What matters to me now

“Do you want to see it?” Mom asks. When I nod, she unhooks her bra and shows me the incision where her doctor performed a lumpectomy, removing a tumor the size of a sesame seed. “It’s beautiful,” I say, referring to the breast—not the two-inch scar curving around the bottom, though there’s artistry in that, too.

A few minutes later, when she’s dressed and we’re sitting on the sofa–Mom with the little thermos of coffee she always brings along, me with my English Breakfast tea–she tells me, “They found more.”

I’d been thinking it was over, that the nightmare that had started a month earlier, when Mom called me at the office to say, “I have breast cancer,” would now be swept away, into the dusty pile where my family stores its memories. Instead, I’m holding onto her, blinking back tears as a rip-tide of terror and tenderness crashes through the room.

As Mom leaves, with promises to keep me informed, my own breast starts to ache.  I catch myself rubbing it from time to time all day–a bruise of love I use to feel connected to her.

That moment, and the mastectomy and recovery which followed, happened more than ten years ago. Six months later we celebrated my son’s Bar Mitzvah. Three days after that… 9/11/2001. Six years later, my mother had open heart surgery.

I don’t exactly divide my life into before Mom’s cancer and after, but I could. Before Mom’s cancer, I treated the whole dreaded business – of life-threatening illness – with a “don’t-mess-with-me, I-wont-mess-with-you” approach. “Cancer doesn’t scare me,” I’d swagger. “I eat organic food, do yoga, and anyway, cancer’s all about state of mind. I’m not a cancer kind of person.” When I came across a cancer story in a magazine, I’d turn the page. If it came up in conversation, I’d change the subject. Baseline mammogram? Not for me! It wasn’t that I felt immune to cancer, I alternated between being above it, living in a completely different universe; and, if it happened to show up, being allergic to it.

But I work for a women’s magazine and it’s my job to write the stories I’m assigned. That year, I started writing cancer stories. I interviewed the mother of a 12-year-old boy who’d battled leukemia and won. I spoke with a woman who’d survived a brain tumor, and a heroic firefighter with cancer in the muscles of his shoulder who was still uncertain of his prognosis. As we talked, I started to absorb the peculiar language of cancer—needle biopsy, sarcoma, metastatic, lumpectomy, melanoma—and entered the world of hospital corridors, anxious nights, tests, surgery, hope and terror that is cancer today.

Some of what they shared made me cringe–radiation burns, infected chemo ports, nausea. Some of it was breathtakingly beautiful–the teenage son who’d shaved his head when his mom lost her hair to chemotherapy; the coworkers who’d donned baseball caps and declared it “Hat Day” when their chemo-bald colleague returned to work; the husband who’d switched his hours to the graveyard shift so he could sit beside his wife for every treatment, telling her jokes, singing to her, holding her hand.

I started to notice that in each of their stories, there was a moment when they’d made a choice—and something had changed. “I felt free,” one woman told me. “And clearer than I’d ever been. Suddenly, I knew who I was, deep down. I knew what really mattered to me. And I knew that if I beat the cancer, things were going to change.”

They gave up meat, took up jogging, left toxic relationships, risked forgiving old hurts. They fell in love or told the truth about needing help. They quit dead-end jobs. They started businesses. None claimed the changes in lifestyle or attitude had healed the cancer. All said, that having cancer—while terrifying—had been only part of the challenge. Through them, I came to understand that cancer might very well be a signal of a deeper “dis-ease.”

Then, I got that call from Mom and, for a while, I was too busy juggling my job, family and being there for her to notice that because of the stories that had been shared with me, because I’d witnessed a bit of the human side of cancer, I was able to walk those hospital corridors myself, understand what my mother’s doctors were telling us, or just sit by the side of her bed, holding her hand, without fear. Their stories helped me—and my family—through the most challenging thing we’d ever faced together. Then, they helped me find the unexpected gifts of Mom’s cancer. Cancer posed my family—and the people in the stories I’d written—a challenge.

We’d been drifting apart—Mom’s cancer brought us closer.  For years, we’d had trouble doing even the simplest things—like picking up the phone—for each other. Part of it was shyness, not wanting to intrude on each other’s busy lives. All of it, I’m certain, was fear of what being closer could do to us—take our precious time, suck away our autonomy, make us (God forbid) obligated in some way. Mom’s cancer forced us to get over ourselves and do what was needed—stay in touch, show up, make clear decisions–freely and with love.

No one really knows what causes cancer—a gene, dumb luck, our toxic world? What we do know is this: In the heart of every darkness, there is light, trapped and pulsing, calling out to those affected by it to awaken, to take firm hold of their lives and make choices—choices toward health, toward wholeness, toward love.

Mom’s cancer asked me: How can you be a more loving daughter, a more present wife and mother, a truer friend? It dug deep under my skin, querying: What matters to you now? The answers came up thick and sludgy as crude oil, from a long-ago-buried underground sea. As they came – and kept coming – something deep inside of me stirred, and began to fight back. A part of my soul was hiding – but now it emerged fierce and certain. Love each moment you are given, it whispers. Whether you are doing the laundry, driving to work or climbing into bed. Argue less—appreciate more.

That’s what Mom’s cancer taught me—that life is rich and fragile and precious and that the most important thing I can do with my time is to use it to find the gift in each day.

(Originally published in 2008)

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