Modern Woman: The Gift of Time

For my 21st birthday, my mother wrote me a letter that read, “You are my go-to gal. I could not have made it this far without you. Stay strong and I’ll stay strong for you.”

Reading this message, you’d never know that our relationship had been rocky.

Years of my typical teenage behavior — eye rolling, fighting and screaming — had left us distant and broken. After graduating from high school in Dallas, I moved to Memphis to attend Rhodes College. The distance neither helped nor hurt our relationship; it was more a necessary break from the stress we had been enduring.

A few months into my sophomore year, while on a short break at home, I opened the door to find my mother hooked up to an at-home chemotherapy machine. She had been given a death sentence: stage 4 colon cancer and a 20 percent chance of surviving three months.

Completely distressed, I decided that weekend to withdraw from classes to become my mother’s primary caregiver, surprising my family and believing naively that I could help my mother live.

I also wanted to help my father, who needed to work, and to help raise my younger brother, James, who was 15 at the time. I didn’t want his teenage years to be spent driving 
my mom to and from doctor’s appointments, so my days
 as a college dropout were spent ferrying mom to
chemotherapy, surgery and emergency hospital visits.

In the midst of all the seriousness, we were able to find time to have fun. One of our favorite outings was to a local wig shop, where we’d purchase a ’do of the day, driving around together sporting our wigs. (Shopping for groceries wearing fluorescent purple bobs was especially thrilling.) I finally learned the secret behind our family’s chocolate
 chip cookie recipe, and our relationship was on the mend.

I dedicated nearly a year to taking care of my mom. In August 2010, I returned to school in Memphis to continue my studies. The cancer was in remission and all of her doctors were amazed by how long she was able to fight, given the prognosis.

Despite her strength, my mother ultimately wasn’t able to beat the disease. Two years of painful treatments began to take a toll on her body and mind. While I knew she wanted to be there to see my brother and I grow up, I also knew she was tired.

While I was home on Christmas break, my mother died, just four months after she penned my birthday note. And although she taught me so many things throughout my life, it was the two years that she spent fighting cancer that left the greatest impact on me. During this time, our relationship not only healed, but grew beyond the confines of mother and daughter. While her cancer was the worst thing to happen to our family, the time we had to mend our relationship was the greatest gift I will ever receive.

Whenever I reach a life milestone that I wish my mom could be here for, or miss her just because, I look to the letter she wrote that’s signed, “I love you and you know I will always be there in spirit.” I can’t help but think it’s like she knew we wouldn’t have a long time together. And while I may never be fully OK with not having her around, I know her legacy has inspired every action that I take — and I am so thankful for that.