She lay on her side with her head on the armrest, her angular shoulder wedged into the square corner of the couch. She was so small, you nearly missed her with a quick glance at the living room. But if you stared long enough, you could see the rise and fall of her chest. If you listened close enough, you could hear the wheezing of her lungs.
I remember a lot of things: the things you see in movies, the things you read in novels. Her hair came out in stages — sticking to the brush in small strokes at first, then falling out in handfuls to fill the bucket we kept by the sink. She never threw up — at least that I knew of — but she hacked as if to turn the walls of her intestines inside out. Her nails chipped and turned yellow, then blue, then black. She lost her appetite and I watched her ribs protrude from her skin one at a time.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and lung cancer when I was in eighth grade.
I remember coming home to my parents sitting at the dining table. The air so still, I could see the specks of dust hovering in space.
I didn’t fully understand it then, what it meant to live with a disease. She had surgery on her breast, before the radiation and chemo. They removed a quarter of her lung to rid the tumor, and she was left with a gashing scar that ran down her back — a slightly pinker, second spine. She fully recovered a year later, and by then I was accustomed to packing lunches for my dad, my brother and myself, as well as cooking dinner, cleaning the house and waiting for clothes to dry while learning algebra.
My eighth grade was different. I got little sleep, which I now think trained me well for this rigorous college curriculum. I was forced to grow up, forced to see pain and feel the fear of death lurking in its peripheries.
Maybe it was a combination of this fear and independence that led me to attend boarding school in another country and subsequently leave for college far away.
I know it sounds ironic — why leave? How could I.
I started dancing when I was three years old and dreamed of becoming a professional dancer in a Chicago-based contemporary dance company. When my family moved from California to Japan after fourth grade, I was shocked by the culture but also the urgency I felt to return to the United States. I wanted to pursue this dream that formed over time, crystalline images that were so clear they were reflective.
My mom supported me most. Dreaming isn’t easy for everyone, she used to tell me. I was lucky to have a dream, to want something so badly I could change my lifestyle. I could travel across the globe. So I did.
After boarding school in North Carolina, an ACL tear and an awakening for a career shift, I chose to attend the University of Michigan to double major in dance and neuroscience and pursue a career path in medicine.
I was entirely consumed by my happiness, with the feeling of finally finding my niche and belonging to a university-sized world that I could pin my own. This is probably why the news of the recurrence of lung cancer hit me hard.
Stage 4 lung cancer — not surgically removable or treatable with radiation or chemo like last time.
My mom got the news of the recurrence in October. I may have been at a football game, I may have been drunk off cheap wine, I may have been locked in the library thinking midterms were a series of metastatically depressing days. My parents waited to tell me. It wouldn’t have been right to tell you over the phone, when you couldn’t see my face and know that I’m OK, my mom rationalized.
I didn’t understand how fighting cancer twice wasn’t enough.
I didn’t understand how someone who never smoked a cigarette and cooked every single meal from scratch could receive this sort of punishment from life. I didn’t understand why it always had to be her, why it couldn’t be the chainsmoker across the street or the serial killer who got away — someone who deserved it, someone not her.
How could a mom so selfless, who let her daughter leave home get this in return? How could someone make it their life mission to give and teach compassion and receive an ultimatum: You fight this war in the front lines or you die. I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand.
I would have taken her place if I could. But honestly, I don’t think I could. Say genome editing allowed my mom and I to swap our DNA helices — I could not take her place. I wish I could, I wanted to say I could, but I was too scared. Despite my astronomical feelings of guilt and resentment for the spontaneous recurrence of malignant cells, I wasn’t brave enough. I could not even begin to comprehend the fear she felt going to bed and waking up to, day after day.
And you know what the hardest part was? That she was still her — she was still happier than me, she was still more positive and giving than I could ever be. Watching her, with just three quarters of regular lung capacity, taking oral drugs to suppress tumor growth that were nothing short of poisonous, hurt.
If she could wake up in the morning and smile, still give something positive to the world, there was nothing I couldn’t do.
On New Year’s Day, I remember sitting at home with my mom. Because Japan is 13 hours ahead of Michigan, my Snapchat and Instagram were exploding with sparkly cocktail dresses and shiny cocktail glasses. Champagne corks hitting ceilings, people throwing kisses like confetti.
I remember sitting at the dining table, my mom sitting in front of me. The medication managed to stop the tumor’s growth but came with strong side effects. Her nails were destroyed, her fingers cut and the skin on her back covered in hives. I helped her apply the antibiotic ointment on her back every night to places she couldn’t reach. I covered the red bumps with the white cream like snow covering mountain tops.
For the first time, it occurred to me that my happiness fueled my mom. That I, pursuing my passions, inching toward my dream and happiness, was her greatest dream. That maybe, just maybe, the best thing I could do was focus on myself and my aspirations, because the sight of me refusing to quit somehow was a reflection on her relentlessness and willpower — I am living proof that she will not lose this war she is fighting.
Nov. 7 marks my mom’s two-year anniversary of the start of this medication. The tumor has not grown and that is what I am grateful for every morning. Every couple of weeks, she goes to the Kobe City Medical Center to get checked. Her lungs, her breasts and her blood. Every couple of weeks, my stomach drops and my intestines feel as though they are getting wrung out dry. But every couple of weeks, I am reminded of how lucky I am.
It is so easy to get caught in the drama of college, the friendships that fail, the relationships that disintegrate and the grades that teeter on a pinpoint. I took a cancer seminar last year and read cases of medications failing after long-term use. I fear that this balance of tumor suppression and growth could be shattered any day.
But I think this fear is what drives me forward. It is what tells me to appreciate today for what it is, to remind the people I love that I love them for who they have made me become and inspire me to be, and to never take anything for granted. I hope that someday I will have the kindness and strength my mom carries with her every day — that one day, I can embrace the future the way she embraces tomorrow.