“Girls, we went to the doctor. He had some bad news for us. I have breast cancer.” My mom seemed calm enough as she said these words, but I could see a quiet panic in her eyes. My younger sister, Hope, and I sat around our long, wooden kitchen table trying to swallow the news. Cancer? What exactly does cancer do to a person? How could my mom who has never smoked, drank alcohol, done anything bad to another person in her life have cancer? As a senior in high school on that chill, February day, I didn’t understand how my mother’s statement would impact my life three years later.
I had what some people could call the “picture-perfect” Latter-Day Saint family. I am the ninth youngest of ten kids. All of us are active members of our faith, good upstanding members of society, and best friends with each other. All my siblings are about two years apart, but we are all very close and have loud, boisterous, happy get-togethers during holidays and the summers. Everything in my life was basically perfect, up to the point of that February day.
That night I remember crying by myself in my bed, scared senseless of what this could mean and how at eighteen years old, I was too young to go through something like this. I felt like a child that had just had a bad dream and I couldn’t shake off the feeling that a monster was crouching in my closet, waiting to pounce. So I did what any child would do. I went and crawled into bed with my mom and dad. I cried myself to sleep with my mom’s arms around me, and her tears falling into my hair.
* * * * * *
Mom had to get a mastectomy. They lopped her breast right off, and she had to wear a special bra so she didn’t look lopsided. I remember thinking how nice it would be not to have boobs at all and deal with the hassle of bras and sports bras. Me and Hope would joke about getting ours removed as well, and how much easier cross country and basketball would be without all that jiggling and jostling around.
However, the cancer had spread and I was informed that Mom would need chemotherapy and radiation. All I had learned about chemo up to that point was that it makes people look 20 years older, and their hair falls out. All of these things turned out to be true. Mom showed me her “plug” one day. It was a port that they implanted under her skin right by her collarbone so she didn’t have to get an IV every time she got treatments. It was as though she was trying to make the experience seem scientific and safe. But to me, it looked like they were turning her into a robot or a lesser form of herself.
Then Mom’s hair started to fall out. My mom used to have beautiful, straight, long black hair. Then halfway through having all her babies, she chopped it off into a short “grandma” haircut. Then it turned gray and slowly faded into a silver color by the time she was fifty. So the Mom I knew had always had short, thick grayish silver hair that swept across her forehead from a deep side part. My mom was very practical and down to earth. She never wore makeup, went to the salon, or any of that “high maintenance girly stuff.” But it was hard to see Mom bald with no eyebrows or eyelashes. And it bothered her more than we realized too.
Me, all six of my sisters and three nieces decided to take a trip with my mom down to Las Vegas to see Phantom of the Opera in the Vanetian Hotel. On the three hour drive there, we all discussed Mom’s cancer, and how we all needed to have strong faith in God so that she could be healed. We believe in modern day miracles, and expected to see one with Mom because if anyone deserved it, it was her.
When we arrived in Vegas, we all got dolled up and fancy. We had decided to enrich the experience by dressing up in old high school prom dresses with red lipstick and white opera gloves. We were all laughing about the experience and the people that would stare at us, when my mom suddenly exclaimed, “Oh shoot. I forgot my wig!” She was really upset. I hadn’t seen her that bothered and irritated in a long time. “I just won’t go. I will spoil all the pretty outfits with my beanie. Just go ahead.” I was shocked that she would actually think about missing this event, and for the first time in my life, I saw my Mom who could wear gardening work clothes anywhere, feeling self-conscious about her lack of hair. We of course made her come, and made her be in the pictures as well, though she tried to be the one to just take them.
* * * * * *
I remembered still thinking that Mom was invincible. My mom was that person that would be baking bread, while watering the garden, working on a quilt, preparing a lesson for church, organizing picture books, and talking on the phone all at the same time. She was stronger than cancer. So why was she getting thinner and having to take naps during the day? And Dad was getting worried. But I knew that she would get better. If I had strong enough faith in Jesus, then He could heal her because she was a good, righteous loving person. And God always keeps His word when good people keep His commandments.
And Mom did get better for awhile. The summer after my freshman year in college, our miraculous healing came. The doctors reported that her white cell count was back up, and the chemo was working faster than they had ever seen. Her cancer went into remission, and I felt that we had won the battle. Life was perfect again, and the sun came out to fill the brilliant blue sky. Mom’s hair started growing back, and most of her energy returned.
Then during my sophomore year of college and after a six month break from PET scans, the check up tests came back with bad results. The cancer was back, and it had spread like wildfire through her body. There was a spot on her lungs, her liver, her ribs, her hip, and in her lymph nodes. I remember the family meetings where Dad would gather us all together around the long, wooden kitchen table, and he’d give us a “pep talk” to give us hope in the future, and that “we just all need to keep having faith in God and things will work out.” These talks always made me feel better, and I pushed the doubts out of my mind. Mom could not die.
I decided to serve a mission for the LDS church like so many of my older brothers and sisters. I had been assigned to serve my eighteen-month mission in Mississippi and Louisiana. I remember feeling nervous about leaving my sick Mom in her condition, but I knew that if I was going to do God’s work, and dedicate a year and a half of my life to serving him and others, then God would definitely watch over my mom while I was gone.
When I hugged my family goodbye when my family dropped me off at the Training Center for missionaries, I was startled at how much my mother was crying. She always cried when my family members left on missions because you are basically cut off from any contact with your family during that time: You can email them once a week, and make a phone call on Mother’s Day and Christmas. But in my head I knew that I would see her again, and eighteen months wasn’t really that long.
My mission flew by, and I loved every minute of it. I had never felt so happy or fulfilled in my entire life. I saw people’s lives change as they accepted the things we taught them, and as they joined the church and made a fresh start. I saw so much happiness and growth in my own life, and I learned to love and serve these hospitable people of the south. I was in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and me and my companion, Sister Johnson, were getting ready for church on a bright Sunday morning in November. I was lying on the couch in the living room, and our cell phone rang. The president of our mission wanted to speak with me.
“Sister Heaton, I am afraid I have some bad news,” he began.
I instantly knew that something really terrible was happening with my mom. I felt the sheer panic begin to sink in, and I began to sob uncontrollably. Somehow I had pushed to the back of my mind that my mom had cancer while I was thousands of miles away, talking about Jesus in the ghettos of Mississippi day in and day out. My hands started shaking, and I could barely speak. I heard some words about how my dad had called him, and he wanted me to check my email because my dad had sent me more information about my mom’s situation. But it was not good, and she didn’t seem to have much time.
The words were hollow and faint. How could she not have much time? She had already beaten cancer once. I mumbled a few replies through my numb sobbing, and hung up the phone. The email was also a blur. The sobs kept wrenching from my chest as Sister Johnson held me while I read. The words rang through my pounding head. “Your mom isn’t going to be with us much longer. We will call in the afternoon so that you can say goodbye. She has gone downhill really fast in the last two months. She loves you and is proud of what you are doing.”
I struggled through church that day, trying to contain my emotions. Most people thought I was crying nonstop because I was getting moved out of Hattiesburg that week, and being relocated to different city, Meridian, Mississippi. I had been serving in Hattiesburg for almost five months, and I had grown close to the church members and converts in that city. But I let them think what they wanted. I didn’t want to explain myself to these people. They didn’t know my Mom or the impact this would have on my life, and I didn’t feel that they deserved to know.
Then the phone call from my dad came, just as church got over. I instantly cried when I heard his voice on the phone. It had been months since I had talked to my family, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed them until that moment. I felt like a homesick puppy dog that wandered off to play and just realized that it was lost, and didn’t know its way back home.
My dad explained that they hadn’t told me how serious Mom’s situation was before now because they didn’t want me to worry and lose focus on the work here. I nodded and tried to comprehend what he was saying. Death? Not gonna make it? What did these terms mean? I had heard them before, but now I couldn’t make sense of it all. He wanted me to say goodbye to my mom. “She hasn’t been able to talk for a few days now because the cancer has attacked her vocal cords, and she is too sick. Just talk to her and tell her anything you want to say. She will hear you, and she seems to be comprehending things pretty well today.”
My heart pounded in my chest, and my throat constricted with my sobs. I didn’t know if I would be able to speak at all. “Mom, I love you. I will miss you. Thanks so much for always being my best friend.” That was all I could choke out. I heard her raspy breathing that will be stuck in my memory for the rest of my life. My dad later told me that when she heard my voice, her eyes lit up, and it looked like she was trying to say something.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Words and thoughts and that raspy breathing kept pounding through my head. Finally, at 3 a.m. I couldn’t handle it anymore.
“Sister Johnson, are you awake?”
“Do you want to go on a walk with me right now? I can’t sleep.”
And because she is that quiet, loyal, understanding person, Sister Johnson replied, “Yes. I would love to. I can’t sleep either.”
We walked down the bike trail located right behind our apartment. It was dark, and humid, but quiet and still. I felt numb as we walked in silence down that narrow paved path. We reached a bridge that ran over the top of the freeway, and walked to the middle and stopped. I stood there side by side with Sister Johnson, and we watched the cars drive underneath us with their bright headlights zooming by. I realized as I watched them, that I felt a slight anger. How could these people’s worlds continue on just fine like this when my world had suddenly stopped and shattered? I thought about dying, and I wondered what it felt like. Ironically, several cars began to bright us with their headlights and honk as they drove by as if to say, “Don’t jump. Things will work out.”
My Mom passed away 2 days later. My dad called me with the news as me and Sister Johnson were in the ghetto walking off a splintered, wooden porch that was littered with cigarette butts. The old black man we had gone to teach a lesson to that day had flaked out on his appointment. I promised myself that I wouldn’t cry that day, and I didn’t at first. I felt a numbness begin to settle in my mind. This wasn’t real. I walked around like a robot for the next few weeks, numb to any emotion, just going through the motions, and forcing myself to breathe in and out.
I decided not to go home for the funeral. God needed me in Mississippi, and that is where I would stay. I wrote a letter to be read at my mom’s funeral, but struggled to find closure in the words. I wanted to hug her more than anything else. I didn’t sleep at night, and began losing weight from the stress. I lay in bed crying silently to myself one night so that I didn’t wake my companion. I finally got out of bed and walked into the living room. I sat down on the floor, and hugged my knees to my chest and stared at the picture of Jesus we had hanging on the tan stucco wall of the apartment.
How could she have died? Didn’t I have enough faith? Hadn’t she been healed before? The words rang in the silence, as the picture of Jesus stared back at me through my tears. Suddenly an overwhelming peace enveloped me. I knew that I would see my Mom again someday. The numbness was shattered, at least for that small moment, and I seemed to glimpse a sliver of sunlight.
It seemed that all the people I met and talked to in Meridian had just lost someone. I cried every time I heard the word cancer. I don’t know if I had never realized there was so much death in the world before, or if I just hadn’t been so acutely affected by it until now. I cried and prayed with strangers on their porches, and in their living rooms. I rarely talked about my own loss, because the less I talked about it, the less real it was, and the more likely it would be that my mom would be standing at the airport when I got home. But I tried to give other people hope as I talked about how there is life after death and families can be together forever.
* * * * * * *
Six months flew by, and before I knew it I was heading home from my mission. I left with great sadness because Mississippi had become my home, and the people had become my family. I bawled all during the plane ride, and I bawled when I stepped off the airplane and saw my family waiting for me. I instinctively looked for that grayish, white hair in the crowd, but it wasn’t there. This was real. My mom was gone.
When I arrived home with my family from the airport, I dragged my luggage up to my old bedroom, still the same after eighteen months of emptiness, just a little dusty. I paused in the doorway of my mom’s bedroom, as if waiting for her to appear out of her office, and to see that wide smile and crinkled hazel eyes. As the reality sunk in, I felt that same feeling of despair and numbness start to close in.
It has been almost a year now since the moment I walked into my house, and realized that my mom really wasn’t there. I still feel depressed when I think about it, and I feel the loss heavily in my life. There are still times that I feel she will be in her room when I walk by, sitting in her old, green armchair reading a novel, her eyebrows furrowed in concentration. I think I still feel that way because I wasn’t there to see her get really sick, or to see her lying in a coffin.
I have the moments of peace every now and then just like that dark night in Meridian. It’s almost a reassurance that everything is ok, and my mom is still alive, but we just can’t see her. But for me, it still hasn’t ended. And I want it to end on a good note because I don’t like sad stories.