October 20, 2013

One day in August 2010, my mother told my brother, father, and me that she thought she had cancer. A shocking statement to hear from any loved one, yet truer than we could have ever imagined at the time. Having felt a lump on her breast, we urged her to schedule an appointment with her doctor immediately. A phone call led to days of waiting, then weeks, then another phone call. More waiting led to the unsatisfying and even demeaning response from a nurse that my mother had just recently gotten a mammogram and it was unnecessary to have another any time soon. But don’t they tell us in middle school health and high school biology that we should start doing self-checks from the time we hit puberty? Doesn’t the news and television urge us to call our doctors at the slightest sign of something strange? Maybe these voices on the phone never heard those messages; at least, that was a reassuring, pretty little lie to believe at the time.
More time went by as leaves metamorphosed into warm hues of crimson and maize, and the value of the lump’s possible threat diminished. “I think I have cancer” seemed to be less intense, less possible when my mother said it. “I know my body” was not heard by my brother and me as tennis, piano, and academics consumed our days and even most of our nights. We didn’t hear her; more so, we didn’t listen. Yet, along with the changing seasons, my mother noticed more changes in her lump. With renewed urgency in our concern we pleaded that she demand an appointment with a doctor. Once finally in, she was merely told that women her age experience these changes–no need to worry, and no reason to fret. Then why had it changed? Why did it hurt? Why can’t this be checked, if only just to be safe? They didn’t hear these questions; that is, they didn’t hear them well enough act.
Holidays came and went, and on an otherwise regular school day my mother picked my brother and me up from school. “What did you do today?” we probably asked. It’s hard to recall exactly what happened, for most vividly I can only recall my mother saying with more gravity than during any of the months previous that she had breast cancer; this time, at her regularly scheduled mammogram, that “women her age” thing turned out to be something that should have been detected by that “unnecessary” mammogram months earlier. It felt foreign to me, and it wasn’t even in my body. How could it possibly feel for my mother, a woman who worked so hard to do everything right in life? It finally hit our family how she must have been feeling for the last five months, and sadness and anger set in.
The next five months were filled with events one should never have to watch a loved one endure. My petite 4’ 12’’ mother underwent surgery on Valentines Day, losing the lump and all of the lymph nodes in her left arm. She started chemotherapy that caused her to loose tolerance for food, to loose too much weight, and to loose all of her hair. She was diagnosed with terminal stage-four cancer due to metastasis into her lung, and she went on pain medication and pills to replenish her blood tissue with white blood cells. In summary, a series of unfortunate events ensued. A daughter should never have to watch her mother vomit at the smell of regular food. A son should never wake up at 5 AM to see his mother cringing and crying in extreme pain because the doctors didn’t give her the right pain meds to buffer the bone marrow pills. A husband should never have to tell his wife she needs to let the rest of us do the chores that she adamantly wants to complete, her strong will and determination amazing us all. A family should never see a loved one’s bald head, raw from radiation treatment, suddenly become covered in shingles. A woman should never have to be told by a doctor that she only has two to fours years left to live. It’s hard to see your dad truly cry in front of you for the first time, and it’s hard to see your mother, the strongest surest figure in your life, become so vulnerable. These were the times when we listened with the most attentive ears on earth to everything she said; these were the times when doctors, neighbors, sales clerks, and strangers on the streets listened as well. A baldhead does not lie, and such changes in a human being’s life and health do not go unnoticed.
Another five month went by, then a whole year. My mother was eventually put on oral cancer medication in place of injected chemotherapy or radiation. All of her hair came back as soft as puppy fur, and her skin and appetite seemed to return to normal. She still had to deal with pain, fatigue, and other side effects of her medications, but on the surface one could start to argue that she was returning to cancerless health. My dad continued on with his six-days-a-week job, my brother went on with tennis and political internships, and I went on with music and finishing my last year and a half of high school. These were the times when we started to listen less. My mother still had cancer—she still has cancer—but we weren’t listening like we did when she was bald and vomiting. My mother started to express a lot of sadness, hurt, and anger about this. Arguments and disagreements accomplished nothing but my family feeling guilty and my mother feeling alone. For many months I felt her go emotionally downhill, and I didn’t know what to do. Part of me feels like I tried but I didn’t know what to do. Another part of me feels like I often didn’t listen to what she was feeling—something I am wholeheartedly ashamed of.
Now, in 2013, my mother is still diagnosed with stage-four cancer, but she has built back strength and parts of her life and self that were lost during her first treatments. Nothing can ever make her or the rest of my family like we were before her diagnoses, but we have all learned tremendous lessons thus far. I honestly feel now like the emotional side of dealing with cancer is the hardest part; though the chemotherapy is the ugliest, coming to terms with such a tremendous change in yourself and feeling foreign in your own body is something that I believe no one can ever understand unless they have cancer. In recognition of this I hope every day to listen to my mother more; to truly listen and be the solid rock of assurance or soft pillow of love that she needs at any given time. I am not always successful, but I try to listen every single day.
For the longest time, no one listened to my mother. Not doctors, not strangers—not even her family, despite the unexplainably huge amount of love we have for her. So much good could have been done if everyone would have listened sooner, and I urge anyone and everyone to listen more in their own lives. Listen to your grandparents and understand how they came to be the people they are; listen to your children and understand the struggles of finding yourself when you’re young; listen to your parents and learn the lessons it took them years to realize; listen to the stranger, the friend, the sick and the healthy, the understood and the overlooked. If everyone can listen more, everyone can understand each other better. With understanding comes the ability to help, to mend, to soothe, to love, and to make our world, little by little, a greater place to live. Please; just listen.
Caitlyn Koester