Five years ago this week I found out my mom had cancer.
There are many things I remember about that week.
I remember the way I started pacing in circles around the seats in a waiting room like a shark, only a few minutes after a doctor (with no bedside manner,) told me that it “didn’t look good.”
I remember the way we waited for the biopsy verdict for three days at home, after being sent out of the hospital, and how we pretended to be normal again.
I remember the way my mom’s skin was yellow, and I wondered if it would ever look the same as “before.”
I remember the way everything except my heart seemed to stop when the phone call came in, telling us the news that would set the year from hell in motion and change all of us forever.
The way I told my mom it would be fine, and we would figure it out, even though I had no idea what that actually meant.
The way both my sister’s voices sounded when I told them the doctor had called, and that the cancer was “aggressive,” and my mom would need a “specialist surgeon.”
The way I started making phone calls to every person I knew who had any kind of medical knowledge, or who might have a nurse cousin, or literally anyone around them with insight into pancreatic cancer. I remember tears, and not knowing how I managed to keep my voice steady.
I remember the way I finally lost it on the floor in the bathroom, by the shower. I don’t know why by the shower. I went into the bathroom and sat down on the floor. I tried to let my brain absorb what seemed to be happening. But how could it be happening?
The way I stared at my mom, wondering why I didn’t look at her more.
That day kicked off what was the most crazy, challenging, unconventional year. Ever.
That day started a journey and set off a year of actual miracles. We saw them everywhere, beginning with the fact that mom was able to get back into a very good hospital, even though she had no insurance. I watched as a stranger saved my mom’s life. I never knew that I could genuinely love a human being I just met so very much. That I could trust him with my entire world, simply because I had no other choice.
I am a control freak. A paranoid one at that. And there we were, there was my FAMILY, my mom, the strong one… in this situation.
Control seemed like a faraway joke.
I started sleeping at the hospital. Names of surgeries were dropped, blurry and grotesque medical explanations ensued, we were told “not to google the condition.” As terrifying as that recommendation was, I knew they were right. Google tells me I’m going to die when I stub my toe, surely this would be much worse and more terrifying. Bile duct cancer was the name of our visitor. The hospital became home.
Supposedly, it only took three days in the hospital before her surgery. I swear to God, it was 100 years. There was no such thing as sleep. There was phone call, after phone call, after text, after phone call. My friend finally took away my phone. She pushed food at me instead. I don’t remember eating. People brought flowers. People cried on the phone, and I found myself having to comfort them, because life is nothing if not ironic.
We didn’t know the surgery was happening until a few hours before it did. The night before, we sat around my mom’s bed, like everything was normal. Like there were no risks. Like she was going to get her hair done the next day, and come back to us better than ever.
I sat by her bed, in a cold hospital room with friends and family. Maybe for the first time in my life, I fully comprehended the loss of my father as a child. He wasn’t here. I didn’t get the chance to know him. But I knew my mom. I only had one parent. This one. And all the stupid idiotic things that rise between mothers and daughters over the years floated to my brain, replaying, pushing tears out of my eyes, that I wiped away quietly.
I was after all, being upbeat.
My oldest sister called the next morning from Israel to talk to mom. My 11 year-old niece came on the line and started crying. My mom tried to comfort her, but finally handed me the phone with a worried look on her face. “Kat’s upset,” she said, “Calm her down.”
Oh the irony. Mom was worried about us. I took the phone, and said something reassuring and moronic like: “Kat, calm down. Savta’s going to take an extra long nap, and then she’s going to wake up without cancer. Deal?”
Kat sucked it up. We all did. I learned how to cry without making any noise. My sister Maytal rubbed my back. We accompanied mom up to the 7th floor. A doctor made some jokes about being Jewish on Christmas. We laughed. I don’t think we heard him.
Medical jargon. A team of very serious Smurfs paraded around the room prepping my mother for a surgery that rhymes with the word “Nipple.” I looked around in confusion.
How the hell did we get here?
My mom tried to “bless me”. I stopped her. I told her she could do it later, after the surgery.
I regretted it as soon as the words were out of my mouth.
A blur. Her meds kicked in. They asked my sister and I to leave. They wheeled mom into an Operating Room that was playing light rock music. Terrible guitar riffs floated out of a room where surgeons were chatting animatedly.
They did this all the time. They did this all the time.
I finally started crying. For real. My sister tried to comfort me, but of course we had managed to get lost in the Operating Room Catacombs. We suddenly ran into our surgeon – a man I had only known for three days, but who had been our advocate for the entire time, and who was trying – really trying to save my mom.
He stopped and looked at me. “Are you ok?” he asked.
His eyes are a deep brown and focused on my answer. He means it.
I cried harder. My sister nodded, saying lightheartedly “Oh, she’ll be fine.” He adjusted his scrubs and I blurted out “Please take care of her. She’s all I have.”
He gave me another look that mattered. “I will.”
He promised that someone would call me from the surgery approximately every two hours, before walking back into the maze of operating rooms we had just left.
“Poor guy,” my sister said, “Now he’s going to be worried about you on top of everything.”
I laugh. Maytal was always good at making me laugh when things were crap.
I plopped into a chair in the waiting room. A “psychological service dog” arrived with his owner who had seen me crying, because this is something that is normal in Beverly Hills.
She introduced me to Teddy (yes, the dog,) and I immediately wrapped my arms around the Pomapoo in the turquoise dog jacket, and cried into his fur.
My sister somehow managed to maintain some sense of normalcy and conversed with the owner while I wiped my nose mournfully on her dog, who seemed to be used to this kind of thing.
We had been told that the surgery “didn’t have a time limit,” but that it could take between 6-10 hours. I was prepared to sit in that waiting room for the entire 10 hours. (Like I said, control freak.)
The hours passed. An enthusiastic lady from the Jewish chaplaincy came to visit us. She was named Susan. I wondered why nice women are often named Susan. She chatted and prayed with us. At one point, she left to get us crossword puzzles “for the wait.”
My sister and I laughed, because we never do crossword puzzles.
Then we spent an hour doing crossword puzzles.
One of my mom’s best friends arrived with deli food. We eat, but I am not hungry.
I want to throw up food, not consume it.
My boyfriend arrives. He tells me “it will all be good.” I don’t believe him.
Friends of the family who we had not seen in at least 5 years suddenly arrive with more bags of food. They have no time limit, and are there for the long haul.
At that point, I am overcome. Between the nerves, the fear, and the deep gratitude for how much they care, I am past talking.
Three of them take turns telling me to stop being “jumpy.”
Spoiler alert: It does not help.
Eight more hours pass. More friends come by, stumbling in after their work shifts…coming to the hospital on Christmas Eve just to sit with us.
I mean, literally, sit with us.
I felt, like I did many times in the days leading up to the surgery, and even more so in the days that followed, that I could never repay anyone for the kindness they were showing us.
I didn’t know what to do with the feeling so I tucked it away in a drawer with all the other things I couldn’t handle at the time.
2½ more hours later, the surgeon reappeared with another doctor.
He told me to sit down, so I jumped up. “IS SHE OK?”
He says yes. He says the surgery went well, and she is in recovery.
I cry more.
I hug him. Tightly. Like I know him and he knows me.
He holds me.
I thank him. It is a whisper.
He nods, as if it is no problem at all.
We were told where she was in ICU. As thrilled as I was that the surgery passed successfully, I couldn’t help but think about how my grandmother died a few years prior in recovery after an intense operation.
I wanted to see her. You know, to make sure she was there.
We were told she may have hallucinations, as 10½ hours of anesthesia tends to do that.
We finally find her. She is surrounded by tubes. Plastic strips stick out in every direction, machines hum and beep all around her. My eyes frantically watch her levels, as though I have any idea what they mean.
She begins to wake up. My sister tells her the surgery went well.
Mom whispers, “thank God.”
I stand still in my corner.
Minutes pass. Nurses briskly walk around taking notes. It was now late at night on Christmas Eve. They didn’t want to be there, but then again, neither did we.
My mom’s eyes flew open again. They slowly took in the tubes around her.
Then she whispered.“I am an OCTOPUSSY???”
Gratitude washes over me. The doctors mention the word hallucinations again, but my sister and I know better – our mom is just weird. Weird with a supreme talent for making innocent words inappropriate.
She was “fine.”
Another surgeon – a student, walks in. She goes over the details of the surgery, reiterating what our first surgeon said. But then she branches off saying.
“You know I learned a really important lesson from Doctor A. today…. some people in the hospital were saying that your mom didn’t need to have this surgery today, and that it could wait until next week, since it was Christmas Eve. But he put them in their place and told them there was no way he was going to have his patient, or his patient’s family sit through the holiday scared or in pain, just because it’s “inconvenient” for some people.“
The words hit hard.
I knew that there had been no guarantee that we would have been able to stay in the hospital at all had she not gotten the surgery. My mom did not have insurance. She needed this operation soon, and before the cancer spread further.
He knew that. And he made it happen.
It made me feel small.
I realized that I would literally never be able to do anything to repay him for what he had done.
That night was the first in a very long recovery period that at times seemed impossibly hard for my mom.
We did not know that only a few weeks later, her hospital bills which stacked up to well over half a million dollars would be covered instantaneously.
We did not know that three months later, I would be given the job of telling my mom that the cancer was back, and she only had 6 months to live.
We did not know that the road of death we were on would turn into a miracle and thanks to an amazing team of alternative doctors in Mexico, one (very intense, undeniably crazy) year later she would be cancer free, and chatting with me about the day in a normal kind of way.
I did not know that she would still be alive in 5 years, and that she would be healthy and cancer free and I would be the lucky one who gets to write these words, when so many who are close to me were not given the chance to.
We did not know anything.
I am not the same person that I was. I don’t think any of us are. For a long time, the fear was a clear and present companion, and it still likes to visit. But I am grateful.
The power that people have to positively impact another during times of darkness is HUGE. It made such a difference for us, and can make such a huge difference in the life of others.
So please accept the deep love and gratitude this Jew is sending you on Christmas, which has now become a celebration for me as well.