A Mother’s Love

My mother and I sixteen years ago

I awoke at 10 a.m. on May 31, 2015 to a voicemail from my father, telling me to call back as soon as possible.

“You should probably tell Mom that you love her. I don’t know how much longer she’s going to make it.” His voice cracked and he started crying. I did too.

I told myself the words my mother would say often, “Stay strong,” over and over, so that I would not cry when I Facetimed her. She was still amazingly well-spoken, but frailer than I had ever seen her, eyes half-shut from fatigue. After two years and eleven months of the harshest chemotherapy her oncologists at Kaiser Permanente could administer, the strongest, most positive person I had ever known was finally succumbing to cancer.

Our conversation lasted around five minutes of the half hour talk with my parents, an exchange of last thoughts that ended with us saying we loved each other. What do you say to someone when you don’t know if they’ll be alive the next time you call? I reasoned that if my mother died that day, it would be around eight or nine PM, just enough time for me to take an Amtrak and say goodbye in person. But they told me to stay. They didn’t want me to see my mother die.

I felt heartbroken. To distract myself from my anger of not being able to see my mother, I left my apartment to play basketball — my mom and I’s favorite sport — at the Anteater Recreation Center, my college’s gym. She introduced me to the game when I was six years old, the year Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant won their first championship. We dressed our dog Sami in a Shaq jersey; we hung Lakers posters above our beds; we cheered so loudly when the Lakers beat their rival, the Boston Celtics, in a Game 7, championship-winning nail-biter in 2010 that the neighbors could hear us. The basketball court was the only place I could take my mind off my mother dying.

That day, I was more focused than I had ever been. I hit almost every shot, including a game-winner. My basketball-loving friend was impressed.

“You’re incredible today,” he said. “Have you been practicing more lately?”

I shrugged. “I’ve just been lucky.”

“You’re a funny guy, Spencer.”

I texted my dad, “Tell Mom I’m kicking ass at basketball for her.”

A few minutes later, my dad texted back, “I told her and she lit up and said COOL!”

When I finished playing at 2 PM, I checked my phone. I hadn’t heard it ring when my dad called three times. My dad never called more than once.

“Hey Dad, what’s going on?”

“Spencer, are you — are you in a good place to hear this?” I could hear him sniffing. “I don’t know how to say this…Mom…Mom’s — ”

“What? I can’t hear you,” I lied. “I’m at the gym.”

“You’re in public? You should go somewhere private.”

I felt shock and numbness — I couldn’t believe what I heard. I rushed the five minute walk back to my apartment, trying not to make eye contact with anyone, dangerously close to tears but urgently telling myself that I had heard him wrong, that my mom was still alive. She could not have died after I spoke to her only two hours ago.

“I’m back in my apartment. What happened?”

“I’m sorry, Spencer,” my dad said. “But Mom just passed. She’s dead.”

My mother a year after she was diagnosed with cancer

My mother was born in 1956 near Newport Beach, her favorite place in the world. Her father cofounded the Guitar Center, inspiring her love for music with dozens of free concert tickets. Her favorite artists were Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles. Not coincidentally, my favorite artists are Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles.

My mother loved her friends, the ocean, SpongeBob, Seinfeld, Lady Gaga, and anything that would make her laugh. I have a deep nostalgia for my childhood, because of all the games, television shows, movies, and personal creations she would encourage me to try, always to follow what my heart desired, driving me to succeed. All of my greatest achievements — becoming a valedictorian, having my essays read to the class by one of my professors, getting accepted to UC Irvine — would not have been possible without her.

My mother’s life could not have been more different, yet strangely similar. Despite the joy, kindness, and positivity she would emit throughout her life, her childhood was difficult. Her parents divorced when she was three, forcing her to travel back and forth between homes. Her sister claimed the most attention from her parents, having severe psychological issues that went untreated, leaving my mother often feeling alone. Her mother was as kind and loving to her as my mom was to me, but she was also diagnosed with cancer. My mom commuted two and a half hours every day to support them financially and take care of her mother, but she died only a year later. My mother was nineteen.

That situation would echo when I was eighteen, on June 2, 2012, upstairs in my parents’ house, playing the video game Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. My mother had been battling stomach pain for several years, getting a full hysterectomy in 2009 to try to relieve the pain — ovaries, cervix, and uterus removed. The biopsy returned negative, cancer-free. We thought it was impossible for my mother to develop cancer in that area. As time passed, however, my mother’s stomach became distended, building fluid from cancer.

My mother returned from the hospital, where her doctors had given her hours of tests, and greeted me cheerily: “Hi, Spencer! How are you doing?” Then, she walked into my bedroom and started crying. “I can’t hide it from you, Spencer. I have cancer.” My heart broke. I stared at the television screen, stunned that the person closest to me for my entire life would die before I would even have a career, before I would marry, before I would have grandkids she could see for the first time. I pushed forward on my controller, the main character fell off a ledge, and I began to sob into my mother’s arms.

By the time I turned twelve, I had only experienced one family death, my grandfather on my father’s side. By the time I turned twenty-two and one month old, I was the only person from my mother’s immediate side who had not died — both grandparents from lung cancer, baby brother from miscarriage, aunt from suicide. Of all the cancer diagnoses that have plagued my family, my mother received the worst: stage four peritoneal cancer.

According to WebMD, peritoneal cancer is a rare cancer occurring in the peritoneal cavity, abdominal tissue lining that covers the uterus, bladder, and rectum. My mother’s doctors told us after she was diagnosed that it is the equivalent of ovarian cancer in rarity and deadliness. In other words, really deadly: according to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, women with stage 4 ovarian cancer have a five-year survival rate of 18 percent.

My mother was diagnosed with a CA-125 test, which measures how prevalent ovarian and similar cancers are in one’s body. A normal, cancer free patient would have CA-125 levels of 0–35. My mother’s was 7800, the highest her doctors had ever seen.

They thought she would only live a month.

The cruel twist of ovarian, peritoneal, and similar cancers is that they often do not show symptoms until stage three or four — by then, it is usually too late. As Oncology Business News claims, one of the only ways to detect the cancer is through a CA-125 test; however, when a patient undergoes a full blood panel, a CA-125 test is usually not administered, because insurance companies do not cover it. Since ovarian cancers only make up 3 percent of all cancers, as verified by the Julie Merle Epstein Cancer Fund, the CA-125’s $100-or-more cost can be an unwise gamble. Moreover, the effectiveness of the CA-125 test is not completely proven; yet, in the unusual case of my mother, having a 7800 is quite the tell-tale sign.

It was truly a miracle that my mother lived for almost three years with a terminal diagnosis, through stubborn willpower and the refusal to give in to the shooting pains she described to be as painful as childbirth, but constant. Yet, through it all, I never saw her lose the loud laugh she would give whenever we would have one of our witty, back-and-forth conversations. I would always see her beam when she told me about the loving, thoughtful messages her friends from high school left on her Facebook timeline and in her inbox. And I would always feel grateful when she told me that I was the reason she was still living.

Facebook comments before and after her death confirmed my feelings of having the most wonderful person I had ever known as my mom for twenty-one years: “Words alone cannot express our sorrow for your mother’s passing, or for the joy she brought to everyone she ever knew, or even came in contact with. She was the most amazing person on so many levels. Her laugh was better than whatever made her laugh, I will never forget the sound of it, and it will bring me joy forever…With all she was going through, she was always concerned with my silly little troubles, and I could barely get a word in edgewise to ask her how she was feeling. She was always upbeat and totally positive, and should be an inspiration for all to try to be like her, for the rest of our lives, no matter what is in store for us, to handle death like she handled life.”

It is my turn to honor her now. It is my honor to make her proud and spread her mantra of peace, love, and kindness.

A week and a half ago, I boarded a boat out into the middle of the ocean, off the coast of Newport Beach. My mother had only one request for when she died, to have her ashes spread there.

Newport Beach, California, where I spread my mother’s ashes

The boat captain gathered her ashes into a cloth and gave me two roses to drop into the sea afterwards, a maritime tradition. I held the cloth at the ship’s bow, waited until it felt appropriate, and unfolded it. Her ashes formed a rushing cloud of grey dust flying over the waters, slowly evaporating into its midst. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. I understood now — she was finally one with the ocean, at peace. I cried, releasing some of the sadness, pain, and depression I had felt over the last six months, and let the roses go, clinging together, warm, free, unhindered — like a mother’s love.

I will carry that love with me forever.