Life, Death, and Probability; Lessons Learned from a Mother with Cancer

October 20, 2018

The world we live in is undeniably deadly; if one crunches the numbers, one discovers how everything in our daily lives will undeniably kill someone. One in around one hundred of us will die in car crashes, one in three hundred fifty-eight will lose their lives to gun violence. Almost one in ten thousand will be killed by a plane, one in twelve thousand will be hit by lightning. And yet my mother, the car-driving frequent-flying hiking enthusiast, fell victim not to any of the above; rather, she had been one of the three in one hundred thousand individuals to develop a tumor in her brain.
Just a few months shy of my eleventh birthday, my mother began complaining of a strange headache. She ended up being diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme – an aggressive and mysterious brain cancer, developing in only three out of every one hundred thousand individuals. Officially declared the winner of the lousiest lottery possibly, she underwent an excruciating trial of surgery, radiation, and chemo – yet despite the hospital’s best efforts, that tumor kept popping back up, like some sadistic round of whack-a-mole. In its third and final iteration, the cancer had been too heavily embedded in her head for a safe operation, so she was loaded up with a hefty dose of chemotherapy and a prayer.
In true childlike fashion, I kept clinging on to the hope that this time she would survive, that her tumor would keep shrinking and eventually disappear. I kept a smile on my face, walked the halls of my school with an enthusiasm later commended by my teachers who didn’t understand that this joy may have not been genuine. Back at home, I would bury myself in busy work, filling up sketchbooks with bland-faced figures and perusing the internet, posting every single chain comment I came across with one simple wish: not wealth or fame or love, but a winning shot for my mother.
Nevertheless, while my mom may have been an anomalous individual, she was a perfect cancer patient. Seventeen months after her diagnosis, she passed away at the age of fifty-two, surrounded by her weeping family and seemingly indifferent cat. And, being twelve at the time, her youngest daughter stubbornly refused to grieve.
See, I tend to come across as one of those selfless types who insists on putting the feelings of others before my own, even at a cost to my own happiness. So when my father broke me the news that she was dying and offered me support, I turned him down. I kept insisting that I was fine, that he did not have to worry about me, that I would be all right. In a sense, I had not wanted to burden my dad with my own emotional troubles, not when the love of his life was heading west from cancer. Looking back, it is ridiculous for me to reject my own father’s aid – a man who brought me into this world with the expectation that he would be by my side for all of life’s challenges, including but not limited to the concept of mortality – but I suppose was too emotionally stunted to notice at the time. Nevertheless, even in the aftermath of her death, I was insistently “fine.” I missed one day of school with the excuse of a “cold,” and came right back to class, smiling as always. Teachers and classmates offered their condolences; I awkwardly accepted them, not knowing how to respond to the litany of “I’m sorry” -s or “I’m here for you”-s.
And holding my own emotions hostage did not fare well for my mental state. I was already a teenager, genetically programmed for mood swings and anxiety, and my refusal to acknowledge my own pain left me either feeling completely numb or full of self-loathing. I was afraid of my unsympathetic friends, expressed a wish to die at least five times a day (weather permitting), and ended up attempting suicide three times in seventh grade. I only truly let myself feel upset over the affair at her funeral, a year and a half after her passing; as we scattered her ashes into the Mediterranean, I cried for the first time over her death in well over a year. The memorial left me feeling a little less empty and a lot less self-hating, but it would still be at least another four years before I would finally shake the last cobwebs of depression off. Grief, as it turns out, is an unbearably long process.
It also turns out that fate is an unbearable cruel mistress, and sometimes your best efforts yield nothing. My mother was a healthy woman; she subsisted off a balanced diet rich with vegetables, attended belly-dancing classes, and had a two-plate rule of thumb for buffets. She never smoked, never did drugs, and drank in moderation; regardless, it was she who was chosen to develop a tumor in her head. It was nothing she did to cause it; her pre-existing condition had been nothing but pure, rotten luck.
And yet, even with an unfavorable prognosis, she never let life stop. In the year after her surgery, she continued to cook until her strength failed her, went on a cruise to Alaska with her family, visited her sister in Paris, and took up knitting. In between radiation sessions, she would sit down with several balls of colorful yarn, scarves and hats forming from her needles. I still have the pastelcolored cap she gifted me; it is proof that instead of moping around, she took the time to put in the effort and leave her family with reminders of the kindred soul she always was.
Lately, I have been contemplating my own mortality. Only a month ago, I was hit with a debilitating migraine, and spent the rest of the night in tears””not just because of the pain, but because I was truly afraid that I was to follow in my mother’s footsteps. While the ache passed, the questions on mortality still lingered on what if it never did, and what if the glioblastoma that took my mother’s life would be discovered in my own head. With only a year left to live, I am not sure how I would make the most of my time; hopefully, instead of being overtaken by my old depression, I could find it within myself to fit as much life as I could within those short months. Though, at the same time, one should not require a death sentence in order to live life. The future is uncertain, with no way of fully telling what happens next; I could easily be hit by a car or get shot in the face at any given moment, so why not make the most of what life is left in between? Why not write that book, apply for that job, enter that writing competition and poke at your old bruises? Death refuses to sit around and wait, so there is no reason not to do the same.
Paradoxically, my mother’s death led me to appreciate life to its fullest: to realize the joy of living for today, accomplishing one’s extraordinary goals, and planning for an uncertain future. She didn’t let life slow her down until her strength failed her; I hope that we may all live our lives in that fashion.
Noga Khen