On June 23, 2018, I lost my breath.
One minute I was driving my two boys (eight and six) to go see the newest “Star Wars” movie for their first week of summer vacation, and then a phone call came, and then I was gasping for air and sobbing hysterically.
My mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer on June 23. She had an annoying cough for six weeks and some dizziness and then suddenly our lives completely changed. She was 69 at the time of diagnosis.
The week before, we had been planning for our usual weekends at the beach, discussing the boys’ schedules, gossiping about the news, and ordering matching flip-flops. It all disappeared in that moment on June 23. My beautiful, non-smoking, non-drinking, only-organic-eating mother had over 100 nodules in her lungs, and suddenly I also couldn’t breathe.
The tightness in my chest and the shortness of breath (obviously, massive anxiety) continued as my family fell apart, and we began to try and process the diagnosis. I took my children to swim team practice and ignored their swimming as I googled words and phrases like “metastatic,” “pulmonary nodules,” “adenocarcinoma,” and “brain mets” on my phone. I blocked out the laughter at the pool and held my breath, as I obsessively looked up every single statistic and research and treatment and prognosis for lung cancer that I could find.
I held my breath throughout the day and ordered my eyes to stay dry as I made my boys breakfast, while simultaneously texting my mom and my dad and my brother to determine the next doctor’s appointment, the plan of attack, any new symptoms, and on and on. I went through all the motions of motherhood while telling my mom that she could beat this disease, and through it all—I couldn’t breathe.
My kids would go to sleep at night, my role of mother would end, and the tightness in my chest would explode. I would sob to my husband, to my friends, to my brother, and to my parents. You know this kind of cry: the ugly, hysterical, loud, frantic, unable to breathe cry. I cried as the reality that my life would never ever be the same punched me in the stomach. My husband would rub my back and remind me to breathe, mainly because I sounded like I was hyperventilating. But, I just didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to breathe in a world where I would lose my mother to lung cancer.
See, my mother was my best friend. I called her multiple times during the day, sent her funny memes and articles, watched my children absolutely adore her, planned for her and my dad to visit, and sat by her side on her porch at the oceanfront in Virginia Beach, where they lived. There was no future that didn’t include her. She was my rock. My person. Our matriarch.
I knew what a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer meant, but I couldn’t accept it. I was suffocating at the idea that eventually I would have to figure out who I was without my mother.
I held my breath for the first initial weeks. I love running, but whenever I tried to run, by myself or with friends, I still couldn’t breathe and would feel like I was having a panic attack. I knew I needed exercise, so I reluctantly went to my yoga studio during the first week of July. Something quiet felt appealing. Yoga had been a part of my life since 2000. I even went through a yoga teacher training, completed my 200 hours, and taught yoga to children. It has always been a quiet form of exercise and an occasional way to calm my worries.
On that particular day in July, I hid in the back corner versus my usual front and center spot. And then, something amazing slowly began to happen: as my body began to flow with the music through Sun Salutation A and B—I began to breathe. I listened to the instructor’s cues of “inhale” and “exhale,” and air suddenly began to move through my body. Tears mixed with my sweat as I began to cry, but I kept breathing. Slow and steady. I placed my hands on my stomach during Savasana and felt the air rise and fall. And suddenly, I knew what my own treatment would need to be during my mother’s fight with lung cancer: I needed yoga to help me find my air and learn to breathe again.
I went to yoga almost every single day that summer and continued my practice into the fall.
During that time, my mother completed brain radiation and began chemotherapy. In September of 2018, she suddenly went into respiratory failure and was subsequently hospitalized. I continued going to yoga when I was home, and if I was in the hospital with her, I remembered my practice and found a way to sit with my hands on my stomach and tell myself, “Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.”
I sat with my mom and held her hand, then called my kids and listened to their stories about their day. I went to lunch with my dad and sobbed in the car with him, and then FaceTimed my boys and laughed about their new Lego creations. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I watched my mom’s chest rise and fall with the help of a high-flow oxygen machine and matched it with my own breath. Inhale. Exhale. And on and on.
We take it for granted: the inhale and exhale of our breath. Breathing helps us stay present. It’s how we relax our minds, lower our stress hormones, and center and ground ourselves. I couldn’t function in those early weeks of June, because I forgot to breathe. I either sobbed and gasped for air or I was so desperate to not fall apart that I clamped my lips together and just shut off.
My daily yoga practice was the greatest gift I found during my mom’s battle with lung cancer. It helped me survive. It helped me still be me. It helped me to be able to still connect with my kids and be their mother. It helped me even smile and laugh with friends, occasionally forgetting for a brief, small second that I was losing the most important person in my life.
And on October 23, 2018, I sat with my mom and my family in the hospital room she had been in since September, holding her hand as hard as I could, and as I cried and silently told myself, ‘”Inhale, exhale,” I watched my mom take her last breath.
It’s been two years since I lost my mom. And grief is the hardest, most painful emotion that I have had to learn to carry. It hits in the most unexpected times and I feel gutted all over again. I miss my mom more than I ever imagined I could miss a person.
And still every day, I move my body and find my breath. No pretending or faking. Yoga helps me be present. I move through my heartbreak and loss by helping my body relax and let go of its pain. I let go of my survival mode and allow myself to open up to vulnerability and to be where I am.
And at the end of yoga, I lie still during Savasana and talk to my mom in my head. Inhale. Exhale. Hi, mom. I’m finding my way. Inhale. Exhale. I miss you so much. Inhale. Exhale. You were truly the best. Inhale. Exhale. Maybe, I will be okay.