My mother was beautiful.
We all know our mothers are beautiful. But Mom was movie star lovely. Tall and slender with masses of dark hair, dewy brown eyes, and cheekbones to die for, she could have stepped right out of an RKO feature film.
She must have been surprised, after growing up as an only child, to marry Dad and become the mother of ten children. But nobody could ever tell. Our friends always said we had the prettiest, youngest looking mother around.
Every day, she’d sneak away to her piano. I’d sit close beside her on the bench watching her elegant hands glide across the keyboard. Sometimes, I’d sniff the Avon scented candle on top of the piano - the same candle that sits on top of the same piano in my own living room all these years later. I’d savor that little bit of time with my mother. As the oldest, I didn’t have her to myself very often.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was only 45-years-old. Not for one minute did we think she’d die. It was unthinkable. Even when she became bed bound and could barely walk to the bathroom, we refused to believe she wouldn’t get better.
But she died just three agonizing years later. I remember the ten of us huddled around Dad at the funeral home. We shuffled up to the casket to view our mother’s body for the first time, and my youngest brothers and sisters began to sob. My six foot seven inch mountain of a father collapsed into a pew as my four little siblings crawled into his lap and clutched him in their grief. I remember how he consoled them as the tears fell off his face.
Just a few weeks after Mom died, my 12-year-old sister Terri came to me, her eyes stricken with fear.
“I think I have breast cancer,” she said.
It would have been laughable had we not all been so raw with grief.
“You don’t have cancer,” I said.
Her eyes filled. “I do. I have a lump.”
I examined the lump. “It’s a bone, Ter. Everybody has it.”
Her small face crumpled with relief, and she smiled for the first time in weeks. It was good to be the big sister and take that terrible fear from my little sister.
As it turned out, it would be a fear that my four sisters and I would live with for the next 30 years. Breast cancer was the enemy. It had taken our mother and her grandmother, and we prayed it wouldn’t poison another generation. All five of us endured the agonies of bad mammogram reports and biopsies through the years. But thankfully, the lumps were all benign.
Until last July.
Terri had undergone her first biopsy. “It won’t be anything,” I promised her. But it was.
She called me from the Walmart parking lot.
“I’ve got it!” she sobbed.
I waited for her to tell me she was kidding, but none of us would joke about this.
“Tell me exactly what they told you,” my voice shook.
“It was the nurse. She told me the doctor wants to see me this afternoon,” Terri choked. “But I said, ‘If I have breast cancer, tell me now!’”
Somehow, I was standing next to the big potted plant in the dining room without quite realizing how I got there.
“She said it was cancer.” My little sister wept and wept. Terri is 44-years-old and the tall beautiful mother of six children, but in that moment, she was my yellow haired, gap-toothed little sister. It’s a hard thing to be an hour and a half away from your sister when she’s sobbing her heart out, and her life is changing forever.
After she and her husband returned from her doctor’s appointment, Terri called me again. “He says it’s invasive ductal carcinoma,” she sighed, sounding overwhelmed and exhausted. “But it’s early.”
Those were the words we clung to.
My little sister Terri is my hero. In the end, even though she was scared to death, she elected to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction. My sisters and I, along with Terri's husband Paul, went with her to every appointment, and after her surgery, her relief was palpable.
“I’m on the other side!” she rejoiced from her hospital bed.
We breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was over, we thought. But two weeks later, my sister Deb’s annual mammogram indicated two suspicious spots. A subsequent biopsy revealed atypical hyperplasia, a pre-cancerous condition. All at once, my sisters and I realized that breast cancer was becoming the reality we had dreaded for so long.
Making an appointment with a noted breast cancer specialist in Omaha, the three of us learned about our options. Even though Terri had not tested positive for the breast cancer gene, our doctor explained, some hereditary susceptibility was targeting our family. We could either hope to catch it early or head it off at the pass.
Deb, Mary and I decided to be as courageous as our little sister. We opted for prophylactic double mastectomies. Thankfully, our husbands and children supported our decision completely. Deb’s surgery was two days before Thanksgiving, and mine was a week before Christmas. Mary is scheduled just two weeks from now.
It has been a harrowing, emotional journey and one we are anxious to complete. But who better to share it with than your sisters and best friends? Terri has been our inspiration. Because she was brave, we are brave.
This spring, when we are all healed, we will squeeze into my vehicle with our wonderful stepmother Kris and enjoy our annual girls’ shopping weekend that, out of necessity, was postponed from last November. We will laugh and eat and enjoy every minute together. That trip is the shining light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
But now, in the middle of this monumental journey together, we all experience moments of despair and grief at the loss of our breasts. Much of that grief is for Mom, too. She’s missed out on so much. But it’s because of our beautiful mother that we will survive. We will live to see our children grow to adulthood. We will know our grandchildren.
I miss my mother so much. But I see her in my sisters. She is in Deb’s laughter, in Mary’s expressive eyes, in Terri’s irreverent humor and in Caroline's plucky resolve. We have felt her loving spirit encouraging us, comforting us, applauding us.
“Don’t be sad!” she tells us.
I know we’ll see her again, and Dad, too. But in the meantime, the future that always seemed uncertain is folding out in front of us, and Mom would want us to enjoy it.
And so we will.
For our kids.
And for Mom.
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