This morning, as I sat down at my brand new cubicle here at the Active Minds National Headquarters, I realized that I forgot my mug in the lobby of my apartment building. I quickly texted my mom to see if she could grab it for me. She replied that she could, and I started to go on with my day. But out of nowhere, it hit me. I couldn’t help but let myself cry as I recalled this same day one year ago.
I was feverishly writing every thought that raced through my mind into a hand-made journal. I had found the journal in Camden Market only a few months before while adventuring in Europe. I bought it in the hopes of writing some of my best journal entries and poems, but had been waiting for the inspiration to come for a few months. Right then seemed like the perfect time. I was seated in a manila folder colored room that felt much too brisk for comfort. In that room sat my mother, sister, my aunt, my uncle, and an intimidating, but kind doctor. An Oncologist, if I’m going to be more exact.
I had flown home just a few days prior. I still remember the moment when my sister called me. I was in the back-row of a lecture hall, doodling while my Bio-Psych professor went through that day’s lesson. Inconspicuously texting her back, I told her I would call her back once I got out of class.
Before I even had the chance to call back, I had received a few messages already, describing to me the weight of the situation. Something along the lines of “Mom is in the hospital. They found a few masses in her abdomen.”
Walking back from campus toward my house downtown, I called my sister back and we devised a plan. I was to fly home first thing the next morning, so that I could be at the doctors with my mom when pathology affirmed a diagnosis and prognosis. I called my coaches, (I played on the Field Hockey team at UVM), to let them know what was happening, and that I would be missing practice.
There I was, using every last bit of ink in my favorite pen, a Pilot V-5, to scrawl my inner-most thoughts and fears in cursive. I could tell this moment was one that would alter the rest of my life, so I didn’t want to miss a thing.
“You have Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer.”
Writing all the more vehemently, I fought back tears, as my mom and other family members asked questions of the doctor. Questions that I would have never wanted the answer to. Especially at this point in my life. I was 20 years old at the time. I was not supposed to be informed on such things as medical power of attorney, different cancer treatments, and life expectancy. I had taken the typical mind-set of mortality avoidance, but now there was no chance of that. My mom’s and my own mortality began to take over my thoughts completely. All I could think of was “5 months.” That was all the time I had to emulate a lifetime with my mother.
At first, when calling my friends, I feigned a convincing line about how “I was just glad that I have a heads-up, and that I have time.” To which they would respond by commending my strength and emotional maturity. I was unsure of how I really felt, but by the end of the week, I had used that same line so many times that I began to truly believe that it was how I felt.
Somehow, I managed to convince my professors to allow me to finish my entire course-load for the semester largely from home. Remotely, I did my class-work, and flew in or drove into Vermont for the occasional exam and for Finals Week. All the while, I would watch my team compete virtually, missing every moment of my athletic glory. (Even missing those early morning conditioning sessions!) Anything that wasn’t sitting in the oncology department watching the staccato drip of an IV seemed like something I wanted or should have been doing.
As the fall semester came to a close, and I enjoyed, as much as I could, my winter break, I had to start planning what I would do about school. I had promised my roommates back in Vermont that I would try to be back by the spring, fall at the latest. But it became clear that it was not an option for me to return to school 10 hours away from home. Perhaps if my parents were still married, or if any of my mother’s relatives lived near us, I could have. Even then, I would have regretted not taking advantage of every single moment that I had left. My time with my mother was the sand within an hourglass. Please excuse my employment of such a banal metaphor, but there’s really nothing else that comes to mind. Nothing else compares. Each second a grain of sand that slips by with no possibility of retrieval.
At this point, I was completely torn between my need for a normal life of going to college with my best friends and spending the limited time I had left with my chronically ill mother. It seems easy, right? Obviously, family took precedence for me, but there is no way to describe the inner dissonance I was having. That divergence in my timeline was harder than anything I could have ever imagined.
Here I was, wishing I could be back at school. But did that mean that I wanted my mother to be dead? No, definitely not. Then why did I want to be at school so badly? I had trouble forgiving myself for having had that thought. So much so that my usually dormant anxiety began the take the better of me. I was feeling lower than I had ever felt and I was unsure of what to do. I wanted to be strong. I needed to be. How was it that my own mother was handling things better than I was? She was hardly batting an eye.
It was then that I realized that despite how okay and together I tried to make myself appear, I needed to let myself feel. I researched local therapists and booked myself an appointment.
Today is the “one year anniversary,” if you will, of the day my mom received her diagnosis. I am still home, but I have accepted that life is not a trajectory. Things get in the way, timelines get tangled, and it can get hard. But those are the times when it is paramount to let yourself feel everything; to be present in every moment and take life as it comes is the best gift you could possibly give yourself and those around you. Also, I have learned that while pretending you are okay can get you by for a while, admitting that you aren’t to yourself and to others is the only way to get there.
So, back to this morning. My sister is finally finishing her senior year at UMD, after taking this past year off to help at home. I am interning at an amazing non-profit organization, while struggling with Calculus. And our mother is still fighting her battle, miraculously.
I may have forgotten my coffee mug this morning, but today is quite possibly one of the best days I have had in a long time.