Taking Care Of My Mother Through Cancer


I saw my mother throw up last night in the kitchen sink.

She had been feeling nauseous throughout the day, and messaged me a few times to tell me that her stomach hurt and that she had no appetite, and then asked me to come home after work to cook for her. I did, and later, I whipped up some sautéed spinach and creamed chicken with potatoes and carrots, food that she really liked and which had a lot of vegetables. All the Web sites said that spinach is a super green, and that people like my mom should eat a lot of it and other vegetables as well.

Anyway, she ate half a plateful, and only a few spoonfuls of the spinach. I remember being so annoyed; I traveled three hours and cooked for almost two more, just to have all this food wasted? You won’t even eat it properly? I was a little pissed. She kept asking me, “Have I eaten enough? Can I go drink my medicines now?” Like a little kid. Like a helpless 5-year old child. I said yes, and she drank all the pills she needed that night, and downed it with a couple of glasses of water.

She smiled at me, and said, “Thank you for the meal. It was delicious. I’m going to sleep now.”

I nodded, and lowered the volume of the tv. Then, I proceeded to scrape the leftovers off of our plates, and threw the rest into the garbage. Such a fucking waste, I thought, since we were yet to buy a refrigerator for her apartment. After I had cleaned up, I sat down on the couch and started to read a novel I brought with me. I was tired from work and the long commute, and cooking and cleaning, and I needed to wind down.

After a few minutes, she suddenly sat up and said in a tiny voice, grimacing, “I feel like throwing up.”

Before I could say anything, she ran a few steps towards the kitchen sink (she couldn’t make it to the bathroom), and threw up everything she ate that night. I stared at the sickeningly yellow shower of food being expelled from her body, of her violent retching, her eyes starting to tear up as she continued to vomit.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even go to her to rub her back as she threw up. I sat rooted, staring at her open mouth, gray around the edges. Her wide eyes, dilated, as her stomach purged its contents up her throat. Her knuckles growing white as she clutched the edges of the sink. I couldn’t go towards my own mother to comfort her as she threw up, when I had done so countless times for friends who had too much to drink, and needed their hair held up as they retched, hunched, on a dimly lit sidewalk.

“I’ll clean that up,” I say, when she finally finished.

“Thank you. I’m sorry for the mess,” she apologizes, as she went to the bathroom and washed her face.

I look at the sink, with the undigested food and yellow bile, speckled with white and brown dots, the pills she has to drink everyday for six months. I hated myself at that moment, because I was so fucking weak, a scared child who could only stare at her mother as she suffered.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer last January. I know, because I marked it in my diary, and I wrote “Challenge Accepted” right next to it, in big bold letters. Thing is, I am usually very bad at dates, and I have a lot of journals and notebooks, with no more than a few pages written on them. I wanted to remember the day we found out, to magnify the triumph when I finally get to write “Kicked cancer’s butt!” on the day she beats her disease. I wanted to put blind faith in that belief, because my mother is exceptional, and I need to believe so hard that she’d survive.

She’s the kind of mother many of my friends told me they wished they had. A single mom for 18 years now, she kept our family afloat; the warm, beating heart of our home. One day, while she was giving my baby sister a bath, my brother and I started to have a water fight. Next thing we know, she was joining in, not minding if we got the couch and furniture wet (we chased each other inside the house). She also forced us to try sushi, since she believes that it is important to try things before saying that we don’t like it.

Many nights before we go to sleep, she would ask my brother and I (I’m 22, and he’s 21; my baby sister is 10 yrs old) to sleep in her big bed with her, so that we can have three different voices to read bedtime stories to my sister. In college, I got tattooed on both wrists, and the next night, I suffered overwhelming regret for that drunken decision, irrationally fearing that I’d gotten AIDS from the needles, that I called her immediately at 1am. Two hours and many miles later, she was beside me, telling me that it’s okay as I cried and told her I was sorry for failing her again.

One time, a friend texted me that she had nowhere to go after a fight with her parents at around 11pm that evening. I mentioned it to my mom, and she threw me a jacket, put hers on, called my friend and told her to wait for us; it was a three hour drive to where my friend was in a different city, and my mom wanted to keep her safe that night. She had “adopted” several of our cousins who couldn’t afford to study, and had them live with us and paid for their education herself.

She broke up with her boyfriend of ten years, who drank a lot, because she said that she didn’t need a man for her to survive. She knows how to apologize to us when she is wrong, so that we would learn to admit to our mistakes too. She worked long hours before, usually being the first person her office calls when there is a crisis, but she never fails to be with us at the end of every day, cheering us for our little triumphs, consoling us through childhood grief, always guiding us and preparing us for when we’re ready to lead our own lives.

I look at her as she finally drifts off to sleep. She is bald now, since she shaved off all her hair in preparation for chemo. Her fingers and feet have turned black, and her lips have a grayish tint to it. She is pale, and her breathing is shallow, as she hugs the pillow close to her. That was the way we slept as kids, with pillows all around us, because she was always scared that we would fall off the bed and get hurt. We never did.

I stop myself from weeping as I looked at her. I am not ready to not see her grin again, I am not ready to never hear her speak and laugh, I am not ready to tell my baby sister that our mother is in heaven with the angels. I am not ready to let go of listening to her advice, I am far from ready to stop texting her “I love you so much” when I wake up, throughout the day, and before I go to sleep, and to have her reply, “I love you too.” I am not ready for her to stop asking if I still pray, of her calling me to see if I had already gone home after work. I am not ready to lose the confidence that comes from knowing that you are loved completely and absolutely for everything you are; I am not willing to let go of my sanctuary.

It’s an oddly overwhelming and disconcerting feeling to arrive at the moment when we realize that our parents are indeed human too. This usually happens around our twenties, when the red haze of puberty has finally dissipated, and the irrational hatred for them is giving way to understanding, because we are now trying to make our own ways. I remember this drawing I gave as a gift to her when I was a kid, a superwoman wearing half work clothes, and half house clothes. That’s exactly how I saw her: omnipotent, invincible, indestructible, forever strong. The feeling is akin to doom when I realized that those things are not true. My mom now needs help from her children, she needs our arms around her when she cries and sobs in a dark room because she’s scared of dying, because she feels so weak after each chemo session, because she still cannot believe that this is happening to her.

I look at her as she finally drifts off to sleep. She is bald now. She looks so delicate, like a baby, and my heart wants to burst from wanting to protect and take care of this woman who gave her whole life to us. I renew my silent promise that I will do everything I can, even if it means commuting everyday after working long hours, cooking food that will usually go uneaten, listening to her talk about her day, and accompanying her on visits to the doctor. Even if it means never letting her know that I am scared, too. Even if it means holding her as she vomits. I am lucky for having a mother so precious and wonderful, and it is my duty as her child to be strong for her now.

She is bald, since she shaved off all her hair, around the time it started falling out. I get a blanket, and cover her slowly as to not wake her up. I lean close, kiss her on her forehead, and whisper, “I love you so much.”

That will never, ever change.

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image – Mikael Damkier