New Year’s Eve and What I Learned About Having The “Bad Kind” of Cancer

Another essay that I recently uncovered:

I have never liked New Year’s Eve. Every time that I tried to do something big for this pseudo-holiday I was continually disappointed. In 2004, I had an anti-New Year’s Eve. I said to myself that I wasn’t going to go to any parties and that I refused to participate in making resolutions which I knew, from experience, that I wouldn’t keep. No rushing around in a desperate search to find someone to bring the new year in with, when I knew, also from experience—very painful experience–that the person wouldn’t be around for the next 364 days. All this smacked me as a way of trying to control life, when the only thing that I was sure of at the beginning of 2004 was that this year would bring me things that I didn’t plan and could not control. I guess that this sounds cynical, but I had this revelation while sitting in the bedroom that I had grown up in as a teenager. I had moved home to my mother’s house and to this room four months before, because my mother–in her long struggle with a form of bone marrow cancer—seemed to be getting worse and not better. She needed help and I was exhausted from trying to help her while living a five-hour drive away in Alabama. So I took leave from my job as an English professor at Auburn University and moved back home to my old room in my childhood house.

This might not seem like such a big deal to some, because children of sick parents move home all the time to help with their parents care. I mean, One True Thing is one of my favorite movies. Based on the novel by the same name, the movie is essentially about what happens to certain family dynamics when a mother becomes ill with cancer and the daughter moves home to help out. But for me, moving home was a revelation—a complete surprise. I had moved away from South Carolina in the early 1990s and at the time I declared, in epic fashion, that, as “God was my witness,” nothing and no one could make me live with my mother again. My mother, being the competent lawyer that she was, never met an argument she didn’t like. I also was no slouch in the arguing department. I could take something as mundane as the weather and turn it into an issue for fierce debate. Some poor fool would make a simple comment like, ‘wow, it’s a nice day,” and I would use that as an excuse to launch into a diatribe about the effects of global warming and offer my millennial prophecies of doom. Added to my penchant for drama, and a little too much stubbornness on both our parts, my mother and I couldn’t manage to see eye to eye on anything. Everything about my mother’s life made me angry. It is hard to admit, but even her cancer made me angry. I blamed both her and her poor life choices for her illness.

I can see now, of course, how easy it is to get stuck into the habits of interaction that we develop as children. I was used to being angry at my mother. I had been mad at her for many things, but mostly for divorcing my father, working too much, and always– and I mean, always–being late. My mother used to wait sometimes until 7 or 8 o’clock at night to pick my sister and me up from school after cheerleading or track practice. The school janitors often would offer to drive us home or to call the police, thinking that we had been abandoned. “No thanks,” we would reply, “our mom is coming.” And we would seethe—sweaty, hungry, and tired—as we sat on the curb in the dark.

The 32 year-old me managed to temporarily suspend all my anger as I took a job that was closer to home and attempted to squeeze all the possessions that I had acquired, in the years of living on my own, into my old bedroom and a closet that held all the misguided 80s fashions that I had bought in my quest to look like Prince. Moving home also allowed me to think twice about my decision to make teaching my career. Even after four years, I haven’t felt comfortable in my role as an academic. I always saw myself doing something that would allow me to use my creativity. Teaching, while sometimes rewarding, hadn’t been creative. In fact, I had to re-think the whole idea of having a career at all.

Although this will sound very anti-feminist and antiquated, I have never really wanted to work. I have never had any great ambition or driving sense of life purpose. I fell into grad school like I fall into everything else. After college graduation, I had a job working as a salesperson in a department store. All I knew is that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life, so more schooling was the next logical step. In my mind, graduate school would buy me some time to figure out what I was supposed to be doing on this planet. Well, the thing is, I never really figured it out. I woke up 6 years later and had a Ph.D. and thought, now what?

Therefore, I did the thing that I was expected to do and applied for jobs and tried to publish academic articles, but still in the back of my mind I wondered if there wasn’t more to life than this. The only clear goal that I had for myself was to get married and have a family. And, of course, to have money, because I wanted to be able to shop as much as possible. Naturally, I assumed that everything else would just fall into place.

Since I never got the money, the man, or the meaning, by the time that I moved home (this time) I accepted that life would be nothing more than a random series of accidents. Contemplating this randomness, all the ways in which life disappointed me, made me at turns both angry and unbelievably sad.

Here I was well into my thirties and I felt myself becoming bitter and afraid. I was afraid that nothing would ever get better, ever change. I was also afraid that my life was just fated to be this way, that even God did not want me to be happy. I became addicted to the British chick lit books like Confessions of a Shopaholic and Bridget Jones’ Diary, because, in those books, no matter how much the protagonists managed to mess up their lives, they were always redeemed in the end. The main characters always managed to get their man and find their true calling. Those books gave me hope that things would also turn around for me, but they made me increasingly depressed each year when everything seemed to remain the same. Where was my redemption? Was it only for white girls with posh accents?

It was in this phase of feeling completely lost that I had to find the resolve to help my mother. Truth be told, I was a horrible caretaker. Unlike, Renee Zellweger who starts out reluctant to move home in One True Thing, but ends up doing things like giving her mother a bath, and cooking a whole Thanksgiving dinner by herself, I never did anything more than occasionally take my mother out to eat and drive her around when she required. I was too wrapped up in my own misery, really, to be the kind of help that my mother needed. I used to grumble and complain when my mother wanted me to drive her all over town to do whatever it was that she needed to do. My mother believed, for one, in paying all her bills in person. She wanted to physically go to Sears to pay her Sears bill, and go to the electric and telephone companies to pay them as well. In the days of online banking, this drove me insane. “Can’t you just drop it in the mail?” I would ask, while rolling my eyes. “What will I do if the post office loses it?” My mother would respond. My mother had this profound mistrust of the mail. She sometimes would insist on making copies of whatever she finally did manage to put in the mailbox, even letters that she sent to my brother and sister, just in case only her letters managed to blow out of the mail truck.

My mother also cooked every day. It was hard to object when I would come home and she had a meal of roast lamb, asparagus, and red potatoes on the table. My mother stuck her foot in the pot when she cooked (for non-Southerners, this means that she was a very good cook). With a lot of insincerity, I would weakly complain by saying every other week or so “but I am supposed to be taking care of you!” But I didn’t ever cook myself and rarely if ever thanked her for cooking for me.
My life became a cycle of driving my mother to the doctor, going to work, occasionally going out with a few of my un-married friends from high school, and spending time holed up in my room reading books. I had trouble with the fact that I was in my 30s still saying things like, “I am going to my room.” At this point, I should have been saying things like “I am going to my beach house in Hilton Head.” Even though I was leading the easy life of a child, that sense of youthful, carefree happiness continued to elude me.

However, one thing that moving home showed me is really how much I am like my mother. When I managed to stick my head out of “my room” and actually sit down and talk to my mother (when we weren’t arguing), I realized how much we have in common. I realized for the first time that my mother was also living in a depressed haze of unfulfilled expectations. I had always seen my mother as the enemy, as a competent woman who had achieved almost every goal that she set for herself. At least she had been married, even if it didn’t work out–I thought with envy. She could cook, sew, play the piano, sing beautifully, run a business, and she was a lawyer. I, on the other hand, would consider it a crowning achievement if I managed to have a good hair day. But when I really looked at my mother I saw that disappointment had affected her as much as it had me. I think the reason that she had difficulty trusting anything, even the mail, was because for as many times in her life where she got what she wanted, there were an equal number of times where she didn’t. It is those times when we don’t get what we want that drive us. It is what shaped her.
My mother also hid things, from herself and others. She was not one to disclose something like the fact that she was depressed or even that there was something in her life that she could not handle. I never once talked to her about how she felt about having cancer, being sick, and not once did she indicate that she wanted to discuss it. Instead, as she got sicker and began to lose weight, going from a size 16 to a 6, she used it as an excuse to replace her whole wardrobe, shopping non-stop, and to brag about her figure. She, of course, was avoiding the real issue–the thing that made her lose weight in the first place, her cancer.

I also know about avoiding. I know about spending money on clothes and shoes because you have such a profound sense of unhappiness that you do not know how to cure. My mother and I were definitely a pair. I wish I could say that these revelations about the similarity of our lives made our interaction easier, that I became a Dalai Lama-like model of compassion, that I sat at my mother’s bedside with extreme patience—just waiting to do whatever she asked without complaint. Maybe I saw that we were similar, but that just made me want to escape even more. I didn’t want to end up like her, a divorcee with cancer. And not only did she have Cancer. She had what they call a bad kind of cancer. The kind that you manage and don’t cure– a Steve Jobs kind of Cancer that hundreds of millions won’t fix. If someone asked me what kind of cancer my mom had and I said multiple myeloma. People said, “Oh!” That’s too bad,” while shaking their heads indicating that it was a lost cause (Note: the treatment for multiple myeloma has come a long was since then and there are far better treatment options). I could appreciate the sadness in her life, but, nevertheless, I stayed in my room.

When my mother died in March of 2004, it was another complete surprise. She said that she was having trouble breathing. At first, my response to her was that she probably just had allergies. I didn’t really pay her any attention. But when she continued to complain, I rolled my eyes and got up to drive her to the emergency room. I was thinking, the whole time as I was driving to the hospital, that she was going to have me sit in the emergency room all night just to be sent home with some antihistamines. Never did I imagine that her heart was enlarged. I didn’t think for one minute that she had an infection in her lungs. As they were pushing me out of the emergency room and sticking a tube down my mother’s throat, the last thing that I said to her is “I will be right outside.”

Maybe if I had known that was the last thing that she would hear me say, I would have tried to be more profound. Maybe I would have said that I understood her sadness and that I had sadness and disappointment of my own. Now my greatest disappointment was that I did not have any more time to spend with my mother doing things that mothers and daughters are supposed to do—that I had failed, ultimately, at even doing that. When my mother’s heart stopped, my heart broke.

A wise woman I work with once said to me that the reason most people do not keep New Year’s resolutions is because these promises are made in January. “You need to go with the seasons,” she said. “The Springtime is when you are supposed to start new projects. Spring symbolizes new life—Easter, Passover, and all that.” I never thought about it, but I had to laugh. All this time, I had been failing because my timing was off. Despite my whole anti-New year’s start to the year, I thought that maybe it would be a good time in May to begin making goals for myself. And as I sat down with my scarred and cellulite-ridden body, my imperfect teeth, my less than stellar credit rating, my career indecision, and the pain of my mother’s death to write; I resolved that it was not too late to become the best daughter that I could be. For the first time in my life, I was not anxious or sad or fixated on this legacy of disappointment that I seemed to have inherited from my mother. What a surprise, I thought finally. I was 33, in my Christ-year, in fact, and was only now beginning to understand a little bit about hope.

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