The Graduation

The Graduation

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

The Graduation

I personally measure success in terms of the contribution an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.

Margaret Mead

I patiently waited for the phone to ring. It was 5:10 on Friday afternoon, December twenty-ninth, and I still hadn’t heard from Mom. This was the big day . . . day thirty-five . . . the final radiation treatment for her breast cancer. I knew she would have had her last radiation jolt at 3:30 P.M., her daily treatment time since the middle of November.

Yesterday, our whole family met to have lunch and see a movie to celebrate the end of her treatments. During lunch, family members kept making kidding comments. “Raise your hand if you used Mom’s cancer as an excuse to get out of something these past few months.” More than half of us raised our hands.

“Be nice!” Mom joked. “I’ve got cancer!”

“It’s gone now, Mom,” we chimed in.

At the end of our special day, we gathered around her car. It had taken us twenty minutes in the underground parking cavern to find the lavender pole marked C7 where she thought she was parked. My mother always gets lost in parking structures.

As I helped her into the car, I handed her a tiny gold-wrapped package. “Here, Mom, this is for you,” I said. My emotions cut loose and embarrassed me as the tears poured down my cheeks.

“You’re crying, Heather,” Mom said in a soft, motherly tone.

“Shhh,” I said, turning around to see if anyone in the family was watching, and I caught my sister’s eye. She knew I’d hidden the little “graduation gift” in my purse all afternoon. I was waiting for the right time to give it to her. “It’s all right,” my sister mouthed to me.

I turned back to Mom. “Please don’t open this gift until tomorrow, AFTER your last radiation.”

On the way home, I told my children why I got so emotional when I gave Nana her gift. It was not out of sadness, but my reaction to Mom’s incredible humor and positive outlook during her entire experience with what she calls the “Big C.” She never felt sorry for herself, never blamed anyone and never complained . . . ever.

Throughout her ordeal, she brought her unique sparkle into the lives of other cancer patients and the hospital staff. Daily, she’d call and tell me about the people she had seen at the center. There was a seventy-ish wealthy attorney battling prostate cancer, married to a twenty-something woman; he always sits next to Mom in the treatment waiting area. His doting wife is attentive, but clearly has a lot on her hands with him. One day, he poked his head out of the dressing-room door before he changed into his hospital gown. He asked my mother to join him after he closed the door so that they “could fool around.” The other patients roared with laughter. I’m not so sure the wife did.

And then there was the thirty-one-year-old, grossly overweight man with a large brain tumor. His father brought him to the center every day for his radiation. Mom’s new friend chose to wait in the hallway outside the designated waiting room; she thinks it’s because he’s self-conscious about his appearance. “It’s not just the weight,” she told me. “His facial features are slightly askew, too.” When she passed him in the hall, she always touched him and asked how he was doing. The other day, the man’s father told Mom that her touch each day gives his son hope. “No one but you ever touches him,” he said.

By the end of the first week of her radiation, Mom knew the name, age and astrological sign of the entire radiation staff. Just before the holidays, she brought See’s candy for everyone and sent two large flower arrangements to the nurses at her surgeon’s office.

During the last two weeks of her treatment, Mom got a double dose of radiation each day. I could tell she was very tired and that her skin itched terribly . . . still, no complaints.

When she was switched to the double dose, she saw the technician use a small metal piece marked “M. MacDougall,” and asked if she could keep it as a souvenir. That’s when I got the idea for her gift. I bought a gold calendar pendant that I had engraved “December” with the twenty-ninth crossed off. I chose a twenty-inch gold chain so the pendant would rest on her chest.

At 5:20 P.M., just as the sun was setting over the Santa Barbara mountains, the phone rang.

“Guess what!” Mom shouted on the other end. “I got a diploma! My first real diploma! It says: ‘Successfully completed radiation treatment at Cedars Sinai Cancer Center,’ and I never even graduated from college!”

“Mom, you’re amazing!” I said, smiling into the phone.

Heather Haldeman

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