The Things That Matter

I have not always fully appreciated my parents.  In my younger days, even though I loved and respected my mother and father, there were times when my immaturity and inexperience led me to believe that I possessed some greater knowledge than my parents did, that somehow their lack of expertise in technology, their entirely different tastes in music and movies from mine, and the fact that they hadn’t learned Calculus, functioned as a sort of barrier, emphasizing the difference in age, in interests, in taste, making me feel as though my parents, for all their good qualities and as much as I loved them, would never understand me.

I knew even then that those were the kinds of thoughts that all teenagers have; I had heard, like every other teenager, the clichéd statements about kids thinking they know more than their parents or that their parents couldn’t possibly understand them, and of how young, inexperienced people always assume they are the exceptions, not the rule.  I had heard them all, and, of course, I was absolutely convinced that I was an exception – in my case, it really was true; my parents had me late in life and they really were out of the loop; the generation gap seemed simply impassable.

I had always considered myself a fast learner.  In school I always picked up quickly on new concepts.  Some things, however – the things that matter – may take a bit longer to catch on to. 

This is a story of me growing up – something that, I’m ashamed to admit, has really only happened lately, in spite of the fact that I’m now almost 24 years old.  I am even more ashamed to admit that it took my mom getting cancer for the second time before the lesson really sank in. 

My mom got cancer for the first time when I was ten years old.  I don’t remember much of the experience.  What I do remember is the feeling of terror that kept me awake at night, not out of concern that my mother might die (that possibility never fully occurred to me), but out of a realization of my own mortality, of the possibility of death in general.  Intellectually, I knew that my mother could die, but I believed she wouldn’t.  The fear came from seeing the possibility of death so closely, seeing it appear so suddenly, and realizing that it could happen to anyone, even to a ten-year old, at any moment.

Late one night I crawled out of bed, terrified, and made my way to the living room, where the dim light from the television flickered gently on the wall and the on-screen voices murmured softly.  My mom was still awake, sitting on the couch, and I sought her comfort, climbing into her lap.  She put her arms around me.

“I’m scared,” I said.

“I know,” she answered, hugging me, “but don’t worry; everything will be alright.  God will take care of things; I will be okay.”

I remember feeling comforted by the simplicity of her answer, by her calm faith in the stability of life: Everything will be alright.  God will take care of things. 

I didn’t tell her my fear was for more than her life, that I feared for my own life, for everyone’s, for the sheer possibility of death at any moment to anyone I might care about.  Her expression of assurance was enough to take the edge off my fear, and after sitting with her a few moments, I returned to bed, praying for God to protect and watch over us as I drifted to sleep.

That time they had caught the cancer early; they were able to remove the lump from her breast with a biopsy.  The cancer hadn’t spread.  My mother remained calm throughout the pre-op preparations, calm before going under anesthesia, calm after the surgery.  She remained calm as they informed her she would need radiation therapy for the next few months in order to ensure the cancer wouldn’t return.  She remained calm, in fact, until well into the series of radiation, when the stress to her body and mind began to wear on her.  Her spirits began to fall some then.  She spent a lot of time in bed; she cried often – yet somehow, she made it through alright, and before long her spirit of calm optimism came back to her, she finished her radiation therapy, and returned to work full-time.

She went nearly thirteen years cancer-free, far beyond the five years the doctors gave her as the “safe” margin.  Then, in November of this year, another lump appeared.

This time, things were different.  The cancer had been found farther along, and the doctors’ speed in moving her from appointment to appointment with specialists and consultants was alarming.  Within a week of having discovered the lump, my mother was scheduled for a biopsy and a probable mastectomy.

This time, I saw things as an adult rather than a child.  It never occurred to me, at ten years old, how much of the experience my parents must have shielded me from.  This time, however, I was there for the whole process.  I talked with mom as the doctors hurried her through the emotional ups-and-downs of deciding the lump was cancerous and that surgery was required.  I accompanied Mom and Dad to the hospital on the day of her biopsy, and I was there when the surgeons had her sign the release for the mastectomy, which they would complete while she was on the table for the biopsy if the lump proved cancerous.  My mother went under anesthesia for that biopsy not knowing whether she would wake up with her breast removed or not, and yet she remained calm, content, willing to accept whatever outcome was provided her.

This time, I felt fear in a different way, not out of selfish concern for my own mortality, but out of concern for the pain she would be going through.  I rode the elevator to the surgery wing with my father, aunt, and grandmother to hear the report from the biopsy.  I carefully noted the details, knowing that Dad would be too stressed to remember them later – right mastectomy, an aggressive type of cancer, testing the lymph nodes to see if it has spread.  I rode down the elevator with my father, listening to my aunt and grandmother repeat the surgeon’s words;  I stood in the hospital lobby as my father hugged me, crying, as he told me he was scared not for my mother’s life but for her suffering, the pain of the surgery, the loss of her breast, the emotional and physical recovery ahead for her.  I felt the love of my mother’s friends as they came to sit with us in the hospital lobby, waiting for her to come out of surgery, as they ate with us in the hospital cafeteria, as they brought flowers and cards to her room and sat to talk with her beside her bed.

And then came another struggle – the cancer, though it hadn’t spread, was aggressive, and likely to return.  The doctors recommended chemotherapy; without it, they said, the cancer could come back, untreatable, within five years.

This time, I saw the process from the inside.  I talked with Mom as she made the decision to go ahead with the chemotherapy, even though the doctors said it couldn’t guarantee that the cancer wouldn’t return.  I discussed the possibilities with her, the pros and cons, and she listened to my input; I talked with her not as a child, but as an adult, a friend, an equal.  I ached for her as she considered the side effects – nausea, fatigue… hair loss.  The nausea and fatigue were preventable, they make medications for those now, but the hair loss was unavoidable.  “That’s okay,” she said with a smile, “at least I won’t have to worry about my hair getting messed up anymore.”

My mother has now been in chemotherapy for almost four months.  She has lost all of her hair, and due to complications with her white blood cell count, she has had to take daily injections which make her whole body ache.  The day her hair began to fall out, in clumps, scattered across the floor, someone sent her flowers.  She cried when she got them, only for a moment, and then apologized. 

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’ve been trying to be strong; but I guess it just finally got to me.”

My father and I looked at her in astonishment. 

“You’ve been very strong,” my father said. 

I tried to find words to say something helpful, but all I could manage was an agreement: “Yes, you have been very strong.”

It’s a funny thing, growing up, because it happens sometimes when you least expect it.  Seeing my mom battle cancer for a second time has made me realize that my parents are stronger and braver than I ever knew.  My mom’s unfailing optimism has shown me a new side of her, one that I somehow didn’t really pay attention to the first time around.  I used to think that my parents just didn’t understand me, that their experiences were too different than mine, that their generation just couldn’t really understand what it was like to be growing up in today’s world. 

But now, I realize that what I perceived as a lack of understanding on their part was really just a lack of understanding on mine – taste in music, what’s learned in school, an affinity for technology – those things don’t matter.  Watching my parents, I have learned so much about dealing with life, and pain, and fear.  Seeing this experience for the second time, I feel as if I’ve finally grown up.  The petty differences I used to have with my parents just don’t seem to matter anymore, because I see now that there are much more important things, and that my parents have more to offer me on lessons of life than I ever realized before.  Love, empathy, courage, and calm confidence when life as you know it is crumbling around you – those are the things that matter.

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