My mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer on my parents’ 36th wedding anniversary. They called me together, while I was at work, to tell me the news. Our lives suddenly became very different lives.
My parents live in Ohio. I live in Washington, D.C. That’s 364 miles. This is too far.
This isn’t happening.
Not my mom. Not my family. Not now. Not yet. Not this kind of cancer. Not spread to the colon, too. Not when I can’t be there.
That was the chorus on loop in my mind the first few weeks.
“Please, just make it stop,” I remember crying out and meaning it.
A month before her diagnosis, our family had been vacationing in Cancun, Mexico. After landing in Ohio, my mom got sick with what seemed like a bad case of food poisoning. At her CT scan, something showed up, but no one knew what it was. It could be this or it could be that, they said. It could be cancer.
“It could be cancer” was not cause for concern. It’s probably fine. Probably not cancer, is what I heard — the result of a life spent having things always work out.
But then this is a different life. And a month later, it was confirmed. Ovarian cancer, spread to the colon. She’d need surgery, a hysterectomy and part of her colon removed. After that, chemotherapy.
She might even need a colostomy bag. A flyer explaining how you can still feel sexy with one of these sat on our kitchen counter, looming.
My mom’s first step to healing was surgery. I am lucky that my boss’s response to needing time at home was, “Whatever you need.” I went to Ohio for a week when she had the surgery.
I held my mom’s hand as she waited to be taken back to surgery. My sister, brother and I huddled close, afraid. My dad was focused, watching her, loving her and then waiting for hours in the same chair, refusing the coffees and sandwiches we tried to feed him.
I felt powerless. Scared. I felt proud of her courage and her faith. I felt bad for crying. I couldn’t help it.
Every family has an entertainer, but my family just has me. My mom loves sheepdogs, so I brought a sheepdog puppet to send her back to surgery. I desperately wanted ways to make her feel better. To let her know that I was thinking of nothing else other than her recovery. That she consumed all of me. The pup made her smile, laugh.
But I wanted to give her more.
My parents have given so much to me. And they still do, even as a 30-year-old woman. They give me their attention and unconditional love. When I had my first breakup, my mom left a vacation in the Caribbean and flew to Phoenix just to hold me. She always has time for me.
I felt inadequate. Incapable of such a strong, selfless love. I wanted to be there for her when she needed me. Is this how parents always feel? Like they can’t love hard enough?
After sitting for hours in a waiting room filled with family and friends, her surgeon came out to tell us he was able to remove 99 percent of the cancer. She wouldn’t even need a colostomy bag. More crying.
This time it was the good kind.
After surgery, things got scarier.
My mom’s first round of chemo was on my 30th birthday. We waited for her hair to fall out. It fell out. We waited for her immune system to weaken. It weakened. We waited for her spirits to fall. And oh did they fall.
I waited from 364 miles away, feeling helpless. I came home when I could. I sent cards and soft sweaters and nausea bands and ginger candies and even a silly potato.
My mom had my dad. So wonderful was my dad. I’ve never loved him more, for loving her. She had my brother, who grew up 10 years in that time. She had my sister who flew home from Chicago more weeks than she did not. She had Cav, the dog that saved our world. She had Aunt Beth and Aunt Kathy and Tabby. She even had kids in classrooms as far away as Phoenix praying for her.
And she had me. But not the way I wanted her to. I couldn’t figure out how to be as much as I wanted. But every night, I thought of her. I cried to my partner. He held me. He fed me. He brought the TV into our bedroom so I could think of something else.
I stopped myself from calling because I knew I couldn’t keep from crying on the phone.
My mom and my sister are my best friends. We group text daily. But when my mom was sick, she stopped sending messages. She stopped signing on to Gchat to talk to us at lunch. After a lifetime of being annoyed that she insist we send her our travel itineraries and text her the moment we land, she stopped insisting.
I stopped seeing my mom in my mom, and that was scary.
She developed a hole in her intestine. Maybe from the two months of chemo. She was weaker than she should have been. Her team of doctors caught it and were able to turn it around.
She started to regain energy. She started eating. She started taking the dog on walks. She started making plans. She started texting.
Caring for your parents from far away is something many face or will face one day. I think I did okay. I was lost in it a bit. I was hopeful.
My mom had a scan a few weeks ago, and it came back clear.
My mom is back to making me send her the details of my travel, and it’s back to annoying me.