“It was mid-May of 2010, and I remember my mom saying she was going to the ER because she was in pain and didn’t feel well. Unknowingly, her casual visit of lower stomach pains had turned out to be Stage IV Colon Cancer which had spread to her liver. How could this be? My mom was only 52 and had just gotten her colonoscopy less than 6 months ago. She made sure to get checked because she watched her father die from the same thing. Turns out, the doctor had missed a tumor the size of a 2-liter pop bottle. They gave her 2 months on the spot for her life expectancy. I felt as though I was going to die right there in that hospital room.
Fast forward to the end of May. My 17th birthday was on May 29th. Instead of celebrating with pizza, coffee, and cake like we usually did, my mom and I were sitting in the hospital still trying to make sense of everything. I forgot about my birthday and wasn’t able to process much of anything. My mom, who had just been given her life sentence, had a cake delivered to the hospital room. It had a ballerina on it, and we ate it and drank coffee. It was the most depressing birthday but at the same time also my favorite, as it was just me and my mom. That day spoke volumes about the kind of person my mom was. She was kind, caring, extremely loving (even to strangers), and made everyone she met feel welcomed, and part of the family. She had so much love which poured endlessly from her. We couldn’t go anywhere without her running into someone she knew. She had the most special smile and the best hugs. My mom was also a fighter. She had a strong will and an even stronger attitude. She decided to try treatment, even though the prognosis was not good. She figured, what did she have to lose?
I knew this was going to be difficult. I was still in high school and had a part-time job working at a local frozen custard place. My mom owned her own business (Marcy’s School of Dance in Dubois, PA) and we didn’t have the most money in the world. She also had two sons – one three years older than me and addicted to drugs, and the other in his late 30’s, living in Florida with substance abuse issues. She had a husband who was a former alcoholic and actually a pretty decent stepdad. She was also taking care of her mother (my grandma) who needed help with walking, bathing, and getting to appointments. Needless to say, her cup was overflowing. My mom carried the weight of everyone else’s world on her shoulders and now she had to carry hers, too. I knew this wasn’t fair. ‘How much longer does my mom even have on this earth?’ I knew I had to do something for the person who does everything for everyone.
A switch flipped in my brain. Suddenly, my wants and needs didn’t matter. I jumped right into my mom’s shoes. I took over her business and became the head dance instructor/owner, kept my part-time job, worked my way through high school, and took care of my mom. This was my life now. Chemo treatments for hours, dancing, keeping it all together. On top of it all, I was also dealing with both of my brothers, my stepdad, and my grandma on the side. There were many days that my addict brother had come in, stolen my mom’s medication, and made everyone’s life a living nightmare, leaving me to explain to the pharmacist. There were countless fights, crying, yelling, and a lot of physical altercations. There were many times I felt alone, as my stepdad secretly drank Listerine and snuck Michelob Ultras in the basement. My other brother stayed in Florida and my grandma had to move in with my aunt, as I couldn’t take care of her by myself. Everyone mostly kept their distance.
My mom’s battle with cancer filled with highs and lows. There were times where things were good, and times where the chemo wasn’t working. I watched my mom change. She became weaker, lost her hair, changed her color, and spent most of the day napping to avoid nausea. This was not a life I wanted my mom to live. She deserved much better. She put on such a strong mask in public, but when it was just the two of us, she let all the walls down. She was afraid, sad, angry, and every other emotion in between.
We used to hold each other, crying. We leaned on each other throughout her entire journey. She beat the odds of her life expectancy and ended up living for a little over 2 years. During that time, we took a trip to the beach and visited my favorite artist’s museum, we laughed, we celebrated holidays as much as we could, we cried, we danced, and we spent each day as if it was going to be the last. Both of us learned to drown out the noise around us and just be happy. We grew closer and created a bond that was more special than your average mother-daughter bond.
Near the end of her life, she was put on hospice. I knew what this meant, but I still hoped that somehow, someway, the cancer would disappear. There was one specific moment that showed how much my mom loved our traditions. It was my Aunt Judy’s birthday. She was my mom’s brother’s wife and my right hand during my mom’s battle with cancer. She was my mom’s best friend since they were kids and her business partner. We had just gone to my house after a long day of teaching dance and to celebrate, we just had cake and coffee. In the middle of enjoying a Duncan Hines chocolate cake, my mom said, ‘Did I miss pizza?’ My mom was experiencing dementia-like symptoms from her illness, so this was a big deal. She remembered. She knew we always celebrated birthdays the same way. I felt a little glimmer of hope in that moment.
On September 17th, 2012, my mom passed away after her short hospice adventure. During this time, my mom lost herself. She didn’t know who I was, she was in constant pain, she wouldn’t eat, or drink and I had to change her and take care of her as if she were an infant. She could only communicate with her eyes and I could see the suffering she was enduring. She was hooked up to too many tubes and wires and my heart couldn’t take it. I remember my knee hitting her catheter bag as I thought to myself, those are the last fluids that my mom will make. This is it. This is the end of her and the end of us. I watched and squeezed her hand as she passed. I told her all that I could say. I told her I loved her and that she was my person. I didn’t want to go on without her, but I also knew she would be angry with me if I didn’t make a beautiful life for myself. She told me so. I watched the life leave her body. I watched my mom die. I watched as she was zipped up in a body bag and carried away.
After my mom passed, I was surprised to find my stepdad had sold our house without me knowing. On the day of my mom’s memorial, he told me I had 30 days to get out and that’s the last day I saw him and spoke to him. I had just lost my mom and now I had to move and go through all of her things. I lost my home and my stepdad. I felt defeated, scared, and very much unloved. So, I did what I had to do. I picked myself up by my bootstraps, and I moved forward. My mom didn’t raise me any other way. My birth father and I had rekindled our relationship and he became a giant shoulder to lean on while I was transitioning all alone. After all was said and done and I had packed up my home, I moved in with my dad in a one-bedroom apartment. He also doesn’t have much to his name, but I was just thankful to have someone who loved me. Someone who wouldn’t leave me.
I continued to run my mom’s business and work my part-time job until I had realized this is not what my mom would want me to be doing. I just wanted to make her proud and make myself happy all at the same time. I needed to make my own life. I relocated to Lehigh Valley, PA to start a new life. Essentially, I was running away from the memories. I was running towards a second chance, just as my mom had wished. I moved in with my mom’s sister and her husband who embraced me as their own. I grew closer with my cousins, helped take care of my grandma, and got a chance to heal with my mom’s mom and sister. This was big for me. I didn’t feel so alone anymore. I worked a couple of jobs and eventually ended up attending Kutztown University and started my college career. Navigating a new town without knowing anyone was extremely hard, especially while dealing with my past. I found it difficult to fit in at first, but as time went on, I adapted. I found a good group of friends and started to make memories I’ve always wanted to make.
Everything was great until my junior year. My aunt, uncle, and cousins had all taken a vacation out to California where my uncle was raised. I couldn’t go with them, as I had a very important internship at a recording studio at the time. I received a call from my aunt explaining to me that my uncle had passed. They were on the beach enjoying the sun and my uncle had sat down in a beach chair and had an aneurysm. I was in complete shock. My uncle was the caretaker of this family, the wheels on the bus, the father figure we all leaned on. Needless to say, things got pretty messy afterward. My family had returned home with my uncle as a pile of ashes. My aunt’s world had completely crashed, leaving me to help pick up the pieces and take care of my grandma. I was still trying to finish college and continue with my life at the same time. My aunt became unavailable and suddenly I found myself dealing with much more than I had originally thought. I just kept telling myself – ‘I can handle anything. I watched my mom die.’
Fast forward to my senior year of college. I graduated (yay!). My brother, who had lived in Florida, moved up with my aunt a while after my uncle had passed and brought his drug and alcohol addictions into my aunt’s life. I still continued to care for my grandma and cousins, but I also now had to deal with a mess. My brother was an angry person. He made sure to let me know I wasn’t special, I didn’t take care of my mom right, and how I wasn’t anything like my mom. Of course, I knew those things weren’t true, but it made me feel awful. That switch flipped again in my mind. That is when I decided to start prioritizing myself. Just like my mom, I became strong. I have been through way too much to let this happen too. I started therapy, which is something I never even thought of doing. I met someone special and started a life for myself. I spent some time traveling across the country, worked a couple of positions, and eventually found myself getting accepted into a prestigious dental hygiene program in PA. When I started to put myself first, everything else fell into place.
Here I am today. Still grieving and dealing with life’s chaos and trying to figure myself out in the process. I just lost my grandma on Mother’s Day, which was a double whammy of a day. She had stage 5 kidney disease and dementia, so I understood that her quality of life was not good.
I still deal with both of my brothers but in a different way. I continue to mend relationships with family members and to essentially ‘do my own thing.’ My dad is my absolute best friend, which is nice. I was able to meet my special someone, who welcomed me into his family and recreated that family feeling again. I still celebrate every birthday with pizza, coffee, and cake. I look back on all that I’ve been through and find myself feeling thankful. I was pushed and prodded in many different ways to become the woman I am today. Life hasn’t been easy, but it sure has taught me a lot of things you can’t learn from books. I guess the moral of my story is, just because a lot of unfortunate things happen to you, doesn’t mean you are supposed to live a sad life. You don’t have to be cold, angry, or upset. You can allow yourself to be ‘okay.’ You can allow yourself to be strong and move forward. You can allow yourself to feel every emotion and heal. You deserve a beautiful life and a chance to recreate the love that you have once felt. This life is short and unexpected. The most we can do is embrace each other and the time that we have.
Cancer may have taken my mom away from me, but it didn’t take away the way she loved and raised me. My mom never sacrificed the love and care she had for me, not even during her battle with cancer. Through every difficult time, between every chemo treatment and nap she took, she made sure to make me feel loved. I was still her daughter and her world, as she was mine. If I had to offer any advice to those of you going through similar things, I would say to keep yourself alright. It’s okay to be your own ‘rock’ in this life. Hold on to the good memories. Smile and laugh every second you can. Follow your gut and your heart. Always continue to have pizza, coffee, and cake on your birthday.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Katie Jo Bowser from Lehigh Valley, PA. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more touching stories like this:
Do you believe in cherishing the memory of lost loved ones? SHARE this story on Facebook with your friends and family.