Friday, August 17, 2012

For Mom on Her 70th Birthday

Mom turns 70 today.

That, in and of itself is an accomplishment. To do so without losing your sense of humor, despite what life throws at you, well, that’s something truly amazing. It’s one of the many reasons she is an inspiration to me and those around her.

To call my mother vivacious would be an understatement. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, she grew up every bit the sassy, southern red-head. She joined the Rainbow Girls, participated in Eastern Star, was on the drill team in high school, and involved herself in almost everything she could get her hands on. But it wasn’t until college that she found her calling: Speech and Drama. She studied the craft and dreamed of being on Broadway. She even met my father though Dad’s roommate whom she was dating at the time. As Dad likes to put it, they were drinking buddies first, friends second, lovers third.

When Dad dropped out of college and joined the Marines, he spent 3 months of Paris Island and another year or so in flight school before receiving orders to Vietnam. The New Years before he deployed, Mom hunted him down and demanded that they keep in touch.

Obviously, they did.  

Before kids, Mom was active in a local theater group. She played every part from leading lady to support roles and we have a treasure-trove of photos with her all gussied up. Being married to Mom, Dad was often roped into her theater schemes. But after my sister and I were born, she swapped out her acting robes for her parenting ones.

As a kid, Mom was always the Mamma Bear: sweet and loving to my sister and I while viciously butchering anyone who threatened us. One hand with a gentle caress, the other fending off threats to her babies.

She also spent a lot of time and energy educating my sister and I on “the classics”. She watched operas on PBS, reading aloud the subtitles until we were old enough to read them on our own. She taught us the difference between Wagner and Rossini and helped me appreciate La Boheme, Carmen, and the rest. And whenever I needed a nerd fix, she devoured Star Trek: TNG, DS9, Voyager, B5, and “other classics” along with me and my friends.  

She also started me on the path to writing by instilling in me an appreciation for the written word. Often our Mother-Son days would wind up at a bookstore where we’d lose ourselves in the pages of new releases. When I expressed an interest in writing, she fanned the flames, always reading my material no matter how terrible it was.

Mom had a hard time when the family moved to Alaska. Not only did she leave behind her friends and career, but the long winters and dark nights took a serious toll on her. Still, she threw herself into the community, working at the museum and Performing Arts Center and, for a few years, running the ice sculpture competition. When the family eventually moved away, she was presented with a plaque commemorating her service as “The Ice Empress”.

My choice to join the Marines wasn’t a popular one with her because not only was it was dangerous, but it would take me far from home. I remember clearly the discussion about why she didn’t want me on the front lines or in an aircraft. It didn’t matter that her husband had followed the same path because being a mother trumped everything else. But she supported the decision, sending cards and Dave Barry articles regularly while I was overseas.

Life was good.

Then life threw her a curve ball.

18 years ago, Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cancer is an adaptive and hideously tenacious disease. Burn it out in one area and it has the capability to thrive somewhere else. It feasts on the soft-tissue of the body, forcing the victim to try and keep one step ahead of the rampant expansion.

Such was the case with Mom. Once every two weeks, she’d undergo chemotherapy which drained her of everything for at least a day. But she’d recover and be back to her old self. Or at least try to be.

After years and years of treatments, the cells went into remission, but only for a short period. When they flared up a second time, however, they’d also moved into the lungs. She underwent another round, this time more intensive and draining. We cheered when the cancer was yet again beaten down.

Then it moved into her liver.

There’s something unfair, and to be honest, evil, about breast cancer in the liver. A soft-tissue organ, it contains so much blood that you can’t simply carve the stuff out. Instead, Mom underwent some of the most drastic treatments I’ve ever heard of. Doctors flayed her open, sealed the blood flow to the cells, dropped radioactive nuggets around the “infected area”, and blasted her with every nuclear chemical they could. Then they sewed her back up and sent her home. I’ve never seen her in such pain as she was the week after the procedure, but it worked.

For a while.

Somehow a few cells survived and adapted which meant another embolism was out of the question. And, having run the gamut of chemotherapy, her only option was a clinical trial of a new drug. For a year, she was the poster-child and doctors marveled at how quickly the cancer cells diminished. Unlike other treatments, she didn’t lose her hair and there was no nausea or exhaustion. She was the happiest I’d seen her in years, finally on a path that looked like it was going to hammer the issue into submission.

Last month, the cancer adapted yet again, completely negating the drug.

I cannot comprehend what she felt when her oncologist told her there were no more options. Personally, it was a knife to my gut. I’m a fighter, always have been, and I grew up believing that anything could be overcome given enough time and planning. That no situation was without an option. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with Mom. Every chemo treatment, and I mean every damn one of them, was no longer effective. Another embolism was a maybe, but the damage it did to her previously might make it more dangerous a second time. And when the conversation turned towards “experimental procedures”, we all knew it was bad news.

And that’s when Mom surprised every single one of us.

Rather than collapse in on herself, she revamped her life entirely. A new diet, a new workout regime, and an attitude of giving her body the healthiest system she could so it could fight on its own if need be. She takes a weekly Herceptin treatment to help slow the growth, attends Zumba three days a week, eats better than the rest of us, and has become more active and involved than she’s been in years. After 18 years of constant combat, she hasn’t given up.

To put this all in perspective, Mom has been fighting cancer for more than a quarter of her life. 25% of her time on this earth has been spent dealing with this disease, and yet she’s still fighting. I have no doubt the burden of cancer weighs heavily on her, but it’s not defeating her. Sure, it might beat her physically some day, but you can bet it won’t do so emotionally. Family and friends, myself included, are in awe of her.

The military talks a lot about courage, but all the acts of valor, heroism, and sacrifice don’t hold a candle in my eyes to the example my mother sets. She refuses to let the cancer beat her, despite how badly it has ravaged her over the years.

I used to think I knew what courage was. I have since been re-educated.

Because Mom turns 70 today.  

So happy birthday, Mom. Thank you for kissing my forehead when I slept, for holding my hand when I was sick, and for all the emotional band-aids you provided my body and soul over the years. Thank you for instilling me with a love of music, for encouraging my passion for the written word, and for allowing me to become the man today without ever losing sight of the boy I used to be.

But most of all, thank you for showing me what the embodiment of courage looks like.

Here’s praying for many more years of you serving as an example to all of us.

I love you.

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