Published on July 1, 2019
The last cancer-free memory I have of my mom is from January 1, 1996. I was a freshman in college at the time and wanted to go skydiving, but I couldn’t find anyone willing to jump out of an airplane with me. I had resigned myself to going alone, when one day my mom said, “I’ll go with you.” My initial reaction was, “What? You’re a mom. You can’t go skydiving.” But then I remembered that this was the same woman who served as an Army nurse in Vietnam when she was just 22 years old. Despite my youthful bravado, she was braver than I will ever be, so we signed up together and celebrated the New Year by jumping out of a plane.
I’ll never forget the smile on my mom’s face or the joy in her voice when our feet touched the ground and the instructor asked her how she felt. “I loved the freefall…I loved the freefall,” she said, beaming. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer seven months later and our lives were never the same.
Despite being 19 years old, and technically an adult, when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, she was still very much the central figure in my life. My brothers and I were blessed with a mom who was selfless, loving, and kind—a mom who always put our needs before her own. We had the privilege of being able to take risks and explore the world, knowing she would be there to catch us if we fell. There was no doubt our mom would be there whenever and wherever we needed her. But with her cancer diagnosis, suddenly she needed us, in a different way.
When I reflect on my mom’s nine-year battle with breast cancer, I am proud of the way my brothers and I took care of her. But there are times when I think I waited too long to take the initiative, hesitating perhaps because the woman who had always taken care of me now needed me to take care of her, but neither of us had the roadmap for how to get there.
I try not to have regrets in life, but rather lessons learned—and there were a lot of lessons learned in those years. If I could go back to the day of my mom’s diagnosis, back to before I realized that I would soon lose the most important person in my life to cancer, there are five things I would tell my younger self.
1. Take the initiative. Don’t wait for your mom to ask for help. She won’t. She cherishes her role as mother and caregiver, and she wants to remain strong for you. Start by identifying ways you can help, and then sit down with your mom to explain your ideas. Reassure her that you are ready to handle the role of care partner, and let her know that you will be by her side every step of the way.
2. Be her advocate. She may be both a mom and a nurse, a combination that makes her invincible in your eyes, but now she’s also a patient. While she may not admit it, because she wants to protect you, your mom is scared and overwhelmed. Speak up on her behalf, do your research, get a second opinion, and ask her doctors for clarification whenever there is something you don’t understand.
3. Ask for help. You and your brothers don’t have to do it all yourselves. People want to help. Graciously accept their offers and ask for more help when you need it. Your mom’s friends from church will deliver meals, so you don’t have to cook. Your friends and their parents will sit by her bedside when you need a break. Cousin Carolyn will show up at the hospital with toothbrushes, face wash, and clean clothes when you’re holding vigil during your mom’s final days. Embrace the community that is waiting to support you.
4. Have the difficult conversations. Avoiding the topic of death means it can’t happen, right? Oh, if only that were true. While talking about death and dying may be painful and emotional, it’s also necessary. What are your mom’s last wishes? What kind of life-sustaining medical treatment does she want, if any? Where does she want to be buried? Would she rather be cremated? Does she have a will? You may break down in tears the first several times you attempt to have these conversations with your mom, but when you finally do, you’ll be glad you did.
5. Let her know you will be okay. Your mom will know long before you do that she is going to die. She’s worried about how you will cope when she is gone, which you will know because one of her friends will share this information with you after a visit. You may not know how you will cope when she is gone, and you may be terrified, but one of the greatest gifts you can give your mom is the reassurance that you will be okay. Tell her that she prepared you and your brothers for adulthood, and promise her that the three of you will always take care of each other.
I eventually learned all of these lessons through experience, some more easily than others, but being equipped with these guidelines from the start would have fast-tracked my transition from daughter to care partner. I often wonder what it was like from my mom’s perspective, needing and accepting help from her children. I recently read an article written by a mother about communicating a cancer diagnosis to her adult children, and I thought about my mom. What she would have written about the experience?
I don’t remember the exact moment I realized that my brothers and I won the mom lottery, but I knew from an early age that we were lucky. Whether she was jumping out of an airplane so her only daughter wouldn’t have to go it alone, or simply waiting with a hug and a cup of tea at the end of a long day, Marianne Mooney embodied all of the positive qualities that the word “mom” conjures up. When she passed away on May 1, 2005, my world became a larger, scarier, mom-less place. But now, 14 years later, I am grateful for the difficult conversations we were forced to have; the community that came together to support our family; the laughter and inside jokes; the quiet moments of holding hands, when no words were necessary. And I will always, always, be grateful that my brothers and I had the opportunity to give back to the woman who had given so much to us.
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