A Tribute To the Woman I Aspire To Be

Four years ago, my mother was diagnosed with stage four-colon cancer that would eventually spread to her liver and all throughout her body. As a freshman in high school, I understood that this was not good. I knew for sure that it would mean that I would lose her earlier than most people lose their mothers, but I was not able to fully comprehend the complexity of the situation until years later. I still am unable to fully comprehend it. For a long time I was in denial and I did not tell anyone about it until I was on the bus home from school and my friend noticed that I was not my normal, upbeat self. I was forced to explain how that day was my mother’s first day of chemo and I could sense the magnitude of the wave of emotions that she was experiencing on this day and how it was weighing on my mind. This small instance of human connection with my friend on that bus made me feel infinitely better. The reality came out and I felt slightly freer. When we say things out loud, they become more real somehow. They come out of the swirling mess that is our head and become tangible, sometimes hanging in the air like a beautiful painting or a foul odor. I have since experienced a fresh dose of realness every time I have told someone new about my mother’s weakened state. I use this information carefully and guard it wisely. Unless you have experienced something similar there is no way you would know what to say to me and I honestly prefer you say nothing at all unless I get the first word. If I have told someone about this aspect of my family life and development, that person is in my heart with a guaranteed spot.

Last week I received a text message from my father, he demanded that my brothers and I press pause on our separate adult lives and go home. My mother had made the decision that morning to discontinue her experimental chemotherapy treatments, to give up on the long and hard fight, and start the hospice process. When I received this news, I had just gotten to class and taken my seat just as I do every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I just sat there and all I could do was start shaking. Eventually, as my professor was starting his lecture I stood up and made a beeline for the bathroom. I called one of my closest friends, someone I share my entire world with. She came and opened the bathroom stall that I was standing in and hugged me so tightly that it felt as if she was holding me together. She took the weight of my backpack off of my shoulders — one less thing to carry — and took me home and laid in bed with me until I was able to function like a relatively normal human being again. A couple hours later, when the shock of reality had sunken in, I accepted a friend’s invitation to eat lunch at one of our favorite spots. He was unaware of the day’s previous events and I listened to him think out loud about his girl problems, planning for course registration for next semester, and vent about all of the unknowns that the prospects of a future career hold. I withheld how bothered I was that he got to worry about these problems while I was forced to face the impending situation of my slowly but surely dying parent. In this moment, my reservation became completely apparent and utterly avoidable. I chose to not tell him how lucky he was that these were the issues that were weighing on his mind. I did not reveal that I was doomed to go through child birth without the woman that gave me life, that I would have one parent physically present at my graduation and one smiling down at me from above, there would be no “mother of the bride”, for not much longer would I be able to pick up the phone and be greeted with the soft female voice, full of unconditional love, that I have known since I opened my eyes for the first time and took my first breaths. Given this frustration, I was still at peace. I would go home, cry a lot, tell my mother how much I love her, say thank you and goodbye, and carry on with the life that she gave me, determined to live it to the fullest. In some of my last moments with her, I promised to myself that I would spread the love that she had instilled in me and I would live my life according to the values she always hoped I would — long past were my rebellious high school days. Everything was going to be all right, the sun rises, classes get registered for, people are born and die, and girls will be girls.

This emotional reservation has at times caused me trouble. It is extremely hard for me to connect with someone since I withhold information and am at times unsure of when to distribute it. People have gotten frustrated with me and deemed me “hard to read” and “cold” because I am not the kind of person that can reveal themselves slightly without giving it all away. Because of my family situation, my RA whom I have very little connection with, felt obligated to knock on my door the other day and check to see if I was “alright” and if I wanted to talk about it. I felt sorry for her. Caught off guard, I could not help but give her a “please leave me alone” tone as the words “thank you” came out of my mouth. In reality I am quite the opposite of “cold” and am at times overwhelmed by how many emotions I have that the only thing I can do is to keep them all inside of myself.

Sometimes I find myself in conversation with someone I don’t know very well and look up into the other persons’ eyes only to see that I have gone too far, revealed too much. With every serious relationship I have entered into, my extreme and full inner self has been revealed. These people remain as people that I could go to at any moment and receive a listening ear, may it be a simple random thought such as “wow you would really enjoy this movie” or an extremely revealing issue in my life like the emotional struggle that came out of the transition to college, the grief I experienced and overcame from leaving home. Initially I considered myself lucky to have such loyal emotional connections until I realized that I chose these people. By observing these people and choosing to reveal and open myself completely to only certain friendship, I receive the true self of my friends because I give my true self to them, by this I learned that you receive what you put out into the world.

So much time in one’s head could very well lead to insanity. This is true and is when the importance of things like writing, hiking, yoga, and meditation come into play in my life. There is a reason the concept a journal is a recurring theme of humanity. For centuries, debatably since the dawn of written language humans have written their thoughts, observations, etc down. I try to partake in this very human activity once a day. It initially started as a way to improve my writing, to make the words flow more naturally. It eventually evolved into a method of self-expression, giving tangible evidence of my overactive inner mind on every different subject that my brain had touched on during that day. My journal is my safe place, somewhere that a dark thought becomes a little lighter or random insight becomes a little more relevant. In many ways there are people in my life who are “journals” to me, but this physical notebook paper becomes important for the most raw and most human thoughts that need to be solidified before they enter another person’s mind. Journaling is how I began to write this paper. It was initially an “expose” on the psychological effects of cancer that grew into something a little more.

In addition, over the past six months at UVA, I have taken every opportunity that I have been presented with to go hiking. I feel extremely lucky to be so close to a national park and such breathtaking natural and simple beauty and I don’t plan on taking it for granted. Studies have shown that spending time in the outdoors improves concentration and for reserved introverts like myself, provides a space for self-reflection and clearing of the head like no other. I have come to terms with a variety of weighty aspects of my life — including my mother’s deteriorating health — within the loving and accepting embrace of nature. The most significant of these events was when a couple of my closest friends and I climbed the 3291 feet to the summit of Old Rag Mountain. I sat on those rocks above the rest of Virginia and looked into the far away distance and everything in my head made sense. I felt no need to interact with the world around me. I was free to just sit, observe, and experience. The complicated web that constitutes every day life became detangled in front of my very eyes. My senses were being stimulated, but I felt no obligation to respond to them. Everything around me was so simple, no technology, no complication, my inner self was completely open to the world around me. However, it does not take eight hours of physical exertion to experience feelings akin to this. Through yoga and meditation I have experienced what I believe to be a higher level. The other day, I simply laid on my yoga mat one beautiful, sunny, Charlottesville Friday afternoon a few weeks ago in the grass outside of the anthropology building. In Savasana, I listened to my breathing, the voices around me, the hum of the cars, the birds singing and rejoicing in the fresh feeling of spring. My peaceful and reserved inner being felt completely at home in this moment, surrounded by the chaos and bustle of mundane and every day life, during a period of time when my life was anything but mundane. Yet I was still present and enjoyed just being.

The end for my mother did not come as I expected it to and to be completely honest, I do not know how I expected it to happen. That’s the thing about most of the events in life — they happen when and how we least expect them to and sometimes when we least want them to. These significant events teach us things about ourselves that we never would have learned otherwise. All we can do is observe ourselves and learn so that one day we will know ourselves well enough to handle weighty situations more effectively. I am powerless to choosing the life that I was given and the health situations of my family. All I can do is come out of my head to be as open with the world and the people around me as much as humanly possible.