I remember the day my heart was broken. It was in the early morning hours of May 12th. Wearing the baggy pink sweatpants I purchased the night before, I sat in a stiff vinyl hospital chair. My body was curled up into a tight little ball and I watched my mother take her last breath. It still infuriates me that the barbaric double-mastectomy wasn’t enough; that her breast cancer had to spread and take her life, too. In some ways, it had taken portions of my life right along with it.
They say you never really get over the loss of a loved one, you just learn to cope with the empty hole that’s left in your heart. I tend to agree. Twelve years have passed and I’m not over it yet. These past twelve years I kept finding myself in scenarios where the empty hole aches its ugly reminder that it’s still here. Some scenarios arrived quickly, like the breast cancer awareness marathon. I signed up intending to walk in celebration of my mom being a breast cancer survivor. Instead, I walked in her memory.
Sometimes, the ache will bubble up when I least expect it. Like the time I was in a dressing room at the local mall. I was stepping in to a pair of jeans when I heard a teenager in the stall next to me arguing with her mom over something trivial. It was more than I could bear. I shut my eyes tightly, willing the bickering to stop. What I would give to be able to have one more day out shopping with my mom! I sobbed silently in the dressing room until they left.
Other times the ache throbbed as expected. I couldn’t celebrate Mother’s Day anymore. I wouldn’t eat her home cooking ever again. Christmas has never been the same. I couldn’t call my Mom when I met my future husband. Walking down the aisle, I couldn’t look over to see her at our wedding. I couldn’t share the joy of purchasing our first home with her and the millions of times in between when I needed her advice, I couldn’t ask.
Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the ache I’ve felt since becoming a mother. When I found out I was pregnant, I was riddled with so many unanswered questions. I had terrible morning sickness; did she struggle with that too? I was scared when my water broke and the contractions began. Was she frightened too?
Looking for answers, I dug through the old cardboard box of mementos my mom had left behind. I pulled out my old baby book and flipped through the yellowed pages. Half was filled with dates and various facts, the remaining blank pages filled only with good intentions. I couldn’t help but chuckle. My daughter’s baby book also had blank pages that I had been meaning to get to until acclimating to life with a baby got the best of me. Even still, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Our infant daughter wailed when she received her first round of vaccines. I cried right along with her and dreaded ever vaccine appointment thereafter. Did my mom cry with me too? As I sifted through the old photographs, I found myself wanting to know more about that snapshot in time. I looked excited for my first day of school, how did my mom feel seeing her baby growing up so quickly?
I resent that breast cancer caused all of these questions and more to remain unanswered. But buried deep in my resentment I also found determination. Cancer may have taken these moments from me, but I refused to ever give it a chance to take the details of these moments away from my daughter too.
I opened my laptop and began writing a blog for her. Each post is a letter to my daughter. I tell her all the things I wish I had the opportunity to talk to my mom about. I tell her how loved she was from the moment we found out I was pregnant with her. I explained that sending her off to her first day of preschool was rough on me and it was a tough day for her too. We could have ended the day accepting it wasn’t the best and would try again tomorrow, except we didn’t. Cancer has taught us that life is too precious to settle. We came home on that rainy first day of preschool, put on our rain boots and went right back out into it. Instead of remembering what a rough day we had, we now remember it as the day we happily splashed through the mud puddles. My letter explains to her that the picture that accompanies it is more than playing in the rain. It’s about finding the good in the not so optimal hand that life has dealt to you. It’s about seizing the opportunity to take a rough day and turning it around into something more meaningful. Without the letter, this message may have been missed.
Anytime I find myself wishing I could ask my mother a question, I use it as inspiration to write a letter to my daughter to answer it for her. She’s too young to ask these questions now and I can only hope that I will be here to answer them when she does. But if life throws us a curve ball, my letters will be here for her when she’s ready. I began creating a guided journal to help other mothers do the same.
I don’t think that I’ll ever stop resenting cancer, but I’m thankful for its persistent reminder that life is fragile and every day we have with each other is a day to be cherished.
Do you have a story about how breast cancer has impacted your life as a parent? We want to hear it! Join our October Breast Cancer Awareness conversation and share your story today.