My mom having cancer and then eventually dying from it has been the dominating story line of my life. It got me to where I am, which isn’t so bad, but it’s also done some damage that led me to my stuck place in life and I’m just now open to seeing it. My mom was diagnosed on my tenth birthday, just under two years after my parents had divorced. She battled cancer for the next ten years until the end of my sophomore year in college when she finally called me one day in April and told me she was tired of fighting. Three weeks later I had her funeral and went into the whirlwind of post death as a 19-year-old.
For the almost 10 years between diagnosis and death, we lived our life 3 months at a time. Everything happened between doctor appointments and scans to see if whatever they did that time worked or they needed a new plan. I could tell a million stories about this time in my life, but as a grown up with my own family now, I know there are a few big things I need to sort out to find my path to happiness and true contribution to the people around me.
I’m not strong, you’re strong.
When your family goes through something traumatic and you continue to be a functioning kid who participates in activities, gets good grades, has plenty of friends, and seems to live adolescent life without a handicap, you get this fun thing where people tell you what you are. In my case, everyone I knew told me I was strong. So, I grew up thinking this was my thing. I’m Lauren, I’m strong. I should get a tee shirt. Maybe I was strong based on other people’s perception of my circumstances, but I was just doing my best to cope. My mom got so much attention and help that I figured out if I put on the front that everything was okay with me and I could handle what life had dealt us, then everyone would leave me alone. When I was left alone, then I had a reprieve from the cancer life. Now that I’m an adult and figured out that I’m not strong at all, but that’s how I come off when I’m avoiding dealing with actual issues in my life, I can dig into what is actually going on and work to overcome it. Living with this false identity shaped a lot of my major life decisions. I always felt like everything around me was a little foreign and now I know it’s because I was filtering my decisions and life through a false lens of who I was and what I really needed. Now its time to make better decisions for who I really am and what I need to be my best self.
Cancer treatments suck. The best the world has come up with is mixing the most toxic poisons together and killing everything in your body in the hopes that the cancer cells die before you do. That means that life is super shitty while you’re being poisoned. I learned quickly to hunker down, hold my breath, and wait until it’s over. As a kid, watching my mom be physically and mentally pushed to her limits was really horrible. Closing my eyes until it was over or distracting myself with other teenage things was much easier. I placed importance on things that didn’t matter and lost a tremendous amount of time getting to know and learn from my mom. This is a shitty way to live life and now as a mom myself, I’ve discovered periods of time where I did the same thing instead of really being in the moment and dealing with what was in front of me. Having infants was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I knew the end goal was a family unit and people to love, but that infant stage almost put me over the edge. I hunkered down and powered through and it was four years later that I had two small kids with almost no memory of their early years, a ghost of a marriage, and a shell of who I was. That coping mechanism sucks!
If I could go back, I would stay in the moment with her. Her physical appearance was always challenged, but who she was as a person never was. My biggest regret was not being vulnerable enough to let her help me. I thought that she needed all that strength to help herself, but I know that wasn’t the case. She shouldn’t have lived as long as she did. Her sheer will kept her in the fight and I know she did it for me. Two months before she told me she was tired of fighting, her doctor called me while I was at school and told me there was nothing more they could do for her but that he wasn’t going to tell her yet. Over the next two months, our phone calls gave me a chance to let her know that I was okay. I had set up summer classes and wouldn’t need to move home in the summer since I was paying for my apartment anyway. I had picked a major and wanted to get ahead. I was smart and independent, and I was going to be fine. I know that gave her the confidence to finally let go. I thought I was protecting her all of that time but being vulnerable would’ve gotten us both a lot more of the good stuff. I missed it with her, but I constantly work on it now.
It’s not about me.
The last big thing I finally learned about this dominating story line of my life is that I am the queen of selfish. After my mom died, I felt so bad for myself for so long. When I wasn’t feeling bad for myself, I was feeling bad for her. Look at all the things I was missing out on. Look at all the things she would never experience. We were both getting screwed. Being mad at the universe was a waste of time because the universe laughs at your self-pity. Finally, one day it hit me. Yes, my mom’s life was cut short relatively speaking, but when you look at her life, it was a pretty awesome life. By the time she died, most of the important people and events in her life that she cherished were gone. From the stories I know, she lived a great and happy life. I believe she extended it for me because being a mom was so important to her, but her time really was up. Why was I pitying her? Why was I pitying myself? Get over yourself, learn your lessons, and be a better human. Put out into the world instead of living with the expectation that I am owed something. I was given lots of gifts, I just wasn’t seeing them from the right perspective.
My mom has been gone for over 16 years. I’ve almost lived longer without her than with her. In terms of remembering her, its mainly stories I’ve told myself. I can’t hear her voice or remember her smell. I don’t know her enough to know what advice she’d give me. I have no idea how she’d be as a Yia Yia to my kids and all of that seriously sucks. But once in a while, I get her in a dream. She is so close and vivid, and I know I’m on the right path. I let myself feel the feelings, I talk about it now instead of holding it inside. I let people in and try to look at things from a new perspective. It’s not always easy, but I’m sure it’s the right path.