Roller Coaster

October 20, 2011

There is a loud metallic clack-clack-clack as a the roller coaster car begins to climb to its dizzying apex of the first perilously high hill on the track, followed by a moment of fear and apprehension as the track drops into the far distance below, and with a rush of air and the chorus of screams the car plummets downward and your stomach hangs in the balance. When a son learns that their beautiful, supportive mother who has always been there for him has been diagnosed with this disease called cancer, that strikes fear into so many, the only way I can describe it that makes any sense at all, is a roller coaster. The past year and a half has been a constant deluge of fear, apprehension, unconditional love, and uncertainty for my family and I know we will never be the same. In October of 2009 my mother went in to the doctor to get her abdominal pain checked and came away with a diagnosis of colon cancer. She had emergency surgery to remove the tumors from her colon and lumps from her ovaries.
That week, the amusement ride conductor in my life said, “Keep your arms and legs inside the car, I hope you enjoy the ride.”
My two older sisters, who were in their freshmen and sophomore years of college respectfully, and I watched our strong, independent mother waste away little by little and there was nothing we could do to help her. It was so unfair to have this happen, there was no history of colon cancer in my mom’s family, and she was so healthy and vital. My mother started chemotherapy right before Christmas and she handled it like a trooper, the regimen did put her in the hospital a couple times in the New Year as she got weaker. The roller coaster was whizzing at a rapid pace by then, but there was another monstrous hill looming on the horizon.
Things changed when she started radiation. It completely broke her down and she spent the next month and a half in the hospital. Throughout it all, my father worked day and night to try to make our lives normal. He did his best to continue working as a middle school teacher and coach, while still finding time to prepare the meals, do our laundry, take us shopping and help us with our homework but it wore him thin doing all those things and spending time in the hospital visiting Mom till the wee hours of the night. We would do our best to go to school and work during the day and then rush off to the hospital to spend time with Mom, trying to make the most out of each visit. Each of us handled the twists and turns of the roller coaster track in our own unique ways. My dad has long been my role model, and my hero. He rose up to a new level beyond those titles during our early time on the roller coaster. He stayed strong and showed very little emotion towards us or Mom. As a child he was told by his uncle that crying made it hurt worse. He was thirteen when his uncle died. He has never cried for the loss of his uncle, and he did his best to hold it all together despite his own worries and fears for our benefit. He was a rock that we all relied on in the stormy seas. He never, ever gave up on my mom. He kept telling her to fight. He kept reminding her how much he loved her and how much we all needed her. Dad handled Mom’s cancer by stepping up and taking care of the family. My mom calls him her knight in shining armor, always there to protect her. His quirky sense of humor kept us going on some very dark days. He teased Mom about the Power Port her surgeon installed on the middle of her chest, saying she was just like Ironman. It was his love and support that kept us together and held us on the track as we rocketed through loops and dangerous obstacles.
My oldest sister, Taylor, remained very stoic through it all. As an intellectual, she researched it and then she simply said, “It’s only cancer, it’s beatable, and it won’t kill you”. She never outwardly thought twice about it. She never really shared with us how much she was hurting inside or how scared she truly was. However, the stress she was feeling became evident one day when she called my mom while she was in the hospital and cried because she could not find a parking space in the hospital parking lot. My mom talked with the nurse and they figured out a place for Taylor to park. Her endless sobbing actually made my mom laugh and it made my mom feel good that she could help her daughter, even from her hospital bed. Taylor dealt with my mother’s illness by trying to avoid it and focus on other things; she still claims she never once doubted that Mom would win her battle with cancer.
My other sister, Katie, had the hardest time. Katie has wanted to be a doctor since third grade. So she was very supportive of Mom through this whole roller coaster ride. She was in the office when my mother got the news that she had cancer. Katie and Mom sat in the doctor’s office and simply cried. I think Mom sent the rest of us a text message telling us it was not good news. Katie was with Mom and Dad for almost everything, her first CT scan, her first labs, her first consult with the surgeon and the oncologist, and she was there for Mom when Dad could not be. I look back on it now and am so glad that Mom did not have to go through all of that alone; she needed one of us there by her side. Katie would be the one to shuttle Mom to her radiation appointments as Mom could not drive as she got weaker and weaker. Katie was also the one that cleaned up the throw up and the diarrhea messes without ever complaining. There was one time when my mom had an incontinent bowel accident and her clothes were covered in yuck. Mom just stood there and cried not knowing what to do, but Katie jumped in, put two garbage bags over Mom’s feet and walked her into the shower. Katie told Mom that it would be their little secret as she cleaned up the mess. Katie managed to get through Mom’s struggle by being her caretaker and finding oncology as her first choice when she goes off to medical school.
I struggled with my mother’s diagnosis in my own way. My mom kept asking me how I felt and I kept silent. I did not talk about it. Academically I faltered, losing focus in many of my classes and falling hopelessly behind in my pre-calculus class, drowning in my Advanced Placement courses. Athletically I struggled due to my lack of focus. Socially I was at a new school, having transferred just months before from Rainier to Yelm, and found myself adrift in a sea of unfamiliar faces. My mother’s cancer buried me so deep I could not see daylight anymore. Roller coasters are supposed to be fun, a thrill ride, but for me this one was anything but that. I had been relying on my online social network, my friends from my old school, and the few new friends I had made at Yelm to express my feelings about my mother. I was posting on Facebook to my friends about how sick my mother was, how horrible it was to deal with a loved one fighting cancer, and how scared I was that I might actually lose my mother. It was not until my dad set up a Facebook account for my mother so that she would have something to do as she sat during her pain ridden days. My mom, of course, friended my sisters and I. In time, my mom saw my Facebook postings which read like a painful open diary of my account with her cancer diagnosis, and we were finally able to talk. I told her that it is not fair that a child has to think about losing a parent before I had even really begun to live. It was during this time that we found how physically challenging it was for my mom to comfort me. She used to hold her baby boy close to her heart but now that I am six feet eight inches tall it is not so easy. It sounds kind of silly but I found it was easier to text her or email her sometimes as it was hard to sit and talk about how I was feeling. I was trying to stay strong like my hero, my dad. But in the end I did not do either very well. I dealt with my mom’s cancer and the possibility of losing her by talking to others first through the emotionless safety of the Internet.
A family cancer diagnosis truly is like a roller coaster, with its highs and lows. We have experienced a slew of frightening times, only to find ourselves in the midst of unconditional love from our parents, or the growing apprehension for what twist or turn might lay ahead on the course, just out of sight.
I know that everybody deals with stress in different ways. This past year has tested my family to the very core. Some say that cancer can divide a family. We are fortunate; colon cancer brought my family even closer together, but one truth seems to stand out after all of this. Once you board the roller coaster of a cancer diagnosis, you can never get off, the ride just continues, and all you can do is learn to love your time together and enjoy the special hidden moments that happen along the way.
As for my mother, clack-clack-clack, Mom’s last CT scan shows no active cancer in her colon—thank God—but, she has a spot on her lung that we are watching very closely. Cancer has taught us to appreciate life, to stop and smell the roses when we had been used to living life in the fast lane. As a family, we try to spend more time together and cherish the memories we have created. Individually, we are beginning to heal. My father and I even shared a long, cathartic tearful hug. I know I will never take my family for granted. My sisters and parents are too important to me. As I near the end of my high school career, my mother’s cancer now has given me focus. Like my sister before me, I too, have decided to pursue the study of medicine in college because of this ordeal.
Guy Simpson