The room, dark and quiet — except for the slow, concentrated steps we made. Her eyes, closed; her mouth, frowning.

The doctors told us to wake her up, but they were nowhere to be found. My aunt and dad grabbed each of her hands with a soft touch, and whispered.

Her eyes came up slowly, and she furrowed her brow. I stood at the end of the long bed, but she didn’t see me. “The lymph nodes…” my mom inquired, groggy, confused, in pain.

“You’re clear,” my dad whispered, his eyes wide. “There is no cancer in your lymph nodes.”

My mom didn’t believe him. Her memory lasted just a few moments until she asked again: “The lymph nodes?” After several reminders, her eyes opened widely. “Where’s Jen? Is she here?”

I took my dad’s place and held her hand. “I’m so happy you’re here. Thank you, Jen.”

I didn’t recognize the tears forming in my eyes until three small drops hit her white sheets. I quickly wiped the wet marks streaming down my face when she looked at my aunt. At this moment, she moved her hands to feel where her breasts once were, and winced.

***

My mom told me she had breast cancer at the end of my junior year of college. The news hit us hard. Never did I ever imagine something touching the indestructable. How could something like this happen to a woman who caught a snake and asked if I wanted to hold it, too, when I was just nine years old? The woman who encouraged me to play on the arborous hillside by our suburban house, to get scrapes and scars on my knees, to save the lizard my cat brought into the house for show?

She first told me after I returned home to California this May. I was registered for a half marathon in Santa Barbara in a few days, so I went for a long run my first morning back. Before returning home, I texted my mom: “Can we ride the horses today?” “Possibly!”

Possibly! didn’t feel right. I locked my phone and drove home.

I came through our back door to find my parents sitting in the kitchen, waiting. I followed them to our living room, confused by their serious faces. My chest filled with difficulty with each breath.

“I found a lump in my breast,” my mom said, her voice wobbling. Before she said anything else, I started crying. “It’s breast cancer,” she finished after my hands already covered my face.

My breathing grew more difficult; my tears more full; my stomach more twisted. But it cleared over time. I realized that after 21 years of her unwavering support, care and comfort, it was my responsibility to provide the same for her.

***

Several days later, my mom and I were down working in our barn and missed more than ten calls from my dad. We came back to find a message from him saying the doctors at the University of Southern California’s Keck Medical Center would be able to squeeze my mom’s double mastectomy in on Thursday. It was Monday.

At first I smiled giddily at my mom. I knew she wanted the cancer out immediately, and this surgery would do just that. But, after a few moments of excitement, she broke down. Thursday was so soon — she wasn’t mentally ready. As she sat in her chair at her desk, I wrapped my arms around her for I’m not sure how long. Eventually I lowered to the floor, leaned against her legs, and watched mindless TV with her for the rest of the night.

The next few days were a blur. My parents had appointment after appointment in Downtown; my aunt flew from Gilroy; I asked my then-boyfriend to cancel his visit to California the upcoming weekend (which, of course, my selfless mom felt horrible about).

And then it was finally Thursday. My dad and aunt went to the hospital with my mom while I stayed at home. “The surgery will be a while,” my dad told me. “You should come around 6:00 or 7:00 to be there when she wakes up.”

So I waited.

***

Something hit me when I saw my mother, without her breasts, in her hospital gown that Thursday evening. It went beyond the cancer — or, at this point, lack thereof — that poisoned my mother and threatened her life. I feel immature to have been taken aback by my mother’s immediate physical change, but I can’t hide from it.

Her most maternal physical attributes were gone, and I couldn’t quite comprehend it. And I still can’t. Though her final reconstructive surgery will be just days after this article is published, I will always remember that feeling. The feeling of growing up, of caring for another person far more than yourself, of weakness and strength all at once.

My mother, a survivor, is indestructible. I always knew this about her: she was the youngest of six in a single-mother home; she began working at 14 to save money for college; she sacrificed her teaching career to take care of me and my two sisters; she loves us unequivocally. And she’s been through much more strife that I can’t put into words here.

It was my turn to be strong for her. During her stay at the hospital, I only exited the room once to cry; seeing her in pain was so difficult. But through all the pain, she was never worried about herself — she was worried about how me and my sisters were doing. And I had to show her how her strength inspired us to be a support system for her now.

Months later, my mom always reminds me of how fortunate it was that her diagnosis and surgery happened during my longest period of time at home in nearly two years (and likely from now on). But since the summer, the conversation has returned to my antics: my recent breakup, my job at The Michigan Daily, my nerves about life post-grad. My mom has returned to a position of stability and support for me, and I have not stayed the same support system for her as I was for those few weeks several months ago.

Perhaps some day I’ll be like her. Until then, I’ll try to follow her lead.

 

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