How can there ever be a silver lining to fighting a deadly illness? There can’t be, right?
These were the questions swirling somewhere in the back of my mind that cold November when my always healthy and strong mom was very unexpectedly diagnosed with stage three cancer. I was trying to make sense of it all. I was searching, frantically searching, to find some possible reason that this was happening. I felt compelled to do this because I had lost close loved ones to cancer before and I knew the hurricane that was about to come. The tsunami tidal wave that was about to ravage our family with worry, fears and “what if’s.” After my mother had major surgery she was prescribed six months of weekly chemotherapy treatments. Overnight, like so many other families in this situation, our lives had entirely changed and this new and terrifying “normal” began.
Each day I was on the phone with my mother’s doctors and nurses coordinating her care and each weekend I would wake up early and drive up from the city to see her. Trying desperately to get there in the snow, sleet and miserable East Coast winter, always praying the weather didn't prevent me from being able to drive there.
Anyone who has cared for a sick parent knows the shock you feel when the once strong, vital, unstoppable force of your loved one is now ill. When I would see her sick in bed, it was always a shock to my system. Every time.
I would help her in those days by bringing lunch, cleaning up, doing some laundry, going to the store for her, but often I would just sit in bed with her, talking, watching TV and just being there. I was usually consumed in my head with worry, what the next scan will show and what was going to happen to my mom.
But as we trudged along in this new routine, something ever so slightly began to sink in. It first came to me one night, unexpectedly, as we were watching reruns of our favorite show, The Big Bang Theory. We were laughing and commenting on the show when it just hit me. The last time I had gotten a chance to sit with my mom and just lounge around was when I was in high school. Life had taken hold since then and with college and graduate school and living in different cities, and then becoming a mother and wife, those simpler days had passed. My mom was also incredibly busy, she owned a popular restaurant and worked more hours in a day then I could ever imagine. Uninterrupted time together became fragmented. We were always very close and had our daily phone calls and regular visits, but what we didn’t have was large chunks of time to just be. We never got to sit around and just do this, the restaurant needed their chef and owner, my kids needed their mommy and so time was fluid, it floated past us.
And at that moment a little silver, just a little, sunk in.
Ok, so maybe this isn’t exactly a silver lining per se, but these were special moments we would otherwise not have been able to have. Cancer made us sit still. Literally.
Chemotherapy, as we all know, can have numerous miserable side effects. Extreme nausea, pain, vomiting, hair loss, dental problems and so much more. It can also cause intense bone pain that my mother would experience in her feet. During those times, I would give my mom a foot message as she rested. There was something about trying to ease her pain and being able to be in the caregiver role for her, for once, that caught my attention another day. Another sighting of some silver. During this whole ordeal I had finally gotten the chance to take care of my mom after she had cared for me for so many years. While it was definitely not under the circumstances that I wanted. I was always thinking more along the lines of wanting to buy my mom a winter house somewhere very warm, but okay, if this is what it is right now, then I will take it. These days I will take whatever silver I can find. And being in the position to care for her and ease her burden, so she could just focus on getting stronger was something I was very grateful to be able to do.
As we kept going through this chemotherapy process, my mom began to come back to herself. It was a slow, daunting process, but little by little, (as if we were singing that song we all learned back in Kindergarten "inch by inch, day by day, and little by little you're there”- anyone remember that?). Well, we were living that. She began to eat a little more, get out of the house for a little bit of time, take a walk outside and spend time in her beautiful garden. It was like a beautiful flower growing back in the spring. One day I called her and she sounded out of breath, “Mom, what’s wrong” I asked, instantly alarmed. “Nothing, sweetie, I am on the treadmill, the doctor said I can use it now, let me call you back.” And there it was, my vibrant mom, still going through chemo, but ready for her morning workout.
We were incredibly blessed that June when we received the news that my mom's scan did not detect any remaining cancer and that her labs and blood work were all normal. Her cancer was in remission. I cried tears of joy. And that was when I got the biggest slab of silver smack dab right in my face. This whole treacherous ordeal had made me realize something. As bad as it was, as evil as cancer is, my mom was doing well at this moment in time and a hope I had never felt before, or maybe deep down had just been to scared to really feel, suddenly crept in.
This hope showed me it was still possible to come back from hell. I had lost many loved ones before to cancer (my father died when I was twenty two) and the sense of despair and the feeling that something tragic can happen to someone you love and that all of it is ultimately beyond your control, can really be devastating. All of the slogans and sayings I had been telling, forcing myself (stay positive, don't give up) to believe these last few months still felt, in some way, a little impossible, but now they were actually happening. My mom was still here.
Maybe life will never go back to what it was before, we will likely never fully recover from this ordeal; like many survivors we will worry about follow up tests, recurrence rates, and all of that stuff for a long time, but, today, in this beautiful moment, my mom is here. I know every family who goes through this ordeal experiences it in a different way, but we are all connected in the human experience of having to face something that can take you or a loved one’s life. In many ways I have now really seen that some faith (and when you really feel tested) still remembering to somehow search for some silver, may be the only way to get through this kind of crises.
Because no matter what happens in the end, even in really painful times, it is the silver lining that gives meaning to these moments. It is the silver, that we force ourselves to find, that helps us survive.
This article was originally published on Sammichespsychmeds.com