So it’s a little poignant, or so my friends tell me, that the 20th anniversary of my mother’s not-so-graceful telling off of the breast cancer for the last coherent time is in October, breast cancer awareness month. Deathiversary. Geesh. She was never a fan of pink, which is also just slightly amusing in my mind. She left the loud colors and ridiculously obnoxious patterns to me. She left me many other things in her much-too-short time in our small house in Iowa: a superstar work ethic, a love for buying Christmas presents and a doll collection that is so not my style but still sits across from my computer, staring at me daily. But mostly she left me wanting more. I wanted a mom to shop for wedding dresses with. I wanted a mom to drive me crazy by spoiling her grandchildren too much. I wanted a mom to call when I just couldn’t figure out how many eggs go in the meatloaf or how to mend a broken heart. She left me wanting. But the cancer gave.
Cancer gave me a healthy dose of mortality. When you’re in your 20s, nothing is going to happen to you. Only them. And when the doctor wants to start squishing your girls between a few plastic plates for a photo shoot before you’re 30, you shrug it off as a formality. But then you start to wonder. And you start to do the exams. And you start to pay more attention to the changes. And you start to realize, as you are nearing the age of her diagnosis, that she was not quite as old as she seemed when you were fresh out of college and your 40s seemed like an eternity away. And you realize that your health is, indeed, a gift and one that should not be taken for granted. Cancer gave me an awareness. And a bit of an unhealthy addiction to Google diagnostics, but who’s keeping track of how many times I’ve potentially had Malaria or a rare blood disorder, right?
Cancer gave me a backbone. My mom was mine for quite a while. Things not going so well? Call mom. Don’t know how to do something? Call mom. Need to cry about toenail polish? Call mom. Well, when cancer has taken your mom, you figure something else out. Can’t call cancer, either. (Though I did call it a few choice names over the years, for sure. Cancer gave me a whole new list of not-so-witty insults as well.) And so, you cope. You deal. You find other ways to manage. You seek out friends that are not related to you. You become a productive, social member of society.
Cancer gave me a reason to question the fundraising. Yes, it seems nice when everything turns pink in October. We are all aware. Very aware. And it is completely lovely that some who were unaware and are now aware do exams to allow for some early detection. Awareness = good. Financial fundraising? Well, not a lot of it actually goes toward research at all these places. Check it out. It’s a thing. Do your own research before you donate. That is, if you really want your money to help the cause you’re wearing. Or if you just like pink or whatever color it is for that month, go for it. Just know that to make a bigger difference with your PayPal account, you may need to dig a little deeper on that big, informative worldwide web to find a better recipient than a huge organization that takes out more than 80% in administration and marketing fees.
Cancer gave me a dad. Dramatic, no? My dad and I never really bonded much while mom was around. No need, you know? She took care of it all. She really was just about everything a mom could be. And a bit more. And so, when I called the house to talk to mom, if dad answered, we would speak awkwardly for a few obligatory minutes and then gratefully get interrupted by a mom who wanted to tell her daughter how many eggs go in the meatloaf. When she died, I became her. I channeled her organization, and I planned much of her funeral. I wrote the thank you cards. I organized the food that was given to us. And he let me. He leaned on me when he was heartbroken himself over the loss of someone he felt deserved that fate so much less than he did. He let me see him cry for the second time in my young adult life over a woman that he felt he didn’t give enough to. He talked to me. Not out of obligation but out of a desire to connect to something that was lost. For both of us. And it was good. And it continued to be so very good for another couple decades. Cancer gave me my dad.
Cancer gave me my husband. See, I was (shocker to everyone because no one has ever done this) a bit of a sassy young adult who knew much better than my parents on so many things. Because they were so out of touch. With things. Because they were old. And as my mom got sicker and the treatments became more aggressive, more experimental, more demanding of her ability to hold her own in a discussion and tell me I was being an idiot, she grew more quiet. And in the quiet, I heard her. Heard her plea for me to seek out (and let in) a man who would treat me with respect and dignity. A man who would love his family more than his independence. We buried mom on a Tuesday. On Friday, I went to a movie with him. A blind date that I thought was just an attempt to make me feel not so much like the girl whose mom just died but was actually a setup. And mom’s voice was in my head whispering, “This is a good one. Let him in.” Cancer gave me that ear to hear her. He’s still a good one, mom.
Cancer gave me some pretty terrific kids. See, I didn’t get mom encouraging me in the delivery room. No two weeks of her visiting and driving me crazy after they were born, telling me how I should be holding the baby or not holding the baby or feeding the baby or letting the baby cry it out. I relied on my memories of what she did, my own (mostly crummy but apparently not so terrible) instincts and any other resources I could get my hands on. And because she wasn’t there to hold my hand, my kids are the outcome of my choices. A lot of those choices were unfortunate, and I would change some things if I could, but they are also pretty terrific kids. And cancer gave me those “raised by me with what my mama taught me” kids. And I’m not too proud to admit that had my mother still been around, I would have fought her tooth and nail on things. Probably just for the sake of arguing. That’s what mature adults do, right? And I’m fairly certain I would have made many more wrong choices for the wrong reasons. Cancer gave me that discernment to do what mom wanted because her memory whispered those wants in my ear when I chose to listen at a time when I was more interested in honoring her memory than defiantly being more right than she was.
Cancer gave me a lesson in fairness. In that it just ain’t happening some days. My dad used to say, “Sometimes you’re the statue and sometimes you’re the pigeon.” Pigeons named Cancer pack a powerful punch in their poo. And some pretty terrific statues get doused. Fair? That’s just a place you get blue ribbon pies and ride a rickety Ferris Wheel. Beware the pigeons. And probably the rickety Ferris Wheel.
Cancer gave me heartache. I hate cancer for stealing my joy. For taking my mentor, my guide, my therapist, my friend. I hate that she never got to meet her son-in-law. I hate that what would have brought her more joy than probably even her own children – her grandchildren – never got to be spoiled rotten by her. I hate that I feel like I was robbed of a mother long before I was ready to let her go. Long before I was done needing her. And yet, cancer has given me hope. Hope that while things here aren’t always going to be fixed with a phone call to mom, things here also aren’t always as bad as they seem. And while that hole doesn’t get filled by that phone call, it does get a few detours built around it, detours that have made me a stronger, better, wiser, more independent woman. And for that, I don’t thank cancer, but I will concede that it gave me a lot despite taking so very much.