I can still feel the cold steel of the waiting room bench pressing against my skin — biting, oppressive, foreboding. My mom had been wheeled back into surgery prep what seemed like hours ago, and here I was in the waiting room, alone and scared. Some time later, I finally heard the faint sound of my name, but it was muffled by the fog of the moment and suffocated by the blur of my troubled mind.
They had to say it twice before I finally came to. I was out of body.
When I eventually arrived at her bedside, I found a rather jovial woman staring back at me.
Mom: Jen, do you see that male nurse over there? He may be a little young for me, but he’s cute! OH, NUUURSE!
Me: Who gave my mom drugs?
Mom (slurring): I’m serious! You don’t see a wedding band on his finger, do you? Call him over here for me!
Me: Mom, you’re here for an anal biopsy; I don’t think this is your time to shine.
Mom: Oh, he doesn’t know that!
Male Nurse (entering the room): So we’re all set for your anal biopsy…
It wasn’t 24 hours earlier that my mom sat in the office of her colorectal surgeon, expecting to be diagnosed with an acute case of hemorrhoids. She had been in pain since her hip surgery a few months earlier, and I just figured that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. After all, we’re all well aware of my well-documented struggle.
Prior to pregnancy, I didn’t know that hemorrhoids were actually a thing. I mean, sure, I had seen the Preparation H commercials, but I sort of thought that it was one of those things that people said they got but never actually did. You know, like Florida State grads and jobs. But then I start growing a parasite in my womb, and suddenly, my rectal tissue is fleeing my insides as if it were a Trump-governed territory.
I just figured that the same was happening to my mom, only about 30 years too late.
In any event, the colorectal surgeon took one look at my mom’s backside and scheduled an emergency biopsy for the following morning. Apparently, what he was seeing was not a hemorrhoid. And it wasn’t an hour after my mom emerged from surgery that he was back in her room with the results.
Squamous cell carcinoma.
We digested the information, asked about next steps, and I dutifully wrote down all of the doctors’ names and numbers, as my mom sat silently in a daze. She lay in her hospital gown, quiet and still, until we were released from the hospital and got into the car.
And then she started to cry.
Me: Mom, what’s wrong?
Mom: I don’t want to be sick. I don’t want to die. I have so much life left to live, and I’m really, really scared.
Me: Awww, mom. The only thing you should be scared of is telling people you have anal cancer.
I’ve always known how to say the right thing.
Luckily, I had hired a nanny just the week prior. After nearly two years of being a stay-at-home mom, I was ready to re-enter the workforce and had secured childcare so that I could dedicate myself to the job search. Now, that was going to have to take a backseat. For the next 3 months, I would accompany my mom to her appointments and act as her caretaker. There were daily rounds of radiation (Monday through Friday), the occasional chemotherapy infusion, and so many doctor’s appointments, it was hard to keep them all straight. Morning and afternoons were dedicated to my mom’s physical health, nights to her mental health. And that’s where my children came in.
Since I wasn’t about to have my mom go through this process alone, I had had her move in with us upon her diagnosis. And it is at our home where I felt that the greatest healing took place. One look into my daughters’ eyes, one kiss upon their nose, and my mom was re-energized, reinvigorated. If for no one else, she could fight for them. And heck, it didn’t hurt that, with them in the house, she wasn’t the only one in a diaper.
If I never hear the term “anal leakage” again, it’ll be too soon.
Nevertheless, we all powered on together. And by the end of August, we were finished with treatment and (hopefully) on the road to recovery. My mom had just endured the greatest physical battle of her life, and I was coming out of an emotional one. I’m not going to lie to you, I was scared. I had lost my dad in 2012; one of my good friends, on my birthday, in 2013; my grandfather, the night before my baby shower, in 2014; and my grandmother, while my daughter was in the NICU, in 2015. I wasn’t ready to lose my mom in 2016, and the potential was not lost on me. As my mother’s parents had passed when I was young, my mom was the only member of my immediate family left standing. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her, too.
So we did the only logical thing we could think to do and booked a celebratory vacation to the Exumas.
It ended up being the best of my life.
If you’ve never been to Staniel Cay, I highly suggest you go. There’s an island called Big Major, where you can swim with and feed wild pigs. Girls prance around in their bikinis, being accosted by hungry, aggressive swine, while their significant others laugh at their misfortune and toss bread in their general direction. I, personally, would have walked around in my bathing suit, too, but opted to remain clothed, as I was concerned that the patrons would get confused and start trying to feed me.
And then there’s Compass Cay, where you can swim with the nurse sharks. Sure, it’s a little unnerving at first, but I figured if my mom was going to go out anyway, she may as well go out in the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas. At least that way, we’d save on burial costs. (J/k, mom, love you.)
And who could forget the sandbars, grottos, and private beaches? The scenery was picturesque; the aura, profoundly healing. Well, outside of that whole jellyfish thing. I may or may not have gotten stung, and my husband may or may not have peed on me. Only, it didn’t work! So I was forced to walk in pain back to our bungalow’s shower, where he proceeded to pee on me once again. Because “If it didn’t work the first time, why not get peed on a second?” is evidently my motto.
Maybe Trump and I aren’t so different, after all.
In any event, it was an indescribably restorative trip. And a mere week after our return, it was confirmed that my mom’s cancer was in remission. Never have I felt greater relief.
So mom, on this day, your birthday, I just want to share how happy I am that we’re all here to celebrate it, and I know that we’ll be celebrating many more in the years to come. After all, I need my mom, and my kids need their grandma.
Who else is going to buy us all the stuff?
But in all seriousness, thank you for fighting. Thank you for serving as an inspiration to others. And thank you for owning your experience with the raw honesty and shameless confidence that have come to define your daughter. I like to think that, as much as you’ve rubbed off on me, I’ve also rubbed off on you. And it’s been a beautiful, symbiotic relationship.
But, uh, if you’re going to get cancer again, let’s try to get a kind other than anal cancer.
It’s kiiiind of awkward.