As a child, my biggest worry was if my best friend, Sally, would still talk to me at school if I backed out of wearing a skirt and wore pants instead.
I was a real child of the 70s. I grew up running around the neighbourhood, coming in only for meals, ate raw hotdogs, drank Tang, and had streamers on my banana seat bike handlebars.
In the evenings, my parents always had a soothing drink in hand, as every other parent did. They sat in the kitchen and talked about politics, their day, always together, sometimes with neighbours coming and going, with drinks in hand. It was the 70s, man.
I always knew that my family was strong and steady, reliable, and loyal. It wasn’t from some major experience growing up; it was just something I felt and knew, like how you know where you live.
I know what a gift it is to have a solid base in life. Having a secure, predictable family life set me up for a good chance at a happy, fulfilling life.
One night, the five of us had all sat down together to have our normal, nightly dinner, probably of Shake N Bake pork chops (my personal childhood favourite). I was probably around 10, making my sister and brother well into their teenage years. Usually, the dinner table was full of happy conversation, but that night was different. There had been a theft—an inside job!
My Mother always left her purse on top of the fridge, and it seemed that a 50-dollar bill had been stolen right out of her wallet. I was aghast, of course. We’d been burglarized!
My parents asked if we knew anything about it and said we were all going to sit there at the table until we figured it out. While sitting there, long after we’d eaten, my little next-door neighbour friend knocked on the back kitchen door, wondering if I could come out and play. I told her what was going on and that I had to help my family figure out what happened before I could come out.
Well, luckily, Joanne happened to be looking out her window late the night before and saw a man sneaking into our house through the side door! Oh my god. She solved the case. I reported the news back with Nancy Drew’s jubilation and was dismissed to go out and play. My sister and brother continued to sit, and I never heard a word about it again.
There was no yelling in our home.
My parents must have hidden their arguments, because surely with a lifelong marriage there are some good fights in there, no?! My older brother Jim, sister Cathy, and I weren’t allowed to yell up the stairs to each other or our parents even. “Go up and get them. Don’t holler,” my father would say to me when I was to fetch them at dinnertime. There was no shouting in the house.
The only time any of us called out, which I’m differentiating from shouting, was when we came home into the house. “Hello?!” Invariably, someone, if they heard you, would answer you back, “Hi! I’m in the living room!” It is so grounding to be welcomed home every time you walk in the door. Someone was always there.
All through my life, as I grew, Mom was always there.
It was the third week of January when Mom arrived on the train from Toronto.
It was a month after the cancer bomb was detonated on my life, and of course, she was devastated and heartbroken—we all were. All things considered, my little family of five was managing alright. I was feeling okay physically, and I had stopped crying every day. The stifling grief had shifted enough to make it possible for me to better compartmentalize the trauma of being diagnosed with incurable breast cancer at 46.
I had been on this merry-go-round already, 10 years ago, when my cancer was caught early and treated aggressively, just to be safe. At that time, my oncologist told me that I had the “good” kind of cancer (whatever the f*ck that means). Doubt he’d say that now. At that point in my life, in my 30s, I had just gotten a great promotion, and my children were just littles. My baby wasn’t even two. It was supposed to be an exciting time in our lives, but instead, I spent the next 4-5 years in and out of the hospital for treatments and surgeries. It was a difficult time in my life.
My Mother came then too.
But that was 10 years ago before she’d been raked over the coals—through it all. Back then, she’d make the five-hour drive, back and forth, then back and forth again, through rain, through winter storms, straight into a young, busy, chaotic house.
My house was not like the house in which she raised me.
It was tough, I know. She went from living alone, straight into my loud, active, and sometimes unruly house. My youngest was the most active little Spiderman you’d ever seen; he climbed anything and everything without any fear at all. He got into every drawer, every cupboard, emptied them as fast as he could, then would sit for hours on end in front of a video if you let him. It was our only trick in the bag when I was sick.
One day, with my Mom’s help recovering from my first mastectomy, my youngest son had managed to open a bottle of baby powder. A big bottle. (You know where this is going.) He emptied that full container of white powder all over the carpeted room, into and all over the drawers full of clothes. I think my Mother would have packed up and left right then if she didn’t love me as much as she does. We both silently cried over that—at least I did—and I’m sure she did it at least just out of frustration. It was all just too much. (She, for sure, said some pretty bad swear words, which you don’t hear too often from a woman like my Mother.)
I couldn’t have gotten through without her, though.
She saved me physically and emotionally; she mothered my kids so much more than they will remember. She loved them, read to them, hugged them, and rocked them to sleep when I couldn’t. She bought them winter suits, mittens, warm boots, clothes, and jammies when she found they were outgrowing things and I hadn’t noticed. She bought birthday party gifts, wrapped them, arranged rides with other mothers (or drove them herself). She put a full meal on the table. Every. Single. Night. She made three little lunches, cutting off the crusts as she had for me, so they’d be ready for the children the next morning.
As she stepped off that train, it was, as usual in Ottawa, a bone-numbingly cold day in January. I had kept my new “screw-it-I’m-dying” car warmed up for her.
My invitation was part of a plan to show her how “well” we were doing with the goal of putting her mind at ease. I was going to give her the royal tour—show her how great I was managing, how well the family was functioning. We’d do a little shopping together, she’d be relieved to see how awesome I was doing, and then I’d send her back on the train. Back home to Toronto, back to the home we were raised in. She could go back to her life and not worry as much.
Deep down, I was trying to soothe myself. After the initial shock and grief of the metastatic diagnosis came the big guy: the guilt.
For a long time, I felt smothering guilt for being sick again. But I was really sick this time. Incurable, with a median life span of three years. I felt if she came to see me doing okay, it might make me feel a little less guilty for ruining her life—for ruining everyone’s life.
I couldn’t get past that I had screwed up everyone’s life by getting sick. My children. My husband. And, my Mother. I had violated some code of conduct for children and had to bear the responsibility. I did not want to be the source of anyone’s pain, especially hers.
What I was doing to this woman, my beautiful Mother, who had had so much grief and loss in her life already, was shameful. I felt that. Shame. Guilt. A nuisance.
“But chin up. It’s going to be okay, Mom. Come see how well I’m doing!”
My plan completely backfired. The royal tour went off the rails pretty fast.
Unbeknownst to me, cancer in my abdomen was spreading fast across my peritoneal lining, squishing my small intestines together, making them all sticky and kinked. The more kinked they became, the more blocked they became, eventually causing a complete bowel blockage.
As Mom settled in, I tried to hide my concern about the increasing pain I felt. I quietly connected with my supports and medical contacts to figure out what I should be doing. Finally, after a day or two, I had to fess up and go to the emergency room.
As much as I hated that she was there to see all this first-hand, I was also relieved she was with me. The only person I want with me when I’m sick is my Mom. Still now, at 49, I want her. Only she instinctively knows when to bring me fresh water or a little plate of food or plain white toast with butter and the crusts cut off—just like she did when I was 10. Only she would think to get a flower and put it where I can easily see it from my bed, just for something pretty for me to look at. She’s taught me to be a mother like that.
The “look at me doing fine” royal tour ended up being three emotional, scary, and tiring months in the hospital. There was no glamour, no reassurance, no happy crowds, and no shopping trips. For three months, I laid in the hospital—one medical disaster after another. And she stayed. She stayed with me, at the end of the bed, while I slept, when I woke, whenever there was a procedure, whenever I hurt. Every time I opened my eyes, I would see my loyal and steady muse. She was always there.
The pain in my abdomen I’d been trying to handle when she had first arrived for the Royal Tour ended up being the prelude to my first major abdominal surgery.
That surgery was traumatic for so many reasons.
It was a bowel obstruction the surgeons were trying to fix when my Dad died 18 years before. He was 60 years old, and his health problems seemed to come out of nowhere. He and my Mom had just sold their business and retired. Finally, they were going to have some time for themselves. He had held his new granddaughter, my first baby, Anna, just three weeks before. His surgery went well; they resected the bowel and attached a colostomy bag (which he would have hated). But, due to questionable care, he ended up having a cardiac arrest in the recovery room.
God, it was awful to see him in that bed, on a respirator, having seizures. Just awful. I’ll never forget the morning I came downstairs in my parents’ home, where I grew up—where, 20 years later, my Mom still lives—to answer the side doorbell. It was Jane, a neighbour from across the street, asking how things were the night before at the hospital. I said, “The same. No change.” Mom came up behind me and said, “Oh, no, honey. He’s gone.”
The night before my bowel surgery, it became all too much. The terminal diagnosis, the palliative prognosis, and then the final blow: the same surgery that caused my beloved father’s death.
How cruel can you be?
My poor Mother.
Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.
I didn’t realize how traumatized I actually was until that night when, suddenly, I felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest; I couldn’t catch my breath; my field of vision started to close in. (My first panic attack.) I literally thought that that was the moment I was going to die. My blood pressure was super high, my pulse too. Meds didn’t help, and though I pleaded for doctors and help, they understood before I did what was happening (which is reassuring since they’re the experts taking care of me). The only thing that brought me down was the soothing voice of my husband on the phone. Breathing with him. Focusing on his deep voice and following his directions. As much as we bicker and have our issues, if I look in his dark green eyes, hear his quiet, deep voice, he can ground me. I trust him completely with my safety.
My Mom never showed me any panic about the surgery. She gave me knowing squeezes and tight hugs, but, in front of me, she never fell apart. My good friend, Anne, who was there every step of the way (and probably knows more about my medical history than I do), has always marveled at the strength of my Mother, saying how hard it must have been on my Mom, and how she never let on. Anne is a doctor herself, knew all the nitty-gritty about my case, and helped us understand. She is worth another story. Anne said my Mom was always realistic, even when that meant she understood she might lose me.
The thing with my family, as I said, is that they are reliable.
When you need them, they are there with their arms out, ready to catch you or carry you—whatever you need. Never was that so apparent to me than during this surgery and the months of hospitalization that followed. My brother, his wife, my sister…they all dropped everything and drove the five hours to Ottawa.
To support me, yes, but to be there for Mom, to help my children. My youngest needed a birthday gift for a party he was going to, and my sister would take him out to get something. My other son was playing hockey and needed rides, his skates sharpened, and new winter boots. They did it all. My husband could focus on me. On his work. My Mom was shuttled around as she wanted and needed. It was getting too hard for her to drive.
My mother-in-law, who has volunteered for over 40 years on a cancer ward, seeing all kinds of families and situations, said she has never seen a family come from far and wide (my aunts and cousins even came from out of town) and be as present as mine was, for me. That is quite something, I think.
After that first surgery, I was wheeled back to my room.
They had been able to resect the bowel, unblock it; however, it had been touch and go. There was so little healthy bowel that they could have sewed me up and given up. The surgeon said that would have been a reasonable outcome. But, I think my Dad was there encouraging the surgeon to give me a chance, to stretch the perimeters, and make it happen. I came out with at least a chance to continue to get cancer under control.
And there she was, sitting in the corner waiting for me—my Mom.
My sweet, petite Mom, dressed in a smart grey tracksuit, with a blue and grey scarf neatly tied around her neck. Even when she is run ragged, she looks good. There she was, trying not to get in the way but getting in the way by being right in the middle of things.
Her little blue eyes, twinkling with worry.
My first feeling is relief—relief that I haven’t died on her. I’m sorry I am putting you through this.
I wanted to apologize to her. Tell her that she didn’t deserve this.
What kind of daughter makes her relive the path of her husband’s death?
“Mom, I’m going to be okay, I promise.
I promise I’ll be a good girl.”
After my bowel surgery that January, I had every complication and problem imaginable. I came close to death. I ended up on a respirator (for different reasons, but just like my Dad).
All through those days, my Mom never left me. I think my brother forced her to take a break and go back to Toronto maybe once or twice, but she came right back after two days.
We got into a routine. She would come early in the morning, often before I woke up so that the first thing I saw was her sitting in the corner with her coffee and paper. Just like at home when I was a child. Always with a morning paper.
She’d offer me breakfast and a cup of tea. We’d talk, chat with the nurses, and let the day unfold as it would, always hoping for no drama from my body. She was on top of the doctors and nurses and knew what was happening. She knew when I needed some space and would go walking around the hospital.
There were periods when she was staying at a nearby hotel, sometimes at a generous friend’s house who lived next to the hospital, and sometimes at the hospital’s little hotel. In the evening, she would usually leave to go back to her hotel room, freeing me up for a “husband visit.” Hubby would come late and crawl into the little bed with me, joining alongside the tubes, IV, feeding bags, and sh*t bag. It doesn’t sound romantic, but it was. We’d lie there holding each other in disbelief but thankful at the same time.
It was a tumultuous time. A scary, sad, difficult time. Yet, somehow, I felt safe in my little hospital bed. Some nights, unsteady nights, or nights that I was particularly helpless, my Mom would sleep in my room—at 80 years old.
Imagine that! Eighty years old.
Now, I do have friends. Really great friends in the city and great friends who traveled from afar to be with me. I do have siblings. But this was her spot. She’d claimed it and don’t bother trying to convince her to rest elsewhere. And that is what I wanted too.
Medicine, doctors, and perseverance certainly healed me, but I walked out of that hospital because I was engulfed by so much love.
My Mother’s love—her encouragement and faith in me.
She’s there. She’s always there.