My Mama and I went to New York City to celebrate her sixtieth birthday, six months late. My placenta previa cancelled our summer plans, but we were excited to experience New York City in the winter, with my baby (her granddaughter) in tow, a miracle that took six years in the making. Mama stood by my side throughout my entire infertility journey and here we were, finally, ready to celebrate her birthday and do something fun and exciting.
At the airport, Mama could barely walk because she was so weak. I almost cancelled the trip before we boarded the plane. She had been experiencing night sweats for months, along with unexplained fevers and rashes. Her GP and Rheumatoid Arthritis Specialist weren’t able to figure it out, so we went to New York anyway, hoping for the best. I’m glad that we did because in February 2020 she was diagnosed with lymphoma and a month later, well, we all know what happened next.
Supporting anyone with cancer is difficult. Add a world pandemic and an unclear cancer diagnosis and it feels near impossible. There’s just too many variables to factor in. I wasn’t able to attend most of her medical appointments and FaceTime just doesn’t cut it when you are trying to be included in life-altering conversations. A mask covering adds another layer of separation between her and her healthcare providers: a physical and an emotional barrier in a field where many patients already complain of detached care.
Last month, we were told she had six months to live. She’s fought so hard, doing every treatment suggested for a cancer caused by medication that was supposed to help her rheumatoid arthritis. Let me rephrase that: for a cancer, or two cancers, or one cancer plus activity from her arthritis caused? No one has provided a concrete diagnosis, even after a year of treatment. Her team of doctors are split down the middle in their decision, with half believing it is a T-cell lymphoma, and the other half believing it is Hodgkin’s, or potentially both cancers.
How can one go through a year of cancer treatments without a real diagnosis? Unfortunately, it’s possible. Our medical system is a world of human error and best guesses. Her latest diagnosis of ‘you’re going to die in a few months’ is referred to as a ‘rare event’, unfortunately caused by medication. A rare event it might be but one that is impacting her family in a very real and horrible way.
The stupid poinsettia, that I hate outside of December, but can’t bear to throw out, is going to live longer than her. I hate that she won’t see her granddaughter grow up. That she won’t get to be her fun-loving Grandma, laughing and carrying on the way they do, even during the harshest of chemo treatments. She was robbed of her 40th wedding anniversary party because of cancer and COVID-19 and now she is being robbed of life far too soon.
I love her more than anything and to see her go through this at 61 has broken my spirit. The difference with the infertility grief that I knew so intimately, is that I really didn’t know what I was missing. I had an idea of course, but I definitely know what I am going to miss with my mom, and that is everything.
In one year, she’s lost her hearing, her hair, her body that she knew, the feeling in her hands and feet, her stomach and the ability to eat and not feel nauseous, but her beautiful soul shines through it all. She is more graceful than she knows.
I’m lost and angry and not comforted by the fact that other people know this terribleness. However, I am thankful for the love I’ve been shown. Life isn’t fair, I know. It doesn’t hurt any less. I can’t take her pain away. I do hope that sharing this with other people may bring some comfort to someone else going through such sorrow.
Grief, I’ve discovered, is like walking in mud, often all day long. The friends and family who have reached out to me have provided comfort in a time where it’s hard to find. If I have any advice for people supporting anyone experiencing the grief of cancer, is to reach out. Don’t ask, ‘how are you doing?’ but offer a hug, a heart, or a cupcake or two. Don’t expect a response back, at least not right away.
When we were told her prognosis wasn’t going to improve, I inactivated my social media and shut myself away from the world. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about my pain and permanent hole in my heart. I’ll never forget the feeling of receiving a gift basket with thoughtful items: flowers, food, and a card with a sweet message from friends. I felt that I didn’t deserve these things because I wasn’t the one who is dying. But these small gestures made a huge impact and made me feel loved beyond measure. It helped.
As we approach Mother’s Day, my second ever, I’m horrified that it will likely be my Mama’s last. What was supposed to be a joyous occasion is defined by sadness. I hope the experience of losing my best friend and Mama makes me a kinder person and not angry and withdrawn. In this spirit, I’ve passed along other small gifts to friends and strangers alike in hopes that I can keep the love circle freely flowing. May love always continue, even if life itself can’t.
You never know what someone is dealing with and with social distancing in a pandemic, it makes it even harder to know. Please reach out to your loved ones and let them know you are thinking of them, even if you can’t be with them in person. May your hearts warm up along with the weather. May we all find some peace in another difficult year. May we all have our own version of sweet memories, like New York City on a cold winter’s day.
Ariel Ng Bourbonnais is a writer living in Toronto, and the co-author and editor of Through, Not Around: Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss.