A Word I Got To Know

When my mom first spoke the word “cancer” to five year old me, it had no meaning. It was just another word that I didn’t know, that I had yet to learn. I couldn’t understand why she had me sit on my bed, why she was holding my hand, why she looked so distraught. I don’t think she quite knew how to explain it either. She said to me, “I’m going to be sick for awhile, honey, but everything is going to be okay. And I love you.” I shrugged and got ready for school.

From there, my life began to change. Mom started going to the doctor a lot, and I spent a lot of time in waiting rooms. Mom spent a lot of time sleeping. Mom spent a lot of time throwing up, crying, and taking countless handfuls of pills with names I couldn’t pronounce. Mom couldn’t spend as much time with me anymore. Mom was sick.

Eventually it occurred to me that she wasn’t going to just shake this off with special medicine from the doctor. Those countless nights spent throwing up turned into countless hospital visits. My mom spent more days in the hospital than out for awhile. I began to know the cancer floor of the hospital like the back of my hand, I got to know the nurses, and picked out my favorite thing on the hospital menu.

I adored my mother. She was my best friend. I had friends invite me to birthday parties that I turned down to stay in the hospital and paint my nails with my mom. Every day after school, I would ask my dad to take us to visit mom, and I’d get extremely upset if we weren’t able to. I made her cards and crafts and treats. I told her everything, and I cared about her more than anything else in the world.

As time went on, I got older and more observant. With that came a new issue in my life, an overwhelming amount of worry about anything and everything in my life to the point of severe panic attacks. A therapist soon put a word to that, another I didn’t know. Anxiety. I worried so constantly it took over my life. I refused to leave my house, I had no interest in going out with friends. I would randomly have a panic attack in the middle of class and soon became known as the girl who took up about 90% of the school guidance counselor’s time. I assure you, that lovely woman did not get paid enough to deal with me! I would sit outside my mom’s room while she was sleeping, curled up with a book and listening to make sure she took another breath for every one she let out. With time, good friends and a decent amount of therapy helped me control my anxiety more than it controlled me. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life, and I’m still not perfect, but I will keep fighting that every day.

After a lot of chemo, we thought she was getting better. We later found out that she still had breast cancer, and it brought a friend. My dad and my therapist sat me down and told me my mom had been diagnosed with bone cancer as well. Things seemed to keep getting worse. My mom’s body deteriorated quickly. Chemo, radiation, more hospital trips, more nights of throwing up and crying, and for me, more anxiety attacks. My little brother, too young still to understand what was going on, knew this as his only normal. I was old enough to know things weren’t looking good.

Right about the time we adjusted to bone cancer, we found out she had brain cancer.

This was the worst time in my life, if I’m being honest. As time went on, I watched my mother lose her mind. She couldn’t do basic functions alone, like work her TV or other appliances in the house. I was teaching her things she had originally taught me. She struggled to remember basic things like the day of the week, or what time I had school or events. Eventually she started struggling to remember my name.

On May 31st, 2015, my dad took me to therapy, and went in with me. This automatically made me anxious, as that usually meant bad news. We sat down and I can replay those two minutes in my mind in perfect color. My therapist looked at my dad and said, “She has chosen to stop chemotherapy, correct?” I don’t know if she thought I knew, or if that was the easiest way to get it across to me, but my heart dropped and I waited for my dad to correct her, and say no, my mom would never stop fighting. But he didn’t. He looked at me, nervous, and nodded slowly. I think I screamed. I don’t know for sure, but my world changed. I started picturing a wedding without my mom there, having my first child and no grandma for them. I broke.

The next few months were the worst. She was angry, confused, and helpless all the time. We were tending to her 24/7, the woman who I used to know as my mom became a hollow shell filled by cancer. One night, I found her downstairs asleep, about to fall off of her chair onto the kitchen floor. I supported her weight with my own, and pushed her back onto the chair. After much prodding, she woke up. My dad was asleep, so I tried to convince her to go upstairs with her walker and go to bed. My little brother woke up but I demanded he stay upstairs. I stayed behind my mom and tried to balance her, one stair at a time. We had about ten to go up. Each step was painful for her. When we got to the top, she started swaying, almost asleep. I moved to the top so I wasn’t behind her, and then she fell. Her glasses shattered and shards of glass cut her bald head, and she tumbled. I screamed, “DADDY!” and my dad came running and sent us away while he tried to fix the mess I’d caused. Eventually, we determined her injuries were minor.

The next day, arrangements were made for my mother to go into hospice. We couldn’t handle it anymore. One day we tried to play Connect Four, and she couldn’t figure out how to get the token in. She tried to shove it through the side instead of the top, similar to the elderly man at the nursing home I’d volunteered with through school. She had to be bribed to go to the bathroom with a cookie like a five year old. She had entirely forgotten who my brother and I were. She was, in my mind, already gone.

On November 5th, 2015, my mother passed away. This last sentence that I just wrote is what 99% of people know of my story. That my mom died. They don’t know what I went through, what my family went through, or what she went through on her way to her final destination. Cancer is a story different for everyone. Cancer is a word that holds a different meaning for everyone affected by its grasp. There was no definition at age 5 that my mother could have given me to know what cancer was. I had to live it to know.

My mom was an incredible person. And what I take away from this story isn’t trauma. Well, maybe a little. But I choose how to take away from my story.

I choose to remember my mom how she truly was. I choose to remember the bright smile before half of her facial muscles were rendered useless by radiation. I choose to remember how she made bookmarks with me, and how she taught me a dance to “Achy Breaky Heart” on the kitchen floor despite a broken hip. I choose to remember the compassion she had for helping others when she was someone who needed help. I choose to remember her passion for learning, growing, and becoming better. I choose to remember how strong she was day in and day out, no matter what life handed her. I choose to remember the woman who loved me unconditionally.

And I learned about myself. I learned how strong I truly am. I learned that when life decides to knock you down, you take a deep breath, smile, and stand back up. I know myself to be someone who despite having faced tremendous loss, can show the world what I’m made of and determine my own future. I choose to have dreams so big that my mom would be proud. I choose to take my struggle, and turn it into strength to live as fearlessly as my mother did.

Laurel Jenks