If someone you're close to happens to be dealing with an illness, and you're feeling stuck for an adequate response, you can probably just ask them what they would prefer.
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A little over a year ago, I married the love of my life and became instant “Bonus Mom” to a gorgeous toddler. She is precocious, creative, and full of energy. Sharing in her life has been a joy and a challenge. Mostly, it has been a lesson. She is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, second only to my mother.
Mom taught me about life and womanhood holistically. She passed on her knowledge not just through the way that she raised me, but through her very way of being. There was a refreshing wisdom inherent in almost everything she did, and for most of my life, I’ve been too young to understand it.
As I continue to mature, her multifaceted, fluid intelligence is beginning to take form for me. It’s a warm, simmering mixture of love, integrity, and freedom, combined alchemically to produce something more valuable than gold. My mother bathed me in this priceless broth, and although I haven’t always appreciated it, it’s a huge part of what makes me the woman that I am.
It is a magic I am hoping to learn so that I can pass it down to my daughter. If my mother is the one who taught me how to create love, my daughter is the one who teaches me how to indulge in it. Her heart is forever open, and the affection that she shows me despite the fact that I’m not her biological mother reveals to me the kind of daughter I wish I had always been.
Unfortunately, being a conduit for that kind of open-hearted emotion hasn’t always come easily to me. Here’s what I mean.
When my mother first told me that her doctor had found Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (or DCIS) cells in her breast, I was 21 years old. I was away at college, hundreds of miles and millions of mental light years away from home. I was caught up in a tumultuous relationship, plus juggling school, work, future plans, and whatever existential questions were plaguing me at the time (there are always a few). I don’t even remember where I was when I received her phone call. I think I was in my dorm room in front of my computer.
She remembers my lack of response. “You didn’t really say much,” she said when I asked her about the details of that day. “You didn’t think it was a big deal.”
She’s right. If I remember that day correctly, I hung up the phone relatively unphased. I did zero research… and honestly, I’m not sure that I gave it much thought. I dismissed the cues. I heard the changes in her voice – the uncharacteristic quietness, the slightly higher pitch. But I latched on to what I preferred to hear, snippets like, “earliest stage,” “don’t worry,” and “I’ll be fine.” Then I went on about my day.
When it finally hit me that mother had BREAST CANCER – the same disease that tens of thousands of America women die from every year – it was months later. I was visiting, and she had just had surgery. She had opted for a mastectomy. DCIS, though non-invasive, has been known to return as a fairly aggressive form of cancer if all the affected tissue isn’t removed. “No need to take that kind of risk,” she said. My mother was strong, but the sight of her lying in bed wincing at the slightest movements will forever be ingrained in my memory.
I checked in with her briefly, but inside, I had no idea what to do. Nobody had prepared me for even the possibility of this. However, she had certainly modeled for me what it meant to be a caring, compassionate person. Why didn’t I show her more love in her moment of need?
Could have, would have, should have
It plagues me. I should have asked more questions. I should have stayed at home after her surgeries. I should have made time to sit with her, provided a safe space for her to share her authentic emotions and thoughts. She would have done that for me.
I’m not a soulless monster. Quite the opposite, actually; I feel very deeply. But, for whatever reason, dealing with emotions in the moment, especially concerning someone or something important to me, automatically sends me into a state of fight, flight, or freeze.
It’s as if a Star Wars-style force field forms around me, and I don’t let it down until I can handle a situation calmly. Although I’m sometimes praised for my ability to “stay cool under pressure,” there is a huge problem with this. It shuts down communication, bars understanding, and limits my capacity for genuine relationship with the people I love the most, often when we need each other the most.
The things we recognize in hindsight can haunt us until we turn around and face them. It was far past time for me to deal with the way I failed to show up for my mother while she was dealing with cancer.
So I called prepared to apologize.
But first, I asked her to share her story. I wanted to know how she felt about the ordeal, the experience of sharing it with family, and my reaction.
To my surprise, she preempted my apology with a confession. “I downplayed how I felt about it because I didn’t want you all to worry,” she explained. “Having a mastectomy wasn’t where I expected to end up, [but] I always felt things were going to be okay. My experience with it was a lot easier than some others’.”
When I finally told her the purpose of my call, she said “Well, I can’t tell you how you ought to feel, but I didn’t want you to have that kind of reaction… It all went the way that I wanted it to.”
And this is a story all about how my perspective got flipped, turned upside down.
For the past twelve years, I have been making my mother’s cancer about me.
It turns out that the whole story about how terrible a daughter I had been was a fictional narrative created by me, produced by me, and starring – you guessed it – me.
All this time, I’ve been holding on to how I felt about what I did/did not do for my mother. Meanwhile, she’s been living life, satisfied with the way things went and completely unbothered by any other interpretation of her truth.
Do I still wish I had had the wherewithal to do some things differently? Sure. But the truth is that at any time, I could have asked my mom how she felt, re-centered my focus on her and our relationship, and released myself from this internal drama. I guess I just wasn’t mature enough until now.
What cancer taught me about motherhood
My mother is still teaching me. Every time I listen to her, I learn a little more.
Maybe there is a lesson for all of us in this. Bad things happen all the time, more often than not to good people. Sometimes they even happen to people we love. When they do, we’re often ill-equipped; after all, none of us took “How to Deal When Your Mom Has Cancer” in high school.
On top of that, we are exposed to so many images and stories of illness that it’s easy to conflate a loved one’s story with how you imagine illness to look, feel, and think. For example, I imagined that my mother, being a cancer patient and all, surely must have been craving my explicit empathy during her ordeal. Since I didn’t give it, I imagined that somewhere deep down, she resented me for it. This ate away at me… until I found out that I was completely wrong. I could have avoided years of beating myself up if I had found the courage to listen to her sooner.
More importantly, I could have gained a better understanding of my mom and her unique experience. And though I don’t know how it feels to battle anything as grave as cancer, isn’t this what everyone wants from their relationships? To be heard and appreciated for who they are and how they see the world?
I don’t know. (It should be clear from this article that I’m not always the sharpest crayon in the box when it comes to my relational IQ.)
But, if someone you’re close to happens to be dealing with an illness, and you’re feeling stuck for an adequate response, you can probably just ask them what they would prefer. If you’re willing to listen, they might just blow your mind and tell you their truth.
It’s a lesson I’m learning a little late, to be sure. But I’m glad it’s one my mom and I can pass on to my daughter, together.