It was August 5, her 33rd wedding anniversary. This was the day the doctor told her he thought she had cancer. They had to do more tests to confirm. At this point it didn’t matter to me. August 5 was the day the journey started.
Three days later I drove her home from the colonoscopy that would confirm it. She kept asking me the same questions over and over again because the sedation hadn’t quite worn off yet.
“Yes, Mom, we saw the doctor.”
“You had a Diet Coke.”
“Don’t worry, I put your glasses back in their case.”
The next procedure was an endoscopic ultrasound. Then a port was implanted under her skin that would allow them to hook any IV to her without ravaging the veins in her arms. Finally, she began radiation and chemotherapy.
A week before Christmas they removed the tumor. As my mom sat in her hospital bed, attached to seven devices (morphine, saline, catheter, etc.), I looked on helplessly. We were at the mercy of her body’s cooperation—how quickly it could recover from the surgery.
I had not expected the color of bile to be green. I saw pint after pint of it being pumped out of my mom’s stomach on Christmas day. It collected itself neatly in the plastic tub next to her bed. Her intestines had refused to digest food but continued to produce acid. It was simply a side effect of performing a colostomy and cutting out a foot and a half of intestines that had been incinerated by five weeks of radiation treatment.
She tried to rest peacefully. Taking turns between sleeping, speaking, or watching useless television (how many episodes of Property Virgins are there?!).
I remember a moment a few days after the diagnosis. Any night I stay over at my parents’ house I give my mom a good night kiss on the cheek. This one night I felt the softness of her skin and realized how fragile her life is. I went upstairs and began to weep. I did not know what this cancer road would lead to, but I was very afraid. When I cried out to Jesus, I found that he was weeping too.
Right now, we’re down to one week left. One last week of chemotherapy and then she should be done with this cancer business. “In remission” it is called.
There are plenty of other moms out there who were in the hospital over Christmas or who will be on this Mother’s Day. Many of them are in much more dire circumstances than my mom because of failing health or because of inadequate finances.
It’s impossible for me to separate my mother’s treatment from the abundant health insurance and sufficient finances that my parents have. At each step of the way, we could have been denied something. Or perhaps we could weather the storm of her physical treatments and the emotional duress that accompanies it, yet be faced with crippling medical bills.
I cannot fathom having to fight both white blood cell counts and mounting medical bills. It has been a struggle to see my mother’s health be at the mercy of so many variables—and also exhausting. But it could be so much worse. Cancer has claimed many lives, including three of my grandparents.
Cancer is arbitrary. It strikes like lightening – random and cruelly. With devastation and negligence.
Our health care system is not arbitrary. It does not operate by a set of principles that are beyond comprehension. We govern it. We participate in its capitalistic maneuvering and its political favoring. My family has health insurance in part because we have been given advantages due to racial identity, family networking, and being part of the 1 percent. All of these things have worked specifically in my favor to save the life of my dear mother. None of this is fair.
When I praise God for my mother’s enduring health, it is impossible not to think of how many others have indirectly contributed to this success. And to wonder if we have also indirectly contributed to their failures.
I refuse to receive this gift and do nothing in return. I will not sit quietly as other mothers are turned away because of their finances, their faith, or their race. Jesus told a story about a stranger helping an outcast by financially and medically providing for a man beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. And he asks, “Who is your neighbor?”
In the hospital, there were many other patients recovering from surgery. When my mom goes for chemo treatments she meets others who are also getting their weekly juice. We have so many neighbors. I am stirred to use my compassion for justice. Not to smile at those suffering, but to step in and repair the breach so that they do not endure suffering at human hands.
My mother has taught me the value of others and how to sacrifice for those in need. She has always put her children first. Those lessons have not been lost on me.
She is perhaps the most precious person to me. Though I call her every day and say that it is because she is the one who has cancer and I’m checking up on her, it’s because I need her in my life.
This Mother’s Day I am truly thankful for my mom for perhaps the first time in my life. I did not know what I had until I almost lost her.
So many other children feel the same as I do. Unfortunately, many of them will not be as lucky as I am. Let’s change that reality. Let’s find some way to let cancer be the only arbitrary thing and not our human systems too.