When 2 Strangers Cried With Me Over the Loss of My Mother

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I have a significant history of pre-term labor. Every one of my four pregnancies has been a challenge. We lost our triplets in the summer of 2007 because my body would not hold them long enough. In June 2011, I was in my third trimester of pregnancy with my youngest son. At the same time, my precious mother, one of my dearest friends in this world, was battling stage IV breast cancer. Just after she was put on hospice care, my doctor’s appointment revealed that I needed to be hospitalized for bed rest immediately. I was allowed one brief visit at her bedside before checking in to the antepartum unit. Having done this before, I knew how vital it was for me to stay very calm. Stress and strong emotions were my enemies as they tended to stimulate contractions. My expressions of worry and pain would have to wait.

The moment I found out that Mom had left this life — without me there to hold her hand, without being able to say goodbye — it felt like a punch in the stomach, then free-falling. I wanted to wail, sob, fall on my face, scream, do something, anything — but I could not. I was still in the hospital, and my child came first. My nurse came in just minutes after I got the news and saw me laying there, still and quiet, tears streaming down my face. She put her hand on my shoulder and asked me what was wrong. I told her.

mom and adult daughter
Rebecca and her mom.

After brief but sincere expressions of sympathy, she left and returned quickly with another nurse. One sat on the edge of my bed beside me, holding my hand and the other at my feet. They asked gentle questions in soothing voices. I told them I needed to let it out, but couldn’t. Then the most unexpected thing happened. They both began to cry — I mean really cry. It was remarkable. These two caring women did for me what I could not do for myself and for my mother. It lasted several minutes. I talked about my memories with Mom and they cried. When it was over, I felt relief from the pressure that had built up. I knew I could keep it together for awhile longer.

Later, one of those nurses brought me a card. In it she shared that she had lost her son tragically just a year before.

Grief can make us hard, or it can soften us. How blessed I was that day to have two soft hearts at my bedside.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment a stranger — or someone you don’t know very well — showed you or a loved one incredible love. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To My Friend One Year After Your Breast Cancer Diagnosis

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A little over a year ago, you were diagnosed with breast cancer. People often use the word “life-changing” for things like this and, though it sounds a bit cliché and trite, that is the only word that comes to mind right now.

I need to apologize for the considerable delay in writing all that will follow. I usually turn to writing as a way of sorting through my emotions, of trying to make sense of a senseless situation, but since your diagnosis I have written very little about it. I’ve avoided the subject, in large part, because much of the story isn’t mine to tell. You are the one who has lived it, who is living it. You are the one for whom the term “life-changing” accompanies, not me.

But there is another reason I have avoided putting it all into words. I’ve avoided writing about it — even in my most private of journals — because it felt too raw, the questions were too scary and the lack of answers was too maddening. Like pressing on a bruise, if I probed too much or tried too hard to answer the questions, I winced with a sharp intake of breath. The human heart and mind can only handle so much, after all. The depth of the unknowns were too deep and pressing was too painful, so I focused instead on the task at hand — taking care of you, my friend.

My fears and questions, large and dangerous, bounced around like lead ping pong balls, leaving dents and more bruises in their path. Over time, the questions developed their own aura, almost like an unnamable but unmistakably present scent lingering in the room. And frankly, there were times when I worried that the questions — not to mention the lack of answers to most of them — might not cause a million miniscule fractures in you and me and us, cracking and splintering until our friendship was nearly unrecognizable.

Not surprisingly, when you first told me that it might be (and then that it was) cancer, many of my questions were medical in nature. What stage? What’s the prognosis? When do you begin treatment? Other questions were more practical. What do you need? How can I help? When can I visit?

But there were also all the unspoken questions that lingered heavy in the air, infusing every conversation with the knowledge that there will forever be a “before” and “after” to the relationship. How will this affect our friendship? How will our relationship change? Will I be the friend you need me to be or will I somehow fall short? And, perhaps scariest of all, will you be OK? Like live-to-be-an-old-lady OK?

As soon as the diagnosis came, your entire world shifted on its axis, and in turn, so did the worlds of those who love you. Thrust into a new landscape, we were treading through unchartered territory. Though we’ve known each other for 30 years and our friendship has been through some serious sh*t, it has not been through anything as sh*tty as cancer. And at the back of my mind sometimes, there was tiny little whisper wondering what this would do to our relationship. Would our friendship emerge stronger, fused together in a way that only the scars of hardship can do? Or would this rocky terrain create fissures that might not be stitched?

Of course, many of the weightiest questions weren’t mine, but yours, and I was simply a conduit through which the questions were voiced. You asked me if I thought you needed a second opinion. (Answer: Yes.) You asked if you should get a double mastectomy or single. (Answer: I have no idea.) You asked about the etiquette on cancer gifts and whether you needed to send a handwritten note right away. (Answer: No, you’ve got a pass.) And you asked one of the hardest questions of all: Is this happening to me? Is this REALLY happening to me?

I hated that we lived so far away from each other, though we texted on a daily — sometimes hourly — basis. Sometimes I raged with you. Sometimes I asked more questions in return. Sometimes I wrote “I love you” or “Stupid f*cking cancer,” depending on the situation. When we talked on the phone, I listened and cried. You would tell me to stop and I stopped. Then we would go on talking like usual, except that “usual” included words like port and mastectomy, information about biopsy results and chemotherapy schedules.

Some of the questions in the past year fed my curiosity. When I stayed with you during your first round of chemo, the first thing you asked was, “Do you want to see them?” “Hell yeah!” was my immediate answer and we sneaked into your walk-in closet so you could disrobe. Your body looked beaten and wounded, but you looked more powerful and beautiful than ever, like some kind of cancer-killing, shape-shifting superhero. A few months later, just before your final reconstruction surgery, you asked if I wanted to see what they looked like, and my answer was again “Hell yeah!” We raced off to the restaurant bathroom like two giggly teenagers where you lifted your shirt and we debated size, shape, and softness. You no longer looked beaten and wounded, but you still looked powerful and beautiful.

Since your diagnosis, I have worried constantly about bringing up my own trivial questions and problems. Do I have a right to complain about my children or job stress? Do you want me to ask you for fashion advice anymore, knowing in the grand scheme of things the shoes I take on vacation are of absolutely zero significance? Does any of this really matter?

I wish I could say there weren’t questions with a trace of doubt and second-guessing, but it would be a lie not to admit to having those thoughts as well. I wondered why you cared so much about your hair and continued to use the cold caps even though they made you so sick. Isn’t your body going through enough? I wondered. Don’t you feel beautiful enough, strong enough, loved enough without hair? But in the end, those weren’t my questions to answer, much less ask. The only questions I needed to ask were: How can I bear witness to your pain? How can I hold space for the discomfort? How can I make things a little bit easier?

Though the questions were deafening sometimes, they were subtle but pervasive at other times. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I didn’t know what you needed or wanted to hear. I didn’t know what was safe or real or true anymore. The only thing I knew was that if I waited to find the perfect thing to say, days or weeks or months could go by and the questions would continue to pile up, multiplying and breeding into new questions of regret and doubt and loss.

In the past year since your diagnosis, I’ve learned a lot of things. Some things I learned by asking questions, others I learned by bearing witness to your pain. For instance, I’ve learned that a string of expletives, a well-timed joke or a shared silence can bring more peace than the oft-cited but sterile “Everything happens for a reason.” I’ve learned the difference between a port and a drain. I’ve learned that a woman’s definition of beauty may be influenced by society, but is honed from within.

But most importantly, perhaps, I’ve learned that I shouldn’t have feared the questions, their lack of answers or pressing on the bruise of uncertainty. In fact, I should have welcomed the questions, pressing harder, saying what needed to be said.

And so, though these words come later than they should have, I am telling you now that I promise to ask my questions, listen to yours and muddle through them with you – not because we need to find answers to all of them, but because it is through our questions that we show up, offer love and bear witness. It is in the questions that we learn. It is the questions that we love. It is in the questions that we live.

And so I have one more question for you. It is the same question that has been asked since the beginning of time. This question has been asked by million voices in a million languages in a million different ways. It is the only question in which, by asking the question in the first place, we begin writing our answer: Can this — whatever this is — make us stronger and change us for better?

In other words, how can we build something beautiful out of this?

Perhaps we already are making something beautiful out of it.

Follow this journey on Christine Organ.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What do you wish you had found on Google when you were first diagnosed? Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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26 Parts of a Breast Cancer Diagnosis That 'Shocked' People the Most

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Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and the second leading cause of cancer death among women. Each year an estimated 230,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer, according to National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF).

And though October is famous for pink ribbons and breast cancer awareness galore, it is difficult to fully understand what comes along with a diagnosis if you haven’t been affected. So The Mighty teamed up with NBCF to ask their community what shocked them the most about a breast cancer diagnosis in their family. NBCF offers a free online community to help breast cancer patients and their loved ones move Beyond the Shock.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “Cancer doesn’t discriminate.” — Deb Braffman

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2. “All the great stories from people who beat this.” — Cindy Gutterson

3. “It just totally turns everything upside down and [it takes a long time] to start to feel like you have some kind of control.” — Debra Harper

4. “Women’s strength and unity.” — Ellyn Krum-Wexler-Klein

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5. “I was the fourth of eight sisters to get breast cancer. The 1-in-8 theory doesn’t ring true for my family. It’s 1 of every 2.” — Mary Bettinger Mueller

6. “I got it with no family history!” — Angie Bailey Hanck

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7. “It shocked me that this is the third time I’ve had breast cancer.” — Blanche Martin Galli 

8. “When my little sister was diagnosed it was shocking that it was happening in our family. You go along blithely thinking it happens to other people. The reality is most shocking of all.” — Judy Chance

9. “What shocked me? I think for me my life changed in an instant. I no longer felt invincible. I thought differently, I felt differently… And wondered what was in store for me.” — Jodi Nelson Doyle

invincible

10. “The fact that I thought I was healthy! And the biggest shocker was the lack of support I got from certain family and friends. Some so-called friends and family pretty much disappeared.” — Christy George 

11. “It can happen to anyone.” —Ludy Shaheen

12. “It impacts your every thought, and you will never again have peace of mind.” — Andrea Llewellyn

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13. “I thought I could still be the strong person I always was. Wrong. I suffered depression horribly after my double mastectomy. I think it was because I didn’t have the physical and emotional strength I was used to. It was a long road to feeling ‘normal’ again. I still am not sure what normal is. But as of today I have returned to what I think is normal. I no longer worry about the little things and focus on the important things in life. I am much more at peace with myself.” — Trish Keim Strohman 

14. “It turns you upside down and sends you on a roller coaster of emotions and pain.” — Kim Penny 

15. “Being diagnosed at 28 years old…” — Nicole Leiker

28years

16. “What shocked me the most was learning that my mom would be bald (and beautiful) on my wedding day, and how neither of us or anyone else could have imagined it being that way. Watching her first cut her hair short, and then have it shaved off completely, really moved me. It forced her to be so strong (amidst many other things happening); it was infectious. I donated 12 inches of my hair in honor of her, in hopes that it would change the life of someone going through the same thing. The whole process has altered my life forever. You truly never know what people are going through.” — Morgan Davis

17. “Having breast cancer twice was a wake up call for me. The first time I was in shock, went into treatment and thought I was done. Then six months later it appeared again and I wondered why me and what am I doing wrong in my life? Breast cancer brought me closer to my son and made me fight harder than anything in my life because I wanted to live and had unfinished business.” — Lisa Patrice Osborne-Anderson 

18. “How absolutely terrified I would be but how much love I would find myself surrounded by from family, friends and neighbors. How much having cancer becomes like a full time job with all the research, doctors appointments, etc., and realizing how many people were there to help.” — Lauren McCollum

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19. “Telling my family.” — Janice Richardson

20. “What has surprised me the most is that my life has changed in many positive ways. Don’t get me wrong, a breast cancer diagnosis is shocking and scary. However, I have learned so much along the way and look at life very differently now. I liken it to getting a one-way ticket someplace, with no return available. I have embraced the journey this one-way ticket has taken me on.” — Alison Drake

21. “It changes your life in an instant. One day you’re living life normally and the next day you are completely overwhelmed with various emotions. I discovered that I was much stronger than I thought.” — Ede Young

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22. “What has shocked me the most is how it changed me forever for the better. I cherish life more and it brought our family closer. I had wonderful support, I am cancer free and a bonus is we had a major wake up and love each other more and cherish our lives that God gave us in a higher dimension.” — Terrilee Steves

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23. “How hard it has been on my family.” — Terri Carruth

24. “The relatives who were not so friendly to me have become great friends of mine and the relatives I thought would be great friends to me have abandoned me.” — Lorraine Bailey

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25. “How much it can change your life forever. You read glowing stories of people who run marathons and become motivational speakers and somehow, they all seem to have such wonderful and much better lives because they had cancer. Then you find out that it’s not necessarily the way things will turn out for the majority of us. I knew I would do anything I had to do to still be here, but I believed my life would eventually return to normal and I’d be back to the ‘old me.’ It bothered me a lot when I discovered that wasn’t so and that no one had bothered to let any of us survivors know.” —Paula Owensby 

26. “Life goes on. Although I felt like mine ended, I soon realized it goes on with or without you. So get up each day and live!” — Kym Duran-Salas

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: Share a story about one moment or conversation related to a cancer diagnosis or experience that made an impact on you. Find out how to email us a story submission here.

National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) was founded in 1991 by breast cancer survivor, Janelle Hail. NBCF is Helping Women Now ® in all 50 U.S. states through early detection, breast cancer education, and support services.

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Robin Roberts Told 'Humans of New York' a Very Personal Hospital Story

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Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC’s  “Good Morning America,” recently opened up to “Humans of New York” (HONY) about her time undergoing treatment for cancer.

The TV personality was diagnosed in the past with two life-threatening illnesses — first breast cancer and then a rare blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome. During her treatment, there was a time when Roberts was in so much pain that she began to slip away. Then, something happened to bring her back.

“Before my bone marrow transplant, I had to have my immune system completely wiped out with chemotherapy. I went into...

Posted by Humans of New York on Sunday, October 11, 2015

 

Before my bone marrow transplant, I had to have my immune system completely wiped out with chemotherapy,” Roberts told HONY. “I went into the hospital thinking that I was going to do a lot of reading and watch old movies and catch up on work. One thing that I didn’t fully anticipate was the isolation that I’d feel. I knew I’d be physically isolated. The doctors and nurses wore masks so all I could see were their eyes. And nobody touched me unless they were administering medicine. But the pain and weakness brought me to a place where I felt completely alone. I got so weak that I couldn’t even formulate a thought. I dropped to 115 pounds. The pain got so bad that I felt like I’d swallowed a blowtorch. At one point I actually gave up. I made everyone leave my room, even my partner, and I started slipping away. I hallucinated my mother’s voice calling my name. I heard it very distinctly. But when I opened my eyes– it was my nurse Jenny that was calling me. At the point of my greatest isolation, it was almost as if my mother used Jenny’s voice to call me back.”

Roberts first took a leave of absence from GMA in September 2012 to undergo treatment for her diseases. She made her triumphant return to the show in January 2013.

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What I Want to Tell the Woman Just Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

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One of my friend’s friends was just diagnosed with breast cancer. She is a young mom. too. I was trying to think about my first days of diagnosis. What did I need to hear? What did I need to know?

First, I would say this: “You are going to be OK.” I would scream it. “YOU ARE GOING TO BE OK.” I would tell her to make it her mantra. “I am going to be OK… I am going to be OK.”

Is it true? Of course it is. It has to be. I still tell myself this: “I am going to be OK.”

I would tell her that the unbearable sadness, confusion, darkness and the constant feelings of panic won’t last. They can’t. That amount of misery is not sustainable. It feels like it will never lift. People tell you it will, but you don’t believe them. You just numbly nod your head. I remember bawling in the car to my dad the day after I got the call. I remember saying, “My biggest fear is that I will never be happy again. What if I am never happy again? ” My dad cried, too. He didn’t say much. What could he say? What can you promise?

I would promise her. You will be happy again. Is this true? Of course it is. It has to be.

I would tell her to find a doctor she trusted. A doctor who looked her in the eye and made her feel like a woman, a mother, a person, not a statistic. A doctor who could tell her the latest research and information about the disease. A doctor who offered a solid plan, and hope.

And then I would make her promise, make her swear, make her give me her word — that she would never, ever Google breast cancer. Never ever. Those are facts and statistics, and stories about other women. Not about her. Not about her body, her cancer, her story. When you have a question, a fear, a worry, a wonder, a need —  call your doctor. Do not use Google as your Magic 8 Ball. It doesn’t know how your story goes. Say a prayer. Call a friend. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Break a dish. Scream “F*ck!” and hit your pillow. But never, ever Google it.

I would tell her that it is all going to hurt. That your body will not feel like your own. That you will feel broken, and alone, and scared. That you will envy the other women in the grocery store talking on their cell phones and feeding their kids bananas in the cart, with their soft hair swooped up into messy buns. You will envy them, because you know exactly what that ease and normalcy feel like. You will remember, sort of, what it feels like to walk so lightly through your day. You will envy the people who so kindly offer to take your kids so you can rest. You will hear them laughing with your children, and you will cry softly so they don’t hear. You will cry a lot. Sometimes it will be a gentle cry. A peaceful cry. A cry that shows that you are surrendering to this journey. And sometimes it will be an ugly cry, an angry cry. A cry that shows that you hate this journey. A cry that asks why, why, why?

I would tell her to seek out professional help. Go talk to someone who can guide you through your emotions. To someone who will say, “Of course you feel that way.” To someone who will let you accept and own the full range of your emotions. My husband and I got help. Our feelings were validated, we felt heard, and seen. We were given the tools we needed to process each step of the journey.

I would tell her to be vulnerable. I would tell her that the real strength people love to praise is really the strength to show your weakness. To be open, to be a mess, to be scared, and broken, and real. No one needs you to pretend. People will be drawn to your brokenness. There is an unspeakable beauty there. A power that pulls out the best in others. That brings strangers to your aide. That leaves you in awe at the kindness in the world. I would tell her that she will learn the goodness of people if she allows herself to need them.

I would tell her that all attempts to numb the pain are fruitless. That it is easier to feel it all, then to fight it. I would tell her about the metaphor my dad always reminds me of: Life is a river. It is moving and flowing. You can’t cling on to the rock with fear about the rapids. You will get tired and weak. You have to let go. Give in to the current. You will tumble, and fall, and get smashed into rocks by the rapids. And then you will find peace. There are smooth spaces of the river lined with trees, and you will float gently with sunshine on your face. I would tell her to let go.

I wouldn’t ask her about her religion. I wouldn’t say any of the canned phrases people say. I would just squeeze her hand, and say a silent prayer. And hope that she sees God, and feels God, in all of the love that will surround her. I would pray that she would notice the tiny light inside of her that will refuse to go out no matter what setbacks come her way. I would just squeeze her hand. And say a silent prayer.

My stomach would hurt for her. I might cry.

But I would take her hand and squeeze it. I would tell her, “You are going to be OK.”

I would listen to her without judgment and hope that she notices that my hair is growing back. Hope that she remembers that spring always follows winter. Hope that she believes.

Follow this journey on Cancer Made Me Do It.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What do you wish you had found on Google when you were first diagnosed? Find out how to email us a story submission here.

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mother's hand holding baby's hand

A Letter to My 1-Year-Old Son on My Cancerversary

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This is hard to talk about with you. Not because it’s a secret or it’s shameful, but because I don’t really know what to say. Someday, though, I know you’ll ask, and when you do, I want to be ready to explain it all to you the best I can.

My body is different than other women’s bodies. Where other women have two breasts and two nipples, you’ll see I have just one breast and one nipple. On the other side I have a smooth nippleless bump with a faint scar. We call it a “foob,” and you know what? It’s OK to giggle when you say it. It’s meant to be just a little bit silly. 

You should know that five years ago I was very sick. More sick than a cold or flu. A lot of doctors had to work hard to help me get better. It’s important for you to know that yes, I’m all better now. The sickness I had is called cancer, and while everyone who is sick with cancer has different medicine and treatments, in order for me to get better, my breast had to be removed. In its place, the doctors put in my foob. My foob is sort of like a thick water balloon that looks like a real breast so most people don’t even know it’s there.

In the year since you’ve been born, you’ve learned so much. Each day you show us your excitement, frustration, anticipation, silliness, sadness and utter absolute joy. I know, and someday you will also know, that with all the happy things that happen in our lives, there are sometimes sad things, too.

It’s hard for your dad and me to admit that we can’t protect you from everything awful in this life, and to tell you that we can would be a lie. I also can’t promise that cancer will never again come into the warm walls of our home again because to say that would also be a lie.

I fear for the day you will feel anguish, devastation, loss and grief. It’s inevitable, but I hope that day is many, many days away. Years away. I hope when those feelings are thrust upon you in the hardest moments of your life, you’ll remember my words today.

Like the hardest things in this life, it’s OK if you don’t really understand yet. Actually, I don’t even know if I fully understand yet, either. Even though we may not talk about my cancer very often, you can ask your dad or me questions about it whenever you need to — we will answer those questions.

mother's hand holding baby's hand

It’s important for you to know that sometimes people get sick for no reason, and it’s not because of anything they did, and it’s not because of anything you did, either. Sometimes it just happens, and it’s no one’s fault.

It’s important for you to know that sometimes people die from cancer. Maybe you already knew this, and I don’t want to scare you. I just want to make sure you understand that even though I’m all better now, cancer is very scary, and sometimes people aren’t able to get better.

It’s important for you to know that if your dad or I or anyone else we love is sick with cancer, we will all work as hard as we can to help them feel better. If that ever happens, you can ask us as many questions as you need to — we will answer those questions. It’s OK to cry, and it’s OK to laugh because both are important and both are healthy.

It’s important for you to know that I think the world of you. In the year your dad and I have known you, we can already see you’re a comic like your dad and you’re headstrong like me. These traits will serve you well throughout your life. Stay silly, stay determined.

It’s important for you to know that when sad things happen in our family, we will all come together to help one another. While we can’t protect you from everything bad in this world, we will love you each and every day. When those bad and scary moments happen in your life, I hope you remember that we love you so very, very much.   

You may hear people use the term “cancer survivor.” You should know that your mom is a “breast cancer survivor.” When I was sick with cancer, I discovered that I am strong and I am resilient. I am braver than I ever realized. Even though you may not know it yet, so are you. Today, tomorrow and every day that we are together, we will celebrate our lives. We will celebrate that we are together.

Love Always,

Your Mom

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