I remember her at Christmas because she wanted to make it to one last Christmas.
“For the children,” she said. I nodded, and I didn’t disagree. I knew she was hoping for the unlikely, but I knew I would have done the same. My own prayer as a young mother was to see my children grow up.
As an oncology care coordinator, I work with cancer patients, addressing their symptoms, both physical and emotional. Young mothers are the hardest to care for, the most difficult to console. They understand in a special way what it is they leave behind. There is something painfully wrong about watching a mother realize she will not be there for her children. That all the things she hoped to see them do, she will miss. The list of missed things is endless. Her list was endless.
She had three daughters. I have three sons. We laughed about boys making boy noises and bathroom humor, while girls fussed and whined in a way that only girls can. We came from diverse backgrounds but shared the culture of motherhood. We smiled over stories about our children, the similarities and differences. Then I’d say, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I went home while she stayed in the hospital.
Her immune system was shot. Her pain waxed and waned, but it never left. Too sick to go home, she had to wait and hope that the latest chemo might do the trick. But she was too debilitated to start treatment. At her age, 38 years old, the likelihood was that she would recover enough, just enough, to try more chemo. She said she didn’t really want to. She was certain more chemo wouldn’t help. More nausea and fatigue were not appealing. But then she thought about her kids. “What’s a mother to do?” she said and laughed. We’d said those words to each other in recounting a struggle with one of our kids.
I met her during one of her first hospitalizations. By then, her prognosis was already dire. She was well into her second line of treatment, but she remained upbeat. Even with nausea and other symptoms, she would be sitting up in bed crocheting when I checked on her, the colorful yarn spread out across her lap. She wore a hat she’d crocheted herself. “If I can’t have my own hair, at least I’ll have my own hat.” She was making matching hats for her girls. “They’ll look so cute in them.”
Sometimes, instead of crocheting, she’d be at work on her laptop, logged on to Facebook so she could stay in touch with friends. She taught me how to get onto Facebook, “Then we can be Facebook friends.” She hated the boredom of the hospital, always wishing she were somewhere else. “I want to be back in the drop-off lane at school, listening to my girls complaining about homework.”
Her husband wanted her to keep fighting, to keep her spirits up. He said, “You never know what new drug might be coming out. Just hold on a little longer.” Behind the false light of her too bright smile, I saw that she couldn’t fight him any more than she could fight the cancer. Backed into a corner like a boxer, she faced her adversaries. There were two of them. On the right was her husband. He loved her too much to even consider losing her. He’d spend each hospitalization rallying her into another stand. One last stand, again and again. On her left was the cancer. It wanted her too much to let go. It had taken over her ovaries and filled her pelvis with itself. She was being devoured by it.