11: Sailing Through the Storm

11: Sailing Through the Storm

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

Sailing Through the Storm

A mother is she who can take the place of all others but whose place no one else can take.

~Cardinal Mermillod

When the dermatologist’s office left a message for me to call them, I figured there must be yet another insurance snafu to straighten out. I wasn’t at all prepared for what they told me.

“The samples we took from the spots on your face are both basal cell carcinomas. We’ll need to set you up with a specialist to have them removed because we don’t want to take any more tissue than necessary. We’ll also need you to see a plastic surgeon for skin repairs.”

Skin repairs? I’d barely processed the fact that I’d just been diagnosed with skin cancer and now they were hitting me with the need for a plastic surgeon. I’d had biopsies before but they always turned out to be nothing. Facing the “Big C” wasn’t something I’d planned on, and the thought of having my face cut made my stomach flutter.

I scheduled the appointments and wondered what this could mean. What if the cancer had spread? Just how much facial cutting would be necessary? What would I look like afterward? It didn’t take long for me to jump to the worst-case scenarios I could imagine. I could hear the doctor telling me cancer cells had spread to my lymph nodes, not to mention my future with a permanently disfigured face. I chewed my lip and reached for the phone to call Mom. I’d always turned to her before when in trouble and wanted nothing more than to hear her reassuring voice. Yet I decided the grown-up thing to do was wait until I had a more definite prognosis.

My husband Phil walked me into the medical center. I held his hand so tightly my knuckles were white. In the examining room the doctor numbed my face before meticulously cutting away bits of skin. Then he sent me to the waiting room while the samples were analyzed. The nurse called me back in twice to have more tissue removed. It felt like hours before the doctor finally announced I could go home. The anesthetic that numbed my face kept me from smiling.

I had a small hole on the side of my nose and such a gaping hole in my cheek I could barely stand to look at my reflection in the mirror. I couldn’t imagine how the plastic surgeon would be able to put me back together. I almost picked up the phone to call Mom, but again told myself to wait. No need to worry her yet. It made much more sense to call her after the reconstructive surgery had been completed.

The surgery was scheduled for the next morning. Since the procedure required general anesthesia, the hospital gave me forms to sign that boldly outlined all the things that could possibly go wrong. I wished I hadn’t waited to call Mom and took deep breaths until the anesthesia mercifully knocked me out.

I woke up loopy and numb. The hospital discharged me with pain medication and lengthy instructions that I hoped Phil would remember. But as soon as I got home the numbness deserted me. I couldn’t even stand to put my head on the pillow. So I swallowed pain pills and tried to sleep in a chair with my feet propped up. Fitful dozing brought nightmares of being chased by faceless demons.

The next morning, I woke to the aroma of fried eggs and bacon. I shuffled stiffly to the kitchen, my eyes squinting against the bright light. Mom stood at the stove as I had seen her do so often during my growing-up years. “Phil needed to go to work today so I came over to keep you company.”

She smiled at me without a single word of reproach that I had neglected to call her. When her arms went around me in a hug that held me firmly together, my eyes misted and a hard knot dissolved inside me. Perhaps I wasn’t as much of an adult as I thought.

“Everything is going to be fine,” she said.

Nothing could turn out badly with Mom on duty. She fed me comfort food and freshly squeezed orange juice, her cure-all for most of my childhood ailments, and put me to bed. Fortified with good cooking and the relief that always comes from letting someone else take charge, I closed my eyes. Sleep came swiftly and dreamlessly.

Three days later, a phone call brought good news. The cancer hadn’t spread. No further treatment was required. My face healed with a slim diagonal scar on the cheek and one side of my nose isn’t quite like the other. But no one cringed in horror when they saw me. Mom nodded her head and said, “I told you there was no need to worry.”

A few months after my surgery, Mom faced a crisis of her own. After years of problems with renal function, her kidneys shut down. She would have to go on dialysis. As was her custom, she joked with the nurses and remained calm in the face of a frightening diagnosis. Though she looked small and vulnerable lying in a recliner and hooked to a machine, her lips turned up in a rueful lopsided grin when she saw me.

“Well, this is a revolting development, isn’t it?”

I smiled back at her when I replied. “It sure is. But I know everything is going to be fine.”

Senseless worry about things we can’t change only muddies hope. Mom didn’t waste time on self-pity or energy on “what-ifs.” Instead she focused on navigating the storm that entered her life like a seasoned captain awaiting the inevitable rainbow. No one could have given me a better lesson. I know I can sail through any problem that comes along by following Mom’s example. All it takes is courage, a little determination, and a smile.

~Pat Wahler

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