She’s My Hero

She’s My Hero

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

She’s My Hero

Things do not change; we change.

Henry David Thoreau

Senior year in high school: a time of college choices, graduations, proms and carefree friendships. Most kids were busy soaking up the last drop of the irresponsibility of high school before having to grow up in college. Most kids were making last-minute memories and losing them just as quickly. Most kids were having the time of their lives. Most kids didn’t have a mother diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t like most kids.

I was on my way to a soccer team dinner with my friend, Bill. I opened the front door and saw my parents sitting at the kitchen table with their heads down. My mother turned to me with a tear-soaked face, and before I could ask what was wrong, she answered me.

“I have breast cancer.”

“Are you going to be all right?”

“I hope so.”

Confused, I walked down the hall into my bedroom. I looked at the walls covered with my favorite sports heroes and stared at each poster, looking for answers to the questions swimming in my head. What does she mean she has breast cancer? It was probably just a mistake, right? No one actually dies from that, right? Right?

I returned to the kitchen without the words to respond to what was going on, what I was feeling. I didn’t know what I was feeling.

“Can I go to the team dinner?” I asked.

“Of course, sweetheart,” my mother replied.

I climbed back into the car with Bill, who noticed I was shaken. He asked me, “What’s wrong?”

“My mother just told me she has breast cancer.”

He asked if I wanted to stay, and I told him I didn’t. I wanted to go away and come back later—when we could start this all over and my mother wouldn’t be ill. She wasn’t even fifty years old.

During my mother’s bout with breast cancer, finding out she had the disease has remained the clearest scene in my mind. The following months I watched everything blur as she received a litany of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. She would struggle out of bed each day, burned from the radiation, only to get sick in the bathroom. Her hair began falling out, bags permanently hung under her eyes, and the color vanished from her face. This woman was looking less and less like my mother each day.

Then I looked at the picture of me with my parents taken in much happier times. We were all smiling without a care in the world, and I would have done anything to stay locked in that moment forever. I’d look at my father in the photo and then to me, thinking another possibility: The next picture may just be the two of us. Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about what it would be like going to college later that year without my mother to call. Things would get blurry all over again.

One night as I looked at that picture, I focused on my mother’s face. She hadn’t smiled like that in a long time. Her hair was long and thick, and her face was youthful and beaming, but it was her eyes I noticed the most. They illuminated the whole picture with their vibrancy and life. If eyes really are windows to the soul, then this woman’s soul was bright enough to light up the rest of us.

“Are you doing all right, sweetheart?” I heard from behind. I spun around to see my mother walking up to me in her robe. Her head was almost bald, her face was tired and worn, and her shoulders hung limp. But suddenly I felt in my heart that everything would be all right because when I saw her eyes, they were the same eyes that lit up that family picture. I saw that same bright soul shining through like the sun behind a set of gray clouds. I didn’t say anything, but my mother could read what I was thinking. She just grabbed my hands and told me, “We’re going to get through this.”

From that day on, I’ve thought of my mother as nothing short of an angel. This woman conquered a disease inside her, one that was ripping away many of her physical attributes. It took away her hair; it took away her appetite; it took away her energy; it even took away her smile. But it never took away her soul, her spirit, for that remained where it belonged—with her family—and it was never cancer’s to take.

I realized then that while she drew her spirit and strength from my father and me, we did the same from her. It’s ironic to think that I would not have made it through my mother’s battle with cancer without my mother’s support, but that was certainly the case. Our family unit laughed more, shared more, loved more. We knew the only way we were going to beat this thing was to love each other more and more every day.

Cancer can’t touch love if it’s not allowed to. It will try to trick you into thinking that it can take away everything. It’s like that set of gray clouds. It can cover the sun and make you think everything is dreary, somber and hopeless. It tends to make things blurry. But if you have faith, patience, courage and love, eventually those clouds have to move, and the sun that was hidden will smile warmly on you once again.

Now I think back upon that day when I walked into my bedroom for answers. I looked at Michael Jordan, Don Mattingly and Patrick Ewing, men I’d anointed as my heroes, for some guidance. All my life I had followed these men as people I’d like to be like one day. But all they did was play a sport. They didn’t fight for their lives with their backs against the wall. They hadn’t had to look cancer straight in the face and say, “No!” I had spent my whole life looking outside for a hero when I should have been looking within.

It’s been nearly ten years since my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she is totally healthy now. I have certainly endured some tough times since my senior year in high school, but I have faced those situations with a new perspective. I watched my mother prevail in the toughest fight of all, and I know deep in my heart that I have some of that magic myself because she’s given it to me. However, I take solace in knowing that whenever I may lose my way or things get blurry again, my mother will always be there to tell me: “We’re going to get through this.”

She is, and always will be, my hero.

Anthony Burton

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