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I was twelve when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Not even a teenager and they told me there was more than a sixty percent chance my mother would not live to see Christmas. The middle of five children, she spent her early life referred to by her sisters names, and over looked by teachers constantly. She began smoking while in high school, unaware of the true effects the deadly little sticks could have.
A mother at nineteen, she married a man that rarely worked and depended on her. In fourteen years, he managed to drain her pride, self-confidence, and bank account. She had three children when she finally kicked him out; fifteen, five, and three. Free after so many years, she met a new man quickly and married soon after. He was a change; ten years older than her, hard working and vested with strong morals and a sense of integrity.
An asbestos worker, he had to retire at fifty-one. No longer able to breathe properly and stricken with terrible arthritis in his hips, he couldn’t climb ladders or move very well. His retirement benefits aside, she was back to being the only worker in the household. Everyday, 6 AM sharp at work. Her husband slowly fell to depression, deprived of most of his mobility, he spent most of his day puttering around the house. Each year he accomplished less and less, leaving more for her to do after work.
Quitting smoking didn’t save her from years of carcinogens. Her tumor, small celled and a fast grower, was likely to metastasize and spread. Her only hope of survival was a rigorous course of chemotherapy simultaneous radiation. In the experimental phases, there was a high chance of death. Supported by her friends and family, she was determined to persevere.
The treatment was not kind to her. She lost her hair, and with that, any pride she had. She had to drop a day of working, unable to keep up full time. She felt trapped and useless, unable to provide for her family, and unable to accept that they would provide for her. I watched her sit on the couch and cry, because everything was just too much for her. She woke every morning to find clumps of hair left on her pillow. Some days were better than others. The chemotherapy made her sick and weak.
Her middle child, sensing this weakness, began smoking that same year, despite the dangers vividly displayed to her. Thirteen and self-centered, she stayed out all night and got high, not caring that her ill mother was at home, concerned and unable to sleep.
Worried, exhausted, wanting nothing more than a cigarette, my mother continued to fight. No matter how tired she was, or how scared she was, she went to every appointment and struggled through every round of chemotherapy. The radiation left a burn on her chest, causing her embarrassment. Even more permanently, the little blue dots, tattooed to guide the radiation, will remain forever.
During radiation, she laid flat out, with her head bolted to the table by a mesh plastic screen, fitted to her face. She brought it home one day, and I saw mascara on the part that covered her eyes, from the tears she cried while in treatment.
My mother is the only person I know that would bother with make-up to go to a chemo appointment. I asked her why she went through all the trouble, because I knew that it took a lot of her energy to apply mascara and eyeliner. She told me that just because she had cancer didn’t mean she had a ‘get out of make up free’ pass. I knew, though, that without her hair, she felt like less of a woman, and make up made her feel more beautiful. As if anything could accomplish that.
The radiation left a benign cyst on her chest, still visible five years later. The little blue dots stand out next to her red freckles. Her hair grew back thinner and lighter. Over the years, her confidence has grown slowly.
The day she was declared in remission, the whole family threw a party. She had beaten the odds, and the tumor was gone. A few too many beers after months of torment, she woke the next morning with a headache. Thinking the alcohol out of her system, she took the medicine her doctor proscribed for her headaches. Not so long after, she was laying on the couch.
I was in my room, playing with my two nieces, then six and four. I heard my oldest sister yelling, something about Mom and help and phone. My oldest niece ran out of my room. I heard her burst into tears and followed. Without much though, or even realizing what was happening, I picked up both of the children and ran out of the house. Moments later, a fire truck and ambulance arrived. I was told that my mother had experienced a seizure. All I remember is shaking so hard and wanting to cry, but needing to be strong for my terrified nieces. They took my mom to a hospital, and I saw her the next day.
It turns out the seizure saved her life; in the hospital they discovered she had bacterial pneumonia. When I saw her, she looked so frail and so unlike my mother, who was always strong and vibrant, even through most of her cancer treatments. My nieces were afraid to go near her because of all the machines and tubes. All my mother cared about was the fact that people had seen her without her wig on. I told her that she was beautiful no matter what. She didn’t believe me.
Three years after she was diagnosed and treated, her husband fell ill. He could barely walk for the pain, and doctor after doctor had no idea what was wrong. Sciatica was the best guess, one that could have had fatal consequences.
A staph infection invaded his vulnerable arthritic hip, eating away at the bone. It eventually entered his bloodstream, and started its way to his heart. Bedridden with pain, on morphine and still suffering, an ambulance was called. We found out that he could have died within the next week, and would not have lived another month. A hip replacement was necessary, along with intensive antibiotics.
My mother went to work every morning before the sun rose, and spent every day with her husband at the recovery hospital until after dark. Then she drove home and did it all over again the next day. Never once did she complain, or ask for help. She is the most selfless person I’ve ever met.
When her husband came home two months later, he couldn’t walk yet on his new hip. He was put on oxygen because he couldn’t breathe well any more; years of asbestos and smoking caught up to him. Months passed and he still did nothing. My mother earned the money, ran the household, cleaned, and still found time to put on her make up, every day.
My mother is a survivor, and proves it everyday she wakes up and applies her mascara. Nothing can stop her. She’s taught me that determination and perseverance can conquer even the worst situations. She is now considered cured of cancer, and is planning on retiring to a new house next year. If I grow to be half the person she is. . . An unattainable goal, I’m afraid. There is no competing. She is what humans should strive to be: kind, selfless, thoughtful, determined, courageous. She is my hero.