I was about 15 years old when I overheard a very strange conversation between my mother and my grandmother over the phone. My parents had relocated to the United States and were preparing to reunite me, my sisters and my grandmother with them after I graduated from high school in Jamaica. As they talked, I became intrigued. After they hung up, I cautiously asked Grandma what was wrong with Mommy. She explained that Mommy was sick and had to do a breast operation. She was in recovery. The details sounded a bit vague, so I figured that the situation was not as serious.
The following year I was graduating from high school and Mommy was flying down to attend. She arrived, and when she did she cried profusely, which troubled me. After a couple days of us adjusting to being around her again, she began to disclose her health situation to us. She shared with me and my younger sisters that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was caught in the late stages. She was in remission, which is why she was allowed to attend my high school graduation. Her skin tone had changed, and she shocked us into silence when she removed her wig and showed us the large scar where her breast used to be. I was scared to touch her bald head, and secretly cried because her long, beautiful hair was gone. Soon it was time for her to return to the U.S. to be reunited with my Dad.
Later that summer, my sisters and I packed as many things as we could carry and flew to the United States. Grandma would join us later. I was so excited, because this was five years in the making! Finally, we would be living together under one roof, and laugh and love again face to face as we did in the past.
This happiness was short-lived. One morning in October, just two months after we were reunited, Mommy did not feel well. As she got us prepared for school she complained of an unrelenting headache and she experienced nausea. I told her to take care of herself. I was very concerned. On that same day she scheduled a doctor’s appointment and was screened.
My parents came home to share somber news; the cancer had returned.
In fact, it had metastasized to vital organs and to her brain. Right around that moment, Grandma felt the urgency to purchase her airline ticket to join us. Daddy went to pick her up at the airport and informed her on the condition of her only daughter.
After the new diagnosis, life became brutal for us. We were now in a new country, with new and different expectations, and just at the moment when things seemed to be going well and we were going to live “happily ever after”, breast cancer happened. We felt lost, as Mommy was the glue that held our family together. Her quiet strength and strong decision-making skills helped us survive tough times during our early childhood. Now she was unable to help us as she did in the past.
Mommy started chemotherapy and radiation. The side-effects made her very sick, and she was totally incapacitated. Thankfully Grandma fell back into the position she held in Jamaica as our main caregiver and did everything she could to keep our family going. She quickly learned how to get to supermarkets, banks, etc. and took on most of the home duties since Daddy had to work. The added responsibility of taking care of her daughter made things more challenging for her. We could not enjoy our first Thanksgiving because the illness had pulled Mommy down so far that we were distraught. She wanted to die because she was in so much agony.
By March of the following year, our parents came home to deliver heart-stopping news: Mommy had only 2 weeks to live. March was a critical month because my birthday was coming up. My family was very concerned about how that would affect me if something should happen close to or on my birthday. Hospice care came over to assist us in handling her transition; they brought us movies to watch and checked on her. The movies were a welcome distraction from the cloak of gloom that enveloped our home.
The week before my birthday, Mommy fell into a deep coma. When we left for school on the following morning (Friday), Grandma arranged her transportation to the hospital. We visited her on Saturday, the last time we saw her alive. She struggled to breathe and no longer opened her eyes. I whispered in her ear “I’ll see you in heaven.” She moaned in response. She died on Sunday, two days before my 17th birthday. My best friend was gone. Grief rocked our family to the core.
When we lost our mother we had no-one to share our dating questions and private girl talk with. Our “rock” was no longer present for us to bounce ideas off, and to prepare us for life as adults in the United States. Daddy lost his best friend, and Grandma her only child. Grandma stayed strong for us and raised us as best as she could so that we would become productive citizens in a new country, for which we are grateful.
There is still a hole in my heart 25 years later. Mommy, I miss you.
BMWK: Do you have a family member that has experienced breast cancer?