My Mother’s Strength

My Mother’s Strength

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

My Mother’s Strength

The doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.

Wilma Rudolph

When I was just fourteen, I watched my mother age ten years in a sickly green hospital room. It was cancer, and I knew it was bad because although I had seen my mother bear many crosses in her life, I had never seen her face look so drawn, tired and hopeless.

For my mother, though, this cancer was more than another cross to bear. She believed she was watching me, her youngest daughter, die.

Through the glass walls of my hospital room I could see the doctor and my mother. As the young resident started talking, my mother’s head fell back, and tears started streaming down her face. Her arms flailed in despair.

When she walked into my hospital room with the doctor, she looked like she had just been dealt the knockout blow of her life. Her eyes stared pleadingly at the doctor. She wanted me to know—I had that right—but she just couldn’t be the one to tell me.

And when the doctor sat on the side of the bed and put his cold, clammy hand on my arm, I knew I was really, really sick. But it was when I looked over at my mother’s face—which had gone from a youthful, smiling one with dancing eyes to the haggard, lackluster one before me— that I knew I was dying.

It was Hodgkin’s disease. My fourteen-year-old body was riddled with cancerous tumors. The doctor sugarcoated nothing. He told me of the incredible pain I would endure. He told me of the weight I would lose and all the hair that would fall out. The doctors would try to shrink the existing tumors with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but that was no guarantee. There was the very good chance that I would never turn fifteen.

My head fell back on the pillow, and I closed my eyes. I wanted to shut it all out and run away. When the doctor left the room, I wanted to believe that all the ugliness was walking out the door with him. Maybe, I thought, when I opened my eyes, my mother’s face would look young again, and we could go home and bake one of my infamous lopsided cakes.

Instead, when I opened my eyes, my mother, sitting beside me, took my hand, pursed her lips and said determinedly, “We’ll get through this.”

During my stay at the hospital, my mother arrived in my room every morning and stayed there until the last seconds of the last visiting hour at night. For most of the day no words passed between us except for the occasional, “Pat, you should eat something.” I spent my days staring out of the window while my mother sat and read or watched television. There was absolutely no pressure to talk about the situation. It wasn’t profound words of support and love that entwined our souls. It was simply my mother letting me be.

Three weeks later, on the morning I was to be released from the hospital, my mother brought me my favorite bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyed blouse and earth shoes. Seeing them perked me up like no medication in that entire hospital could. I couldn’t wait to wear them.

My mother drew the curtains, and I, like any other clothes-crazy teenager, dressed with great glee. When I pulled up the jeans and buttoned them, I could tell right away that they were not mine. They couldn’t be, because they fell off the once rounded hips they used to hug so nicely. I was incredulous. In the hospital gown I hadn’t noticed the ravages of illness.

I yelled at my mother as though it was her fault. “You brought the wrong jeans! These are too big!” I screamed.

My mother just walked out of the room and went out to the nurse’s station, returning immediately with two safety pins. “Look,” she said, “it will be all right. All we have to do is pin them up here in the back. Your top will cover them.”

“No, I don’t want to pin them. I want them to fit right,”

I sulked, and folding my arms, sat on the bed and cried to the wall.

When I finally looked over at my mother, her eyes boring into mine, I realized that I had to pin my pants. Without saying a word, she was telling me: No matter how much you pout, cry and stomp like a mule, these pants are not going to fit right without these pins. You are sick. Your body is not the same. You have to accept this.

It was then that I learned to compromise with my mother, and with a force larger than myself—a force I could not see, or hear, or touch, but a force that nonetheless had taken control of my life.

Though I left the hospital knowing the doctors believed that I would only return to die, none of it ever felt completely real. My body was disintegrating, I could barely walk and I couldn’t keep food down, but death felt as far away from me as grandmotherhood. I don’t know why I had this feeling. Maybe it was because my fourteen-year-old mind couldn’t grasp the concept of mortality, or perhaps I felt something telling me that this wasn’t going to be the end.

I quickly slipped into the normalness of everyday life at home, surrounded by my mother and my sisters. And my mother and I, in the face of my illness, discovered a special way of being together.

We knew what was destroying my body, but we never said the words cancer or death. Still, on a day when I was too weak even to feed myself, I looked up at my mother as she was feeding me some mashed food, and something in me felt that one, if not both, of those words needed to be spoken.

“Mommy,” I finally said after about the third swallow, “am I really going to die?”

My mother dropped the bowl of food, spilling it all over me and broke into uncontrollable tears that would not stop, no matter how hard I pleaded with her.

I was frozen with fear. I couldn’t take back what I had said. Besides, I really wanted to know. If my mother would just confirm it one way or another, whatever she said would be what was real.

Finally, she looked up at me and said, “My baby is not going to die. Do you hear me? I don’t ever want to hear you say that again. Do you hear me?”

I heard her. I never said it again. I simply went about the business of fighting for my life.

Yet as my body withered to eighty-two pounds and my hair fell out, I could see how helpless my mother felt. Her hair grew grayer. She even matched me, pound for pound, with the weight she lost. And yet, it was her strength that jump-started my will to make my frail body walk instead of ride in a wheelchair. It was her strength that helped me walk into school wearing a wig amidst stares and whispers from pretty, healthy-bodied girls. And it was her strength that made me see that in the larger picture, those stares and whispers didn’t mean a thing.

More than a year went by before I finally went into remission. When the doctor called my mother and me into his office after the last chemotherapy treatment, we didn’t know what to expect. Somehow, though, we knew we didn’t need to expect the worst. He went through a longwinded dissertation about shrunken tumors and good cell counts before he told us, essentially, that I was in remission.

My mother and I didn’t cry tears of joy. We didn’t get swept up in a whirl of happiness and giddiness, hugging the stuffing out of each other. We just smiled and squeezed each other’s hands. The doctor was really only telling us something that we already knew: that I was not going to die.

Patricia Jones

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