My mom was told she had breast cancer five years ago. Actually, I was told, because I answered her phone and told the nurse on the other end that I was my mother. My mom was not fond of this idea when I first suggested it several days earlier, but I couldn’t stand the thought of her hearing such a terrifying diagnosis from a stranger. She finally realized that she wasn’t going to change my mind.
We had hoped for a weekend after her biopsy that we would hear instead that she had an infection. We would treat it, and move on. This kind of thing didn’t happen in my family. My brother and his wife had just separated. My husband’s grandmother had just died. That was enough, right? I was sure that things had to start balancing out all of the heartache we were already feeling. But I was wrong, and I heard the word “cancer” on the other end of the phone. I tried so hard to stay composed. I just wanted to ask questions, every question imaginable, to be able to get off the phone and give my mom some sort of hope.
I was still on the phone when my mom realized what I was learning about her fate and her future. Her broken heart broke mine too. An hour later we were in her doctor’s office, making plans to save her life by almost killing her with chemotherapy.
I have spent this anniversary tied up in knots, uncertain of what to expect. I remember so many times with my mom talking about how important the five year cancer survivor mark was. At her second year with no recurrences, it began to seem attainable. I wish I had spent this time celebrating with her. I wish for a lot of things.
What I know is that I need this anniversary to be one that is not just a reminder of sadness and disappointment. There are so many heartbreaking days to remember in the last five years as it pertains to my mom, her cancer, and her death. It is not what I want this day to be about. I wish more than anything that she had never gotten cancer. But it taught me lessons. It changed me, and my family, permanently.
There was a moment, before my mom’s diagnosis, that I realized how I had never really prayed “the right way.” I caught myself praying after her biopsy that she didn’t have cancer. I begged and pleaded with God for anything else. But in that moment, it occurred to me that my pleading didn’t matter. Not because God wasn’t listening, but because He isn’t a magician who waves a wand and changes our reality. That’s not how it works.
So I stopped, and I prayed for something different. I prayed to be prepared for whatever was coming. I prayed for the right doctors, and nurses, to do whatever they could to save her if it came to that. I prayed to be who and what my mom needed. I didn’t really know what else to do. I think those are the moments we hear Him best.
I had conversations with my mom that are priceless to me. I would have never had them had I not feared losing her. Those conversations have given me peace since she left. I can’t say my mom’s cancer was a blessing. It wasn’t, and I won’t ever say it. But the lessons I have learned and am still learning are blessings. The times I took care of her throughout her illness were priceless, though they felt in the moment like my heart couldn’t possibly handle them.
The anniversary of my mom’s cancer diagnosis is no longer a day to celebrate survival. And ultimately, it is not a day to mourn. I think it is this for me now–I learned to pray when my mom got cancer. I learned how to love more deeply. My mom’s favorite song was “Shower the People” by James Taylor. She loved it because it’s about not missing a chance to unabashedly let the people you love know just how much you love them. To say it, out loud, for their sake, and for your own. She raised me on that idea, and it turned out to be invaluable when I feared I’d lose her.
And I pray differently now. Prayer is not to change the outcome. It is to change ourselves. To make our eyes and ears and hearts open to what God intends, even when we don’t understand. I pray now to be ready for what is coming, and to trust God better, which I’ll admit has been hard for the last five years. I’m still working on it. Thankfully, I think He’ll be patient with me.