My mom was given a break from chemo three months ago. Her tumor markers were low–single digits–and had been for sometime. Her oncologist finally said, You know what, we’re going to give you a break from chemo. The numbers aren’t moving, so we may as well give your body a break. She was wary; she thought the moment she stopped chemo, the cancer would start growing again.
However, once the break started, and once she was reminded that this is the point of chemo–to get rid of cancer as much as possible so that you can stop taking chemo–she embraced it.
She gardened, she cleaned, she shopped, and she rode with me to Massachusetts and stayed with me for two weeks. (And we shopped and ate and shopped. It was great.)
When she left, I knew my brother would be visiting her within a week after getting back to Ohio, so I knew she would be entertained and not too sad about not being with me anymore (though we were both sad to be by ourselves after being together for so long).
My brother texted me this morning to say they were getting ready to go see mom’s oncologist for her three month update. I had totally forgotten that appointment was today.
I know loss and fear are are integral parts of the human experience, along with, of course, joy, happiness, love, anger. There is no way to avoid loss and fear, and there is no way to only experience joy, happiness, love. Being alive means constantly navigating the waves of these emotions, and knowing, as Buddha says, that none of them lasts forever.
So, I received my brother’s text and replied, then immediately felt like I had to put something out to the universe. Something to help mom as she approached this appointment. I am not a particularly religious person; my prayer tends to be one of gratitude directed out towards the universe, in general. But whenever I get to this kind of point in my path, my first instinct is to pray for things to be okay.
I remember, distinctly, lying in bed and saying prayers as a child, and repeating over and over “please let my mom be okay.please let my dad be okay; please let me grandma be okay. please let them live a long time; please let them know I love them.” I would say this over and over as if the number of times I said it increased the chances of it happening. (Side note: I also think, as I look back on my life and early adulthood, there is evidence of very mild obsessive/compulsive behavior, and eventually I’d like to write a post considering what it means to grow up at a time/in an environment where that behavior was viewed as voluntary and not compulsory. There was no diagnosing it; there was only the instruction to stop it. But I digress.)
Even as an adult in my late 20s, when my dad was living and dying with cancer and I was hundreds and hundreds of miles away, I would pray at night, “please let him have one more day. please please please.” And he did, and I got to spend the last 30 days of his life right next to him. But that had nothing to do with my prayer. The prayer was to make me feel like I was doing something.
And today, I received the text, and I thought I need to pray that the cancer didn’t come back. I need to ask god, the universe, anyone who’s listening to please let the numbers be low. But that’s not how prayer works. And I know it. You cannot ask for things to be different than how they are. Reality is reality and there is no altering it from moment to moment with entreaties to god. And when I acknowledge that, and remind myself, it is a fool’s errand to pray that something be different than it is, I come back to the wish for strength. Please let me be strong enough to handle the news. Please let my mom be strong enough to handle the news.
I changed my thoughts, my prayers, my wishes to that, and though it doesn’t satisfy the initial desire to drop to my knees and bargain with god, it helps center me nonetheless. I felt a bit sturdier. I reminded myself of the great time we just had together, a photo of her drinking a big ol’ margarita hanging on my refrigerator. I adore that woman, but we will not be here together forever. That is just a fact. I can barely think it without getting choked up, but it’s fact.
I first learned about my dad’s cancer due to call I received from my grandma. She left a message suggesting I call and talk to my dad. My stomach knotted and my skin felt prickly. I knew something weird was going on. When I called, he said, “I’ve got cancer, kid.” I started crying. And I’ll never forget one of the first things out of his mouth when I started crying was telling me we’d had 27 great years together, and to not be sad. I cried harder.
But he was right. He died when I was 30, and we had 30 great, great years together. Some kids don’t get as many. And my mom and I have had 40 great years together. And I hope to have 40 more (though I can hear mom say No Way to that many more years…she’s bit achey from all these years of chemo, and while she doesn’t want to go anytime soon, she also says she doesn’t want to be hanging around and in pain for years on end.)
I was at the office when I received the next few texts from my brother. When I saw it was him, my heart flipped. I knew they held the news I’d been waiting for yet afraid to hear. And then he said her numbers had only gone up a bit! They planned to let her stay off chemo for another three months. I was elated. That’s the complicating element in these health dramas… you’re filled with dread and nerves while waiting for the news, to the point of nausea, and when the news comes and it’s good, you feel giddy with relief.
And so three more months without chemo for madre. I am so, so happy, though I know we’ll all be going through this again three months from now. But for today, we’re all happy. I texted her how happy I was that her numbers were low. She texted back, me too, can you believe it?!!! We went to celebrate and have dinner. I had a sangria!
I told her she should have had several.