My mom has cancer.
I found that out on March 17th, and nearly two months later, it’s still tough to admit. I still, when I really think about it, get that sinking feeling in my stomach. I still, when I say it out loud, feel like I’m in a strange bad dream.
When my mom and dad first broke the news, that stomach feeling was a lot bigger. That was the shock phase. Shock and despair. As I spring-broke that first week with Sarah and friends at Sarah’s lake house, I spent a lot of time fighting off tears, toying with my food at dinner, and staring off.
Since then, though, there’s been a long sort of numbing phase. COVID-19 has put us all in a weird limbo, and I learned pretty quickly when I got back home that since Mom was at heightened risk, my parents and I would really be limited to the company of each other. This limbo, and the resulting boredom, have turned down the shock a bit. My emotions have, in a way, resembled the stock market in the past three months. There was a big drop. Then there was a sort of rally, a little bit less volatility every day, bringing me into an odd neutral. I guess I also fear, just like the market, that there’s another drop I can’t see coming.
There have been good days. We found out in early April that Mom’s cancer has not spread beyond one breast and a lymph node. This meant that the cancer was operable, with a surgery planned for August. I also got a job offer in late March amid a week that was otherwise frankly terrible. These were good days.
There have also been bad days. Of course, finding out was the worst day. But I’ve also hated the days following another chemo round, when I watch my mom get sick. I hated watching my mom have to go through losing her hair two weeks ago. These were bad days.
Tomorrow, May 8th, is a good and bad day for me. After six weeks at home, I’m headed back to my apartment to spend my final weeks with college friends and roommates, and looking for another apartment as I prepare to start work in June. It’s good because cancer or not, six weeks with only your parents will drive you up a wall. It’s bad because since my mom has cancer, I won’t be able to get close to her, hug her, or be there if things take a turn for the worse. “Time to move on,” writes Tom Petty, “what lies ahead I have no way of knowing.”
A mentor of mine has often said that “if you’re not being honest, what’s your point?” Honestly, when I found out that Mom had cancer, I think I had a weird thought that my life would actually be happier as a result. I think that we, Americans, Christians, like to hear stories about cancer making us stronger, more thankful, or closer as a family. That is Biblical, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t mean the process doesn’t suck.
I thought my mom having cancer would make me stronger. There are, to be fair, times when I feel very perseverant. But there have also been days when I’ve failed to do anything. I’ve spent many nights distracting myself with sports documentaries and Law and Order’s till three in the morning only to wake up at noon and wonder where the time is going.
I thought my mom having cancer would make me more thankful. To be fair, there are days when I am very thankful (like I mentioned, there have been very good days). And cancer in the family has certainly made me more prayerful. But frequently, my prayers to God are angry or forlorn. Lots of why God why’s. The quarantine has also prevented my family from seeing friends or support groups that might really help with thankfulness. I often feel thankful, yes. But I also often feel that God is being unfair or not present.
I thought my mom having cancer would bring my family closer together. It has in some ways. The quarantine did give me a chance to live with my parents again for two months, and I’ve had some fun. I also talk to my sister, who lives in Pennsylvania, a lot more than I have in the time since we lived together as kids. But I’ve learned that even during cancer, a family can still argue. Tempers have at times flared. There have been arguments that my father and my COVID concerns are too economic or optimistic. Arguments that my mother is too much the opposite.
I think, as it turns out, that what Mark Lampley told me in late March was very true. Cancer “robs us” as much as it gives us a chance to rethink life. So, what is there to take away from my mom having cancer?
A friend of mine said something to me when we graduated high school that I think, considering he was only eighteen, was pretty profound. “I think we should take life as an experience,” he said, “and learn to become better from it.”
One thing we’ve probably all learned is that just because we’re Christians, that doesn’t mean life will be easy. There are constant reminders of this in the Bible. Israel, not America, was God’s chosen people, and the Israelites were conquered, imprisoned, and enslaved more times than I can remember. It’s a lesson in itself that I thought my mom having cancer would make things better for me.
The second thing that I’ve learned is that what Andy wrote to Red in Shawshank Redemption is really true. “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” In the moments where I’ve been pessimistic, angry at God, or cynical about my circumstances, I haven’t felt strong, satisfied, or even totally honest with myself. On the contrary, I think that when things get tough, it may be best to have hope. I hope that my mom has a successful surgery in August, and that this whole cancer thing just shuts up for a while. I hope that when you see me two months from now, I tell you my family was incredibly lucky. I hope that my other family members never have to go through what my mom is going through. I hope that this coronavirus thing shuts up soon, too. I hope that we all get to see our friends soon, keep our jobs, and watch Tennessee football in the fall.
Hope. It doesn’t make me dishonest. My mom has cancer. But I think God wants us to have hope when things are hard. I think Moses had hope in the desert, and I think Daniel had hope in the lions’ den. With hope, not despair, I’ve felt at least some of the resilience and thankfulness I had hoped I would grow in as a result of this. So, I guess my message is that you can still be honest with yourself and have hope.
Bennett Neece | SHPC Youth Volunteer Leader