makeup, and so many other things. I remember how she learned how to use the computer when I went away to college, just so she could e-mail me and how she wrote me almost every day, even though I hardly ever wrote back. How she stood by me through school and moves and job changes and failed relationships and other disappointments and triumphs.
I remember the shock of her initial cancer diagnosis, and the days afterward where I walked around stunned, longing to drop everything and move back home. I flew that first Thanksgiving, and my mom spent hours in the kitchen with me, talking me through making Thanksgiving dinner, because she’d just had surgery and couldn’t do anything herself. I know she was tired, but she patiently walked me through every last dish, not forgetting anything.
She was amazingly strong, surviving more than one person should ever have to take, without ever letting her family and friends know how much she suffered. Nine years we watched her bravely fight the cancer that eventually took her from us. Yes, there were good times in those nine years, including two remissions, but there was also surgery and chemo and radiation and drugs and disappointments and heartbreaks. She was so strong and brave when the cancer came back after she had tried so hard to live healthier. When the doctors told her the last time it returned that it was stage 4, and all they could do was try to control it for as long as possible, our hearts sank, but she kept fighting, even in the end when the treatments stopped working. She wanted to keep living her life to the fullest, and she wasn’t going to let cancer stop her.
I spent a week and a half with her shortly before she died. I dropped everything and flew home after a phone call from my dad left me sitting on my kitchen floor crying. He’d told me she wasn’t doing well, and I knew it was my turn to give to her, my time and my presence. I am so thankful for that time, as hard as it was to see her as a shell of the woman she’d been, barely able to make it up the stairs on her own, but trying so hard to be strong. Mostly we just sat together in the family room, as that was about all she could do. Sometimes we watched TV or movies, sometimes we talked, but mostly I think we just sat. We were together, and that was what mattered.
I cried when my dad dropped me off at the airport at the end of my time at home. I wandered around the shops in the airport and bought a new wallet to try to make myself feel better, and I called my mom to tell her about it while I waited for my flight. I don’t know if that’s the last conversation we had, but it’s the last one I remember clearly. I told her I loved her, and I fought back the tears my whole flight back to Virginia.
A few days later she was gone. I don’t think any of us knew how close she was to the end, or maybe we just didn’t want to admit it. When she was admitted to the hospital for the last time, my dad told me not to fly home, because he didn’t know if I’d make it in time. Maybe I should have tried. But really I think the week and a half I’d just spent with her was my goodbye.
What I will remember most about my mom is her unwavering faith. It is because of her (and my dad) that I learned about Christ and came to believe many years ago. Even when she suffered, it was evident how much she clung to God, and He strengthened her. It is because of this faith that I know her life did not end when she took her last breath here on earth, and that I will see her again one day when I get to heaven. It is because of this faith, that we were able to celebrate her life and legacy with joy in our hearts (even though through tears) on the day we buried her in the ground, and we could sing “It is Well with My Soul” at her service, and mean it, knowing that she was no longer suffering and was seeing God face to face.
I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t still cry sometimes and ask God why she is gone, why I cannot call her and ask for advice, share my exciting news, or talk about the latest Chicago Bears game, and why she won’t be there to see me get married someday or hold her grandchildren (although I like to think she’ll be smiling down from heaven.) I have struggled in my faith at times through all of this, but, quoting what I already posted on Facebook, “…I can tell you with certainty that God is still good, and I know more than ever how deep His love is for me. Even though my life was shaken and will never be the same without my mom, I have come through stronger, because God has held me close, and He has been my strength and my rock, even when I felt I could barely stand.” Losing my mom has changed me in ways I’m just beginning to understand, but I choose to remember and celebrate all the years I had her with me rather than dwell on what I’ve lost.
If you’ve stuck with me this far in this post, I thank you. It isn’t quite what I intended to write (and it is definitely longer!), but it was what I needed to share. God laid on my heart that I needed to write about my mom the day after the bonfire where I couldn’t speak. The words have weighed on my heart since then, even getting me out of bed at 5 a.m. one morning to write. To my friends, I’m sorry if I’ve never spoken about this to you, but I ask that you don’t let me remain silent any more.
I’ll end with the verse printed on the program at her service and a song that was sung so beautifully on that day, that I cannot listen to without tears coming to my eyes.
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.” – John 11:25
I love you, Mom.