I was doing it again – flexing my hands, touching my fingers to my palms. It’s what I always do when I’m nervous. I sat on my parent’s bedroom floor, my legs shaking as the question repeated itself in my head. I wanted to ask, but I didn’t. I wanted to know the answer, but I didn’t. Dreading the answer, I finally asked her.
“Yes, I have cancer,” my mother said. The year was 2012, and I was fourteen. To hear those five words come out of the mouth of my mother, a person who has been my rock for years, felt like an arrow piercing my heart straight at the center.
“You’re not serious. You’re not serious. You’re not serious,” I repeated. The sun shone from the gaps between the curtains in her room, creating different patterns of light on the soft blue carpet I sat on. I looked up to see tears in her eyes despite her effort to stem them. Her expression was broken; her face grew slack and hollow.
Even before my mother was diagnosed, cancer was a taboo word for me; I hated saying it, thinking it, reading it. An elementary school friend of mine lost her mother to cancer, so I associated the word with certain death. Now, my mom was associated with it, too. I couldn’t handle the thought of cancer stealing my mother from me. I wouldn’t allow it – I couldn’t.
In the weeks to come, however, I came to terms with the word cancer. But then, the questions began to emerge: Why my mom? Why did it have to be cancer instead of any other disease? Out of all people in the universe, why did my mom have one of the most rare forms of cancer? Why did my mom have three tumors in her back? What did Neuroblastoma even mean? Why did my mom have a cancer that only kids are supposed to get? Why did this happen to her? The fact that my mom is a good person is an understatement; she is a mother bear whose sole purpose is to protect her cubs. She cares for my sister and me as if we were a part of her own body – like an extra arm or leg. Someone this nurturing – this loving – does not deserve cancer.
My mom could barely move from the couch; it took immense energy for her to get up to go to the dining table or upstairs to the bedroom. Chemotherapy took enough life out of her to make her miss Halloween last year. For a teenager like myself, it didn’t really matter, but it hurt when my eight-year-old sister did not have a mom to go trick-or-treating with. She was crushed, but my mom was worse – wishing she could have experienced Halloween, just as she had before, with her daughters. And the fact that she barely got to see me go through my freshman year of high school was more painful than the cancer itself.
Immediately after her diagnosis, I spent the summer of 2012 cooped up inside my house with endless amounts of DVDs, only leaving the house to get lunch. My mom was in and out of the hospital for practically the whole time, staying home for a couple weeks at the most, so I was pretty alone. The number of movies I watched was staggering. I took comfort in old Disney classics – The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules – that I used to watch as a kid, trying to bring back some of the ordinariness of my childhood.
Still, nothing is normal anymore. Going up to San Francisco doesn’t mean we’re going to the Golden Gate Bridge or Union Square; we aren’t going to see the Nutcracker or ride the ferry to Sausalito. The reality is that my dad is taking my mom up to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) hospital for blood transfusions or multiple doctor appointments that they have scheduled. We didn’t go to the city last year to see the Christmas tree lights; my dad, sister, and I went to visit my mom at UCSF where she was getting a month-long experimental radiation treatment. I wear the UCSF sweatshirt my dad got me last May with pride; the doctors there are the best my mom could ever have. People ask the usual questions: “Oh, do you want to go there for college? Did your parents graduate from there?” My reply is short and simple, and, with time, it has gotten easier to say: “My mom gets treated there.”
If I were to look up the definition of a “true warrior,” I would see a picture of my mom. This disease beat her into pieces, mentally and physically, but she always tried to fight back. My mom constantly told me that her motivation to fight was her love for my sister and me, which makes her a hero to me. As Zeus says in Hercules, “A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart,” and my mom’s heart was as strong as Zeus himself.
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios