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To hear my mom wail hysterically and break down in powerless sobs from the bathroom the first time she saw herself in the mirror after her double mastectomy is something I will never get over.  I will never, ever outlive the pain that  resonated so clearly above the normal shower sounds we all take for granted.  I will always have nightmares of the sound of her mourning her beauty, her health, and her womanhood.  To bear witness to someone’s ultimate suffering, despair, and fear was soul consuming for me.  I thought of my daughter, and what this meant for her future.  I thought of my son, the brand new two-month-old grandson she had only just met for the first time.  And I wondered if mom (and myself) would ever again be OK physically or emotionally.  That was ten years ago.

Mom had always been the sort of woman who was neatly pulled together.  She had her hair, nails, and makeup done every day, without fail.  She was beautiful and  even as a single parent, men couldn’t help but be interested in her.  She was an impeccable dresser and her closet was neatly arranged to hold several full sections of clothes divided into work, evening, and casual attire.  Her accessories were organized and selected to perfectly fit each outfit.  What I remember most however, were her hands.  Her beautiful-manicured twice weekly- hands.  They were often bedecked with custom-made jewelry featuring  unusual gold designs and stones, but even naked they were amazing.  The product of years of tender care and regimen.

She was never one to ask for help but offered it freely to those who needed it (perhaps a little too often.)  If something had to be done such as a home repair or yard work, she took care of that herself.  The only things she seemed to stay away from were car repairs, which would mess her nails.  Nothing else was off-limits though and I watched her learn the hard way through trial and error how to lay brick, redo plumbing and install flooring.  This was all before you could simply sit down and watch a couple of YouTube videos to learn how to do stuff.  She was proud and anything but a “helpless woman.”

Mom was the hardest worker I have ever known.  She got up every morning at 5:30am to get herself pulled together for work at a great job at an important company.  She had clawed her way up the ladder to success in a time when women just weren’t “successful.”   Especially a divorcee with two unruly kids.  She worked this nine to five job during the week, sold real estate on weekends, purchased and managed rental properties for extra income, and earned a college degree, all while raising us on her own.  There were no limits to her energy.

That my mom was healthy was never in question.  She understood nutrition and ate a healthy diet.  She even made sure we had protein powder stirred into our orange juice and that our vitamins were on the counter every morning before school.   She worked out at the gym daily, hiked often, played volleyball, and swam.  Once she retired she religiously walked her dog every morning at the same time, on the same route, for the same number of miles.  Her fitness was always a priority.

Mom kept her car clean and her home cleaner-everything in its place.  Tuesdays the upstairs were cleaned and vacuumed, Thursdays it was the downstairs.  She washed her car every week and taught us about taking care of what we had, which wasn’t always a lot.  Her last home was the pinnacle of her success.  It had everything she wanted.  There was an amazing view out the back windows of her favorite rolling hills and oak trees.  I will miss that view.  She built a garden,  put in the landscaping, and even constructed a covered swing, all by herself.  She made her own food from the produce she collected; the real fruits of her hard work.  Nothing gave her more delight than to harvest her own cherries and eat them straight off the tree.

After mom was diagnosed, she volunteered for years at a local breast cancer support organization that helped patients get to doctor appointments, provided in-home meals, fitted them for prosthetic bras, secured wigs, and provided moral and monetary support.  After that, she volunteered and helped people in hospice care by reading to them, feeding them, and taking down their genealogy information so their stories wouldn’t die with them.  She did all of this knowing she would someday experience the same downhill slide they were living.  I watched my mom as she helped an elderly neighborhood couple by cleaning their home, providing repairs, and driving them to medical appointments two hours away because their vision was impaired.  When I was young I remember her slipping a thousand dollars that she didn’t have into a coworker’s desk drawer because she knew this woman couldn’t afford her own cancer treatment.  She connected with family she had never known and began caring for them as well.

I’m angry at breast cancer for making what remaining life my mom has left in her, so difficult.  Small pleasures like walking her dog or going to the movies are now major chores and are often more trouble than they joy she can derive from them.  I hate cancer for causing her bones to disintegrate, for causing her to take radiation and chemotherapy that she hates because they are toxins she vowed she would never let into her body, and for the excruciating pain she must live with daily that causes her so much discomfort.  I detest  cancer for making her clean out and sell her dream house, with her garden and view and swing, and trade it for a tiny one bedroom apartment with zero outdoor space.  I will never forgive cancer for making my mom cry as she “dismantled a lifetime” and gave, sold, or threw away almost all of her possessions because they wouldn’t fit in that apartment.  These were her words.  I detest cancer for robbing my mom of her health, her dignity, and her independence.  There is no pain on earth like a daughter being asked by such a proud woman to help shave her armpits because she can no longer reach them but still feels propelled to perform this most basic and intimate item of personal grooming.  Cancer sucks but I have to let this hate go.  I must focus on the gifts cancer has brought.  The biggest gift is the precious awareness of living now.  Experiencing each day while I can, with those I love.  This is the only way I can get through watching a loved one suffer so.

I am deeply appreciative for all of the Breast Cancer Awareness organizations out there giving resources and spreading knowledge so that fewer wonderful souls have to walk the Hell my mom has walked.   I am grateful to be able to sit down and really think about this powerful female role model that I was so blessed to learn from, and to be able to share her with my children.  I am so lucky I have been reminded that her real legacy is her inner beauty and the light she spread in the many lives she touched.  I am so filled with gratitude to know her soul will continue on and the love she shared here on earth will not die with her.  She will live on in me and I am thankful today to be able to share her with you.  In honor, I think of you, mom.