Look, it’s not cancer.
That’s what I kept telling friends and family.
It wasn’t cancer. It was a miscarriage. A miscarriage after three months of IVF and $20,000.
Miscarriages happen. Having to have surgery to remove our dead fetus. I naïvely named this “the worst day of my life.” It happens to so many people. It wasn’t the end of the world. We would recover and try again. It wasn’t cancer.
Until it was cancer.
Just ten days after my miscarriage.
My mom. My beautiful strong mama. Cancer. Leukemia. Ten days after “my worst day.”
Her doctor called after some routine bloodwork and said they had had her results for a month but somehow things fell through the cracks. The doctor advised us to go to the hospital for more bloodwork. I met my brother there, still bleeding myself from surgery, thinking, “This is what a nervous breakdown must feel like.”
That day was the first day of a long, exhausting, heartbreaking journey to losing my mom. Sixteen months later she would be gone. A torturous sixteen months where my brother and I watched the person whom we both loved so much bravely fight an unwinnable battle. Some of the details of what we had to see and experience are so horrific, I don’t think I can even remember them. My parents were divorced, so her care fell to Pete and me. She lived five blocks from me and worked for Pete, which was lucky. We were able to be there for her in a way that made her angry and ashamed. She hated deteriorating and losing her independence. We were dealt blow after blow, and each time she would continue to fight. I remember during one particular doctor’s appointment where the news was grim, she proclaimed, “I feel fine. You are going to have to take me out back and shoot me, because I will not give up and die.”
It is a strange thing to become a mom while losing my own mom.
But she did die. Seven weeks after my daughter was born. We did try again, and are blessed with a spunky baby girl.
It is a strange thing to become a mom while losing my own mom. The week I was induced, Pete and I got the final blow from her doctors but decided to keep it from her so she could enjoy the birth of her second granddaughter. It was a hilariously awful labor. My mom and husband slept in the delivery room and ate Cuban food and snuck in wine. She rubbed my back as I writhed in pain and yelled at the nurses when they didn’t change my sheets after my water broke.
After Stella was born, my mom went home to sleep but came back bright and early the next morning. As I breast-fed the baby, my mom turned to me and said, “Steph, you’re a natural!” I hold that moment in my heart.
The next six weeks were hard. We knew what was happening, plus the complications of becoming a new mom compounded my stress and sadness. I desperately wanted my mom to live while simultaneously hating that she was living knowing that treatment wasn’t working. She never gave up hope, but I cannot even imagine knowing you are dying. The last night she was alive, we sat on her hospital bed and she ate Cheerios. I rubbed her back and she softly said, “I just want to enjoy my grandchildren.”
The next day was a blur. Pete and I had to make gut-wrenching decisions that still cause a tremendous amount of anxiety in both our lives.
That evening, we were summoned back to say good-bye. The nurse told us we could sit with her and then they would remove her from the ventilator; her passing could take minutes or several hours. He left us and told Pete to call him back once we were ready.
We sat there with the beeping of machines and said good-bye. I was the last to speak. I said, “Mama, it’s okay. We are okay. You can go now.”
And just like that, she left. On her own terms. With our permission.
The loss is gut-wrenching. But I have realized the best way to honor her is to keep living. I laugh and find joy every day.
Her middle name was Joy.
I love you, Mom.