Ten years ago, I sat in the waiting room at the Cleveland Clinic while my mom underwent the longest and most arduous surgery that she had faced in her five-year battle with colon cancer.
Six years and 109 days later, my mom’s battle with cancer ended.
At 12:00 a.m. this morning, Facebook Memories reminded me of what occurred so many years ago today.
On one hand it feels like ten minutes ago, and on the other it seems like an eternity. But I remember that day.
My mom was scheduled for a ten-hour surgery that would involve at least twelve surgeons. Her cancer was so widespread that the only reason they were even willing to attempt anything was because a new chemotherapy “wash” that the Cleveland Clinic had had in trial phase had been approved by the FDA that summer. It was the only treatment that had any shot at making a difference, and they were determined to at least try.
It had only been a few weeks since some of us had been at the Clinic. In July, when blood tests revealed an abnormality but scans had not shown tumors, the surgeon who had performed her prior tests, treatments, and surgeries opted for exploratory surgery just to make sure nothing was wrong. It turned out that everything was wrong.
My mom had cancer in her colon, all over her abdominal cavity walls, and on many of her vital organs. There was so much cancer that the surgery that they had hoped was just exploratory, or at most a simple procedure to remove one or two tumors, was aborted to brainstorm how to move forward, and to schedule the surgeons required. They would try again on August 21st.
When we arrived in Cleveland the night before mom’s surgery, we spent our time enjoying each other’s presence and doing our best to ignore the elephant in the room. My siblings were in from North Carolina and Pittsburgh, and having no idea what we would face the next day, we enjoyed the evening as much as possible. At some point, we went down to the hotel pool in an attempt to kill some time. The pool water was cold, but there were people in the nearby hot tub. We wanted to get into the hot tub and my siblings were annoyed when the people in it occupied it for a great span of time with no consideration for anyone else. I remember being so irritated with them for being so irritated about something so inconsequential! Mom’s body was overrun with cancer and this surgery was our only hope. Who cared how cold the pool was or how long the hot tub hoarders stayed? Tomorrow was what everyone should have been worried about.
Well, tomorrow finally arrived and my family made our way to the Cleveland Clinic. Mom’s surgery was scheduled early since it was slated to take so long and require so many people. My family and I sat with my mom until she was called back to be prepped, and then the waiting game began. It’s funny what you remember in the midst of trying times…
I remember that we had a large group, so finding space in the waiting area was difficult.
I remember that at the time, the Cleveland Clinic provided families with a pager that allowed the surgical team to send updates as things progressed. That pager seemed like a hot potato in the children’s game – everyone touched it, but everyone was afraid to be caught with it when the timer went off. What if the message it transmitted hinted at something bad? Who would be the one to know first and have to share the news?
I remember that when we went to sit on the lower floor because there was more space, the particular area that we ended up in had a water feature. It was meant to soothe. It ended up irritating me because it had been a rainy summer at home that year, and the water feature sounded like a downpour. I didn’t want the dreariness of a rainy day clouding my mood in the waiting room on surgery day. I wanted to remain hopeful.
I remember that at different parts of the day, my family drifted in and out of the hospital. No one went real far, but they couldn’t just sit and wait. I couldn’t do anything but sit and wait. I had brought several books with me, had a list of people that I was entrusted to update throughout the day, and I just couldn’t make myself walk out of the waiting room even though I desperately wanted to be anywhere else.
I remember people watching.
I remember witnessing moments of incredible emotional intimacy play out in the midst of anxious chaos.
I remember seeing the relief on people’s faces when they received the page that their loved one’s surgery was coming to an end.
I remember waiting.
And staring at the pager.
And staring at the pager.
As I managed my stress that day (I got mad at my coffee cup), and observed other people – complete strangers – manage their own, I remember knowing that the irritation I had felt toward my siblings the night before had been unfair. They were anxious, too, and their frustration had been placed at the steps of an occupied hot tub. It wasn’t about the people or the hot tub. It was about wanting to be able to affect an outcome; to be in control when we were overwhelmed by a situation in which we had none.
As I reflect today, I am astonished by the events that led us to that day and the events that would come after. Mom’s recovery was long and painful; her surgery had been all-encompassing and took a toll on her body. My mom had been through a lot in the prior five years since her original Stage 4 diagnosis (including a diagnosis of, and treatment for breast cancer), but this was the first time that mom showed signs of battle fatigue. As usual, though, Mom handled it with incredible patience, grace, and humor, and she was back to normal in a remarkably short period of time. If you had met her, you’d never had known that she was fighting a terminal illness.
Looking back, I know that the five years that led us to August 21, 2009, helped prepare us for the years ahead. The waiting, and wondering, and fearing, and hoping of that day ten years ago prepared us for the unknowns that accompanied the diagnoses that were yet to come. Waiting rooms and treatment facilities became familiar territory as mom underwent a total of more than one-hundred rounds of chemotherapy…with a few radiation treatments and clinical trials thrown in, too. While the ten+ hours of waiting that day seemed excruciatingly slow, the three weeks of transitioning to death that happened late in 2015 seemed to happen in a split second. Through all of it, though, three things stood out: We had mom. We had each other. And we had faith.
A little over a year ago, I wrote the following:
God didn’t give my mom cancer. God didn’t choose to not cure my mom. God didn’t choose to not answer the prayers of all of those who desperately wanted my mom to live. God didn’t. Cancer did.
Cancer happens. Life happens. Tragedy, illness, and heartache happen. God doesn’t cause it. Ever. God sees us through.
My mom had cancer…not because God decided to smite my mom for some sin or misstep, but because cells in her body multiplied too quickly and tumors formed. Cancer spread…not because God thought my mom deserved to suffer, but because cancer is; cancer does.
Through every single moment of her cancer, my mom believed in God, trusted God, thanked God. Not because she thought God would cure her…but because she believed that God gave her the strength to find the good in every single day that she didn’t have cancer, and every single day that she did.
My mom was first diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in 2004. It should have been the end, but she had eleven incredible years after her diagnosis. She got to see her kids get married. She got to see her kids start families. She got to meet every single grandson born into our family. She got to teach after she retired from teaching, and she retired early because she had a cancer fight to fight.
She lived to see my brother come home from Afghanistan after she was placed in Hospice care, and she died the day he turned 30. That might sound awful to you, but we actually got to celebrate my brother’s birthday because we weren’t worried about the deteriorating status of my mom. She couldn’t give him a gift that day, but she ended up giving us all a gift. We celebrated life that day instead of fearing her death.
Life happens. Illness happens. Death happens. Things we can’t control happen. The God that my mom believed in, and taught me to believe in, doesn’t cause them…but God does see us through.
And God continues to do just that…as does my family.
It’s been ten years since my mom’s massive surgery. It’s been just shy of fifteen years since her original diagnosis. It’s been almost four years since she died. As I look back at all of the days between then (the many “then”s which we experienced) and now, I don’t see cancer anymore. I see a brief part in the continuing story of a remarkable family. Cancer may have facilitated the end of my mom’s life, but it in no way defined it. Her life was defined by love. Always love.
My mom loved life, she loved and was loved by her family, and she loved and was loved by God. Those days were full of cancer and all of its messiness, of course…but they were also filled with courage, laughter, friendship, hope, victories, celebrations, tears, fears, hope, patience, kindness, compassion, and strength. But most of all, love.
On this tenth anniversary of one of my scariest days, I am so thankful for the lessons that my mom taught – in life, through her illness, and in the way that she died – and all of the lessons that I’m still learning along the way. I’m thankful that I have reached a place where the realities of cancer no longer provide the lens through which I re-view the stories and life moments that happened between 2004-2015. I would give anything for my nephews to have had more time with my mom, but I look forward to the stories that I can tell them of her strength, grace, humor, and courage – the true scope of which I would never have fully understood had it not been for the battle she fought.
At the end of this day ten years ago, I was so thankful that my mom was alive. At the beginning of this day, I am so thankful that she lived. As I look toward tomorrow, I do so knowing that I can’t stop what’s coming – good or bad – but it’s still up to me to choose how I will respond. I’m grateful to have had such an incredible example.