One Day at a Time: An Essay About My Mom

Something didn’t seem right. It was an early spring day during my freshman year of high school, and as I walked home from school I realized that my parents had recently been making a lot of trips to Kansas City. That day’s trip made four visits to the city in the last three weeks. Our family of eight lived in a small town about an hour outside of Kansas City, and while my dad loved to stock up on groceries in the city, four trips was out of the normal routine. “Hmmm, I wonder if everything’s okay?” I thought to myself. “Of course it is,” I reassured my 15-year-old mind, “it’s probably just a coincidence.” I arrived home a few minutes later, and as I got my customary after-school bowl of Frosted Flakes, I quickly forgot about my hesitations.

An hour later, I heard the gravel crunch as my parents pulled into the driveway. My brothers and I helped to bring in the groceries, while my parents started to put the food away in their typical, matter-of-fact manner. After the groceries were stored my dad told us, “We’re going to have a family meeting in the living room.”. After several minutes of effort, he corralled my three brothers and me (my oldest brother Justin was at college)  into the living room. My sister, Faith, born just 15 months earlier with severe special needs, was already there. We all wondered what the meeting was about, since my dad only used that language for significant announcements. As we sat and waited, my mom joined us last, silently sitting on the piano bench. “Boys,” my dad began in his usual measured, steady tone, “Your mother and I have something to tell you.” At this, the uneasiness from my walk home returned. “A few weeks ago your mom found a lump on her chest,” my dad continued. “She went to the doctor last week and had a biopsy done, from which we got the results back today.” My dad paused before he delivered the culminating line: “Mom has breast cancer.”

 

Life can change so much in forty-five seconds. One moment your mom is a healthy, vibrant woman in the prime of her life, and in the next she is fighting a life-threatening disease, unsure of whether she will make it to 50. A drastic change, and yet outwardly, she looked the same. As we sat in stunned silence, I looked over at my mom, expecting to see her confidently taking in the news. My mom’s personal strength and work ethic have always been a foundational part of my family. What I saw, though, shocked me. She had lowered her head into her hands, and was weeping. This jarred me: if Mom is who you go to when you’re scared, where do you go when she’s scared, too? My mom’s reaction alerted me to the seriousness of my dad’s words. “Cancer,” I thought, “People die from that, don’t they? Cou…cou…could Mom die?”  It was a question I’d never had to think about before. My dad explained that while my mom had the most aggressive type of breast cancer, the doctor thought it had been caught early. With surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, there was hope that she would survive. I intellectually understood my mom’s cancer diagnosis at this point, but I was unaware of the coming storm that cancer would bring to my mom and my family.

That night happened to be a Family Night at our church, a once-a-month event where the church shared a meal together. As we finished eating, my dad stood up and made his way to the front. He cleared his throat and told the congregation that he had an announcement. As he repeated everything that he had told us a few hours earlier, I looked around. My mom and all of the other women began to cry, while the men either looked at the floor or off in the distance, as the sadness gathered in the corners of their eyes. A thick heaviness canvassed the room. After my dad finished, one of the elders prayed for my mom, and the all adults hugged and consoled my parents. I’d never, ever, seen adults cry like this.

Despite the diagnosis, life went on as normal for the next several weeks. The news of my mom’s cancer trickled out through the community. While a cancer diagnosis is never easy, everyone recognized the particular gravity of this situation. If something happened to Elizabeth, who would care for Faith and the boys? One day at school, the shop teacher, with whom my relationship with was strained, unexpectedly stopped by my bench at the end of my woodshop class. Normally a gruff and hard man, he spoke in a softened tone that I had never heard from him before. “How’s your mom doing Finley?” he gently asked. “I think she’s doing okay,” I answered, unsure of what to say. “Well,” he responded, as a mist developed in his eyes, “We’re all pulling for you guys.”

The day arrived for my mom’s surgery. My parents left early in the morning to go to the hospital, while my brothers and I went to school. It’s a strange feeling, to know that as you sit in your classroom your mom is lying on an operating table under a surgeon’s knife. Mom came home that night, exhausted from the day’s events. The surgeon declared the surgery a success; that they had gotten all of the cancer.  Even at that age, though, I knew that doctors always seemed to say that, and while it was good news, the future was still uncertain.

In anticipation of her upcoming chemotherapy, my mom returned to the doctor the next week  to have a port put in her chest. The port allowed the powerful chemotherapy drugs to flow into a larger vein than what was possible with an IV. My parents explained to us how the chemotherapy worked to treat the cancer. The concept puzzled me…so you inject poison into someone with the idea that it will kill all the fast growing cells, whether they are cancerous or not? But how will you keep it from killing Mom’s good cells? Wait, you mean you can’t? And so Mom’s life hangs in the balance, dependent on which side wins in this cell-by-cell battle between toxin and cancer? As I struggled to grasp how this all worked, I couldn’t have predicted what it would look like as this war played out in my Mom’s body.

The Kansas spring was in full bloom when my Mom began her first of three chemotherapy treatments. While the chemotherapy dripped into my Mom’s body, I attended my younger brother Daniel’s first middle school track meet. I went home after watching him run, to be ready for when my parents got home. Mom trudged through the door shortly before six, more tired and  worn down than I had ever seen her before. She sat down in her chair at the table as we got supper ready. We prayed over our food and began to eat, but my mom was too exhausted to do anything but lean over the table and prop her head up with her arms. She forced a few bites of food down before she went and laid down on the couch. My brothers and I looked at each other, shocked at how all of the strength and life had been sapped out of Mom.

The effects of the chemotherapy only worsened over the following days. My mom, the person who tirelessly cared for our family, now spent much of the day in bed, overcome with fatigue and nauseousness. During this time, our church family cared so much for my family. In addition to babysitting Faith, they provided meal after meal for my family. A different person from the church stopped by every night at 5pm with supper for our family. Soon, those disposable tinfoil pans filled every spot in our refrigerator. After a few days, my mom regained some of her strength, and life returned to some semblance of normalcy. But the meals continued through all of the chemotherapy treatment time period. 

Our neighbor’s spaghetti bake was one meal that forever stands out in Finley family lore. Our neighbor called my mom on the night that she was to provide supper, fervently apologizing for ruining our dinner. After my mom asked her what the problem was, she explained how she had accidentally left a potholder in the oven when she checked on the casseroles halfway through. The potholder caught on fire, yet she realized this only when her oven and entire kitchen filled with that plasticky smoke of cheap polyester.  She wanted to throw the casseroles away and go buy something for us, but Mom assured her that the spaghetti bake would be just fine and that we would be glad to eat it. As we took our first bites that night, our mouths were filled with the overpowering flavor of smoke that had penetrated every piece of spaghetti. Despite our protests, my parents insisted that we show our thankfulness for the food by eating it, regardless of it’s taste. And let me tell you, we didn’t waste an ounce. Not only did we eat it that night, but we proceeded to have it as leftovers for two more meals. After that third meal my mom caved, and avoided the brewing mutiny by mercifully pitching what was left.

A week after her first treatment, Mom’s hair began to fall out in chunks. Ever the practical one, she announced to Dad that if her hair was going to fall out, he might as well just buzz it off. Dad got the hair clippers, and with no attachment proceeded to cut off all of Mom’s hair. We gathered around the bathroom and watched, astonished by the scene. Mom emerged after ten minutes completely different, now having just a slight stubble of hair. She wore a bandana from that point on, tied around her head like a do-rag. Some of my enduring memories from this time period are of Mom, in her red bandana, running our family like always. On Saturdays, she called us to our rooms and led the charge in changing the sheets and making the beds. “You’ve got to get that corner tight, Luke!” she would say, as she jumped in and pulled the fitted sheet down further, ignoring my groans of protest. “That’s better; now pull the triangle up on the sheet and then put your arm right there and make a crease. Now tuck it so it’s tight. Okay, that looks good; yeah, you can go…Matthew, it’s time for your bed!” Despite everything going on in my mom’s life, she never allowed it to be an excuse to cut corners or to let things go.

The week before Mother’s Day that year, the high school band traveled to a music competition in Branson, Missouri. While walking around a touristy area, I stumbled into an odds and ends shop. The shop had a variety of bandanas, and while I had never gotten Mom a gift for Mother’s Day before, I wanted to get some for her. I picked out two bandanas, one navy and one forest green, and once home, wrapped them up in Christmas wrapping paper. I’ll never forget how much she smiled when she opened her present. She told me how much she liked my gift, and I beamed when she added them to her bandana rotation and wore them around the house. Looking back, I’m struck at how my parents never allowed my mom’s cancer to become about them, and continued to be so others-focused. 

Mom received two more chemotherapy treatments over the coming weeks that each affected her just like the first one. We got through those tough days and weeks, through the hard work of my mom and dad and the support of our friends and family. As spring turned to summer, chemotherapy ended and Mom began six weeks of radiation with daily treatments in Kansas City. Our church family and local community again cared for my family so much during this time, as my dad couldn’t maintain his role as a pastor and be gone to Kansas City for five hours every day. Someone passed a signup sheet around for people to volunteer to drive my mom to her daily treatment, and soon all the days were covered. Each volunteer would show up at 8 A.M., helping my mom get ever closer to being cancer-free. Eventually the six weeks of radiation ended, and the only thing that we could do was wait. Wait to see if the surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation had been effective. Wait to see if mom still had cancer. Wait to see if mom would live.

With cancer, unlike the initial diagnosis, there’s never a corresponding announcement of being cured. Instead, the news trickles in. Mom continued to go doctor’s appointments throughout that summer and fall. While the scans showed that my mom was cancer-free, there was never a grand pronouncement that it was over. Remission doesn’t mean that you are cured, it just tells you that they can’t find any more cancer at that moment. Hearing that a scan comes back clean doesn’t make you celebrate, so much as it allows you to exhale. Good news is  tainted with the knowledge that the cancer could return and wreak havoc at any time, maybe a month, or a year, or even five years later. You’ve learned your lesson not to trust cancer; if you could, it wouldn’t have shown up in the first place. 

My family settled into a post-cancer routine. My mom’s hair slowly started to grow back in, and by the end of summer she had shed her bandana. School and sports and caring for my sister Faith filled the schedule again. My mom took a giant Tamoxifen pill every day, a drug designed to lessen the chances of the cancer coming back. Every day for five years it sat on the breakfast table, a daily reminder of the continued risks that my mom faced. Soon, the scans were only every six months, and then they became yearly. As each scan came back cancer-free, life went on, and these turned into routine events in my high school life. High school turned into college. College turned into seminary. And seminary turned into now.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop as I write all of this, the tears rolling down my face. It’s been fourteen years this spring since my mom had cancer, and as I pull these memories out of my past, I admit, I don’t get it. Why did God heal my mom? Why did she happen to find that lump before the cancer spread? Why was the treatment effective? Why has her cancer never returned? I’d love to tell you how much I prayed for her to get better. But I didn’t. I’d love to tell you how much I was trusting in God to heal my mom. But I wasn’t. Not because I didn’t want her to live, but I just wasn’t there yet with God. It’s hard as I reflect on this. As I’ve gotten older I’ve met more and more friends who have lost their mom when they were young; I realize that God allowed my mom to survive, even when I didn’t do anything to deserve it.

But isn’t that grace in it’s truest form? Grace is that he gave us this gift, a gift of physical life for my mom and emotional life to my family, not because we deserved it, but merely out of his love for us. God didn’t heal my mom on the conditions that we prayed this much or even trusted him to do it. He did it because he loves us. My family has never really talked about the time period that my mom had cancer, but my brothers have all individually remarked how radically different our family would have turned out without God’s gift of giving my mom these extra fourteen years of life. Who would’ve picked up my midnight phone calls and listened to my dreams and disappointments for hours on end? Who would’ve waited for teachable moments to gently show me areas where I needed to change and grow? Who would have kept our family together and on track, through the ups and downs of five boys learning to become men? Who would have so tirelessly cared for Faith through all of her needs? God’s been gracious to give us this gift.

My sister’s birth and my mom’s cancer, both occurring within a year and a half of each other, were earthquake events that shaped my family’s life. It’s been hard for me to rebuild trust, not with a person, but just with life itself. My analytical mind races: if each of the five brothers gets married and 40% of the population gets cancer, then four siblings/in-laws will undergo what Mom went through. And on top of cancer, will our kids be born with a special need? Having a sibling born with special needs pops your idealistic bubble that that always happens to someone else’s family.

But what allows me to press forward is the simple faith in Christ that my parents have shown me every single day of my life. That Jesus doesn’t promise to make it all better today, but we can trust that because of his resurrection someday it will be. My mom keeps plugging away in the face of hardship in this life, because that’s what God calls her to do. While I have her long, thin nose, her wiry hair, and her penchant for snappy little phrases, the most important thing that she has given me is the ability to just keep going and trusting in God, no matter what life gives. Mom shows this balance between her faith and her daily work with how she ends each day. She always reads her Bible standing up in the kitchen, since she’ll fall asleep from exhaustion if she sits. We’re called to trust what God is doing, but we don’t get to just sit around and wait for it to happen. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that the best plan is to give God time to be faithful to do what he has promised. That means sometimes you have to plow ahead through the disappointments and hardships of life, knowing that the rain will stop  and the sun will come out again. I love my mom, and am forever thankful for her.

Postscript: I know that a lot of you reading this will recognize your role in this story and your contributions to our family throughout this time. Thank you so much for all that you did!