From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

The Message

My mother had battled breast cancer and won. She had been cancer-free for five years when she went into the hospital to have exploratory surgery. After the operation, her doctor took me aside and told me that not only had the cancer returned, but there was nothing he could do. “Three months,” the doctor told me sadly.

I wondered how my mother would take the news, but as each day passed, I realized the doctors hadn’t let her in on the miserable secret. Did they really expect me, her son, to have to break it to her? I didn’t see how I could.

Three days passed with no word spoken. I watched as she packed up her things, ready to leave the hospital after recovering from her surgery. She was cheerful, telling me her plans for the next week, when something she saw in my face stopped her.

“Mom,” I managed to say, “haven’t they . . . haven’t they told you?”

“Told me what?” she said.

I couldn’t answer, but I didn’t have to. The tears coursing down my face told her everything.

We held each other as I explained what I knew.

We had always been close, but after that day, I opened up to my mother in a way I never thought possible. I returned to New York, to my job as a hairstylist and the life I’d created there, but we talked long and often on the phone—not just as mother and son, but as friends.

Not long after, I took a month off and spent it with her, talking about anything and everything—her life and mine, politics, philosophy, religion. She was disappointed that I hadn’t kept to the faith in which I’d been raised. She tried to convince me of God’s existence, but although I didn’t argue, nothing she said persuaded me that she was right. I suppose I was an agnostic: I just didn’t know.

When I left, I wasn’t sure if I would ever see her again, but in a certain way it didn’t matter. Although we didn’t agree on everything, we were complete with one another.

The day before I left, my mother presented me with a beautiful cross, one of her most valued possessions.

My mother had always been a deeply religious person. And although she rarely mentioned it, as a young woman she had entered the convent and spent two years as a nun. When her family urgently needed her to help with the family business, she made the difficult decision to leave the convent and go home.

Eventually, she married and I, her only child, was born. The cross she gave me that day was the one she received when she became a nun. It was exquisitely made, and as I took it in my hand, I could feel the love she gave to me along with it.

Within a month, the call I’d been dreading came. My mother had slipped into a coma. The doctors felt she didn’t have much time left, so I hurried to the airport to catch the next flight home. As the plane took off, I looked out my window, watching the sky color with the setting sun. All at once, I was overcome with grief.

This heaviness stayed with me for the entire flight. When I arrived at the hospital, I was informed that I was too late. My mother had died while I was on the plane—at the exact time the sadness had overwhelmed me.

After my mother’s funeral, I returned to New York. I missed my mother but was grateful that nothing had been left unsaid. She was gone, leaving an empty spot in me. That’s how life is, I thought wistfully. When it’s over, it’s over. You’re dead, and that’s the end.

One day, three months after my mother died, a client came into the salon for her appointment. This particular woman had been coming to me for almost a year, but she was not a client with whom I was friendly. She was a high-powered businesswoman with a reserved air of cool politeness. We didn’t talk about our lives. In fact, I had been surprised when, at her last appointment, she let it slip that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Today, she didn’t mention her illness and neither did I. I put her under the hair dryer and turned to walk away.

“Thomas,” she said, lifting the dryer hood. “I hesitate to tell you this because I know this is going to sound strange. I have this very strong feeling that I’m supposed to tell you that Anita? . . . Marie? . . . Mary? . . . Anita Mary is okay. She said to tell you everything is all right.”

I was floored. My jaw dropped. How could she know? For although my mother’s name was Joyce, the name she’d taken as a nun—the name inscribed on the cross my mother had given me—was Sister Anita Mary. Nobody knew that but the other nuns and me.

In an instant, my whole view of reality turned upside-down. Mom had chosen a woman with breast cancer to tell me, in a way that could leave no doubt, that death is not the end and that the spirit survives.

Thomas Brown

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