Cancer Gave Me the Gift of Time with My Teenage Daughter
An unwanted diagnosis cemented an unbreakable bond between a frazzled working mom and her college-bound daughter
My 14-year old daughter, Alex, rolled her eyes when I switched off “Fergalicious and switched on Christmas carols as we peeled out of the driveway on a sunny California winter day. Minutes from high school, my phoned wailed from an unknown number. I hesitantly answered. “The biopsy we did on that breast cyst showed suspicious cells.” My doctor’s voice thundered through the car speakers. “You’ll need to see a surgeon right away.” Alex was quietly listening. My heart started not so quietly pounding. Thank God he didn’t say the word “cancer”. When I dropped her off, Alex said, “mom, I’m really confused by that call, so I’m going to kiss you and say goodbye.” As I drove away, I saw her enter school laughing with a friend. Dodged that bullet, I thought.
This couldn’t be happening. It was 2 weeks before Christmas and our crazy busy family life was already on overload. My oldest hard-driving daughter, Taylor, was furiously chasing college application deadlines. My 5’10” baby, Alex, was struggling to navigate freshman year along with a relentless varsity volleyball schedule. I had just taken on new mega responsibilities at work. My husband had switched to a home office — so we made the foolhardy decision to go nanny-less for the first time in 17 years. We were already walking a tightrope and any more
weight on either side could bring us crashing down. We never ever got to sit down together as a family for even a takeout dinner. I didn’t have time for cancer.
I burst into my husband’s home office. He could tell the news wasn’t good and we silently clung to each other. Now that I knew it was there, I could actually feel it. Not with my hand, but I felt its presence. I was 48 years old, I ate my veggies, I exercised, I didn’t smoke. I hadn’t touched red meat in a quarter of a century and there was no family history. How could this be happening?
Taylor approached me that night. “Mom, I’ve been reading these sample essays and some kids have really heartbreaking stories of family tragedies. I can’t compete with that.” “Let’s not try,” I said, as she happily exited the room. I had decided I didn’t want to burden my daughters with the devastating news until I knew more.
The morning of surgery, the girls went blissfully off to school and my husband drove me to the surgery center. In the breast center reception area — full of only car magazines — we anxiously waited. They called my name and it was on. When I awakened from the anesthetic hours later, I cried uncontrollably through a pack of tissues out of relief that it was over. The first part was done, but we still had to await several pathology results to guide the treatment options.
Later that afternoon we arrived home to find a house filled with flowers from friends and co-workers. “It smells like a funeral parlor in here,” Taylor teased. “What’s going on, did somebody die?” I came clean about the surgery and the basic facts. Our emotional daughter, Alex, clutched me, “mommy, are you going to be okay?” “Absolutely,” I assured her, “I will sail through this!”
Turned out there wouldn’t be any smooth sailing. My cancer was indeed small and contained, but it was a very aggressive type. I would need 6 months of chemo and radiation, plus another targeted drug pumped into my veins every 3 weeks for another 6 months. A solid year of treatment. I was crushed by this news. These were Taylor’s final months at home before leaving for college — hopefully Cornell — which was nearly 3000 miles away. There would be so many upcoming milestones to be savored. I was consumed by worry I wouldn’t be able to be present for any of them.
The chemo news hit my daughters hard. I tried to joke by reminding Taylor that perhaps now she could add a little bit of “tragedy” into her essays. “It’s too late, they’re already done,” she offered. Later that night, I was awakened by Taylor standing in our dark doorway. “I’m scared,” she whispered. “Did you watch something scary on TV?” I asked. She shook her head and silently climbed into our giant comfy chair and fell asleep. She had not come into our room in the middle of the night since she was 4 years old.
The first day of treatment, I spent nearly 8 hours with a needle in my arm in a puke green room. The first session is always the longest they explained. Three weeks later, my hair started to fall out in clumps. Hair was raining everywhere. I took charge of the situation — I shaved my head. Afterwards, I walked straight into Taylor’s room. “Do you want to see?” I asked. She gingerly lifted my scarf. “It’s not bad at all!” she exclaimed. “You actually have a nice shaped head.” “I was going for the ‘Sinead O’Connor,’” I joked. The next morning when she left for school she called out, “bye, baldy!” “Bye, Goldilocks,” I countered.
The spring Mother’s Tribute Luncheon — for graduating senior girls and moms — was quickly approaching. Each girl was supposed to read a letter of gratitude they had written to their mom. Taylor asked, “mom, is it okay if I write about your situation?” This shocked me as my stoic daughter had kept our story private, even among her closest friends. “I want you to write whatever you want to write,” I said, but secretly I wondered how I would get through it.
At the luncheon, held in the very proper Valley Hunt Club Pasadena setting, a parade of party dress clad daughters began to escort their moms to the podium one by one. The fact that there was a box of tissues on every table next to the extravagant flower arrangements, spoke volumes. I didn’t know what Taylor had written but I had imagined it might start with a lighter topic — but from the very first word, the letter was all about my cancer.
“Mom, you have always told me, ‘everything happens for a reason, but that reassuring expression lost its validity for me this past winter.’” My fierce daughter’s voice crumbled. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder. “I felt completely helpless because there was nothing I could do to spare you the pain and uncertainty of the coming months. But through it all, you and I have been able to cement an infallible mother-daughter bond. You’ve shown a degree of
strength that I can only hope to attain in my lifetime, and now it is my turn to be proud of you, mom.” She finished reading while we held each other weeping. To this day, 13 years later, this letter is still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.
Many told me I would experience countless blessings throughout my cancer journey. I was skeptical, thinking the suffering would eclipse all else and actually take me away from family. I was wrong. During that time, thanks to the kindness of friends and neighbors, for the first time, our family sat down every night together for a delicious home-cooked meal. Those nurturing meals kept coming throughout my chemo and radiation and up until Taylor’s departure that August to Cornell.
Taylor just turned 30. I was so worried I would miss so much of her last year at home. Instead, I was able to be more present than ever in her life, and the moments we did spend together formed some of the most meaningful of our lives. Alongside the blood draws, the meds, the endless scans and the radioactive smoothies, there were beautiful surprises, including the gift of time. I will cherish it all forever.