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How My Mom's Cancer Surgery Helped Bring Us Closer Together

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The rain immediately soaked us in all its cold glory the second we stepped outside our front door. It was 5:45 on a chilly and wet December morning. As I drove Noelle, my husband, and I to the hospital in my red Mazda, all I could think was how much the weather reflected our woeful moods. My mother was due to have a hysterectomy to remove her cancerous tumor in just a few short hours. The date had been planned months in advance to coincide her recovery with the winter holidays so she wouldn’t miss too much work. Having to wait since the fall for her surgery, knowing full well that the cancer was slowly growing within her, was agonizing.

It took a few anxiety-producing minutes to find parking at the outpatient lot. I remembered just how much I hated hospitals and doctors’ offices as soon as we stepped into the sterile-feeling foyer, the fluorescent lights half blinding us. A few minutes later we were outside a small room where my mom had already been prepped for surgery. As soon as I walked in, I was taken aback by the sterilized nature of it all. My mom’s short brown hair complemented with blonde highlights was tucked neatly in a cap similar to what my grandma used to wear to the shower. Instead of the usual white blanket, my mom was covered in an aluminum foil-type space blanket. Her predictable tight blue jeans and colorful blouse were replaced by a bland hospital gown.

My mom has always been a grounding source in my life. Both of my parents actually. I am not exaggerating when I call my mom the strongest woman I know. No matter what was happening, whether it was me busting my face on a waterfall and having to get stitches or my sister falling down a ladder and spraining her wrist, my mom always remained the same: Calm and cool. It wasn’t until very recently on a humid spring hike I learned that during many of those scary times that inevitably happen when you have two hyperactive kids, my mom was terrified on the inside. She only kept her cool on the outside to help us believe that we weren’t gushing blood or that our limbs weren’t hanging off at odd angles.

It was no surprise as we made awkward conversation while she waited for surgery that she chuckled and joked and quietly rambled about anything and everything that wasn’t the present. I could respect her need to keep a strong face. Despite her honorable efforts, however, it wasn’t hard to look into her eyes and see how she truly felt. Terrified. I couldn’t knock her for that either. Anyone in her position would be scared. It may have been a simple surgery, but as I stood there, we were both silently reminded of the unfavorable outcomes, and the reason I was there to begin with. I had begged my mom for months to let me be there during her surgery, or at the very least drive her. I felt the need to help in any way I could. She declined, I’m sure due mostly to pride, until she didn’t have a choice. Geographically, I was her closest next of kin and since she would be put under, I had to be there. I was the one, at 22, who had to make life-or-death decisions for my mother if the occasion arrived. I was proud to be of such use and to hold so much responsibility, but at the same time quietly prayed I wouldn’t have to exercise my new title.

My mom and I are very similar in all the ways that a mother and child shouldn’t be and not alike in so many ways that a mother and child should be. Sure, we are both creative and love to exercise to unwind and destress. We both like rock music and driving fast. We are also both stubborn, passionate, overly sensitive, short tempered and scattered. We don’t see eye to eye on many issues and the last time we lived together, when I was 18, fought constantly. We argued more like siblings. The disagreements would be anything from cleaning the kitchen to the volume of the TV. As I grew up and matured into my own life and set ways, my mother dug deeper into hers. Our stubbornness and preoccupation with arguing drove a wedge between us that only loosened slightly because of her cancer diagnosis. I was there for her because she was my mother, not because I wanted to be. I didn’t want to regret anything or feel guilty if anything went south, as selfish as that is.

So as my eyes darted between my mother’s anxious eyes and the clock on the wall that seemed to be moving too fast, I started to really feel sorry for her. I started to think about all the times I was to blame for our fighting. I thought of all the times I went weeks without seeing her, despite her living only 20 minutes away. I would make up excuses, too much school, too much work, too tired, etc. I instantly regretted all the times I had not been there for her after my parents’ separation. She had no one. Maybe I was more to blame for the hostile space between us more than her. Even though I was standing by her side, I now regretted all the times I hadn’t been. She was my mother after all.

A short while later, the nurse assistants and surgeon came to do a final check. My mom stayed calm. They went over last checklists and made her recite her birthday and name. They released the brakes on her bed and positioned her toward the door. This was it. This is the last time I would see her pre-op. I went to gently pat her hand, a simple gesture to say you can do this. Instead, she grabbed me forcefully and pulled me in close to her face. She wrapped her other arm around me and hugged tight. I smelled the clean yet nauseating smell of her pillow as I rested my head next to hers. She kissed me on the cheek, and in a voice I have never once heard her use whispered “I love you” into my ear. As she let me go, I stood up to notice just a few tears gliding down her cheeks. As we watched her get wheeled into the elevator, I felt something I hadn’t felt since before I was a teenager. It was only then that I realized just how much anger and resentment I had been holding toward her for the better part of a decade.

The surgery went fine, and we were relieved to hear that most likely all of her cancer was removed. It took hours before she was strong enough for us to go up and see her. Finally, once the nurses felt she was well enough, we were escorted back to another small, sterile room. As I pulled back the curtain partition, I was surprised my mom was asleep. When I walked closer, I was more surprised in the low light to discover dark marks under my mom’s eyelids, and a tiredness in her face I had never seen. I couldn’t help but think that her rest didn’t look so restful. Along with her friend, my husband and I tried to wake her together. It wasn’t working. Whatever painkiller they had put her on post-op had knocked her out cold. As the minutes progressed and our futile efforts were not working, her friend had a new idea. She suggested I try by myself to wake her. I was her kin after all.

Still feeling a bit awkward being so close to my mom, I gently coaxed her to wake up. I lightly shook her shoulder. It wasn’t working. As a last attempt, I grabbed her left hand, holding it between both of mine, I rubbed it and said “Mom, it’s time to wake up.” Her eyes burst open and with a confused yet suddenly comforted look, examined her visitors. We talked to her for a few minutes, again just making small talk. Then my mother stopped and looked directly at me. It was then that I realized I had been holding her hand the entire time. It was also then that I realized I had let go of my pride. I looked into the eyes of a scared, tired woman who had only been strong for her kids and immediately knew. If she could survive cancer and I could stand by her side, then no matter what happened, no matter what resentments or grudges threatened our bond in that room or anywhere, I could let go of my anger, and be there, waiting by her side, always.

Header image via gorodenkoff/Getty Images

Originally published: December 21, 2020
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