On December 14, 2016, my mother was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma. On Monday, she begins her first round of chemotherapy.
For those of you reading this who are family or friends of ours, I’m sorry if this comes as a shock to you. Please understand, I don’t want you to feel bad for me – after all, I’m not the one who has cancer. My mom is the one who has to brave the illness. My only job is to hold it together for myself and for her, and to do what I’ve always done best, which is to tell stories and write about what they mean. So here’s a little story about a smiley emoji.
After diagnosis, at her first doctor’s appointment back in December, my mom decided to record her conversation with the oncologist. The language was very upbeat. Words like “curable” and “treatable” were used often. There was even a cute moment when my dad, dutifully taking notes, successfully guessed at the spelling of her four-word diagnosis. It was all very matter-of-fact, and everyone sounded calm, even jovial.
My mom sent me the audio clip in a text message. This was a week before Christmas, and I received the text after I had just finished putting up Christmas lights outside our house. I felt so good about life just then; the sun was shining, my cheeks were tingling from being out in the cold, and I was getting excited about the holidays. And then I listened to the audio clip and it hit me: My mother has cancer. It’s almost Christmas, and my mother has cancer. I started crying.
Thanks for the recording, I wrote to her, feeling self-conscious, as if somehow she could tell through my text message that I was losing it.
You’re welcome, she wrote back. I hope it makes you feel better! (smiley emoji)
I’m not exaggerating. The woman just came out of an oncology appointment and she was texting me smiley faces. Meanwhile, I had just put up Christmas lights and was weeping like an adolescent.
In my line of work at the church, I hear the word cancer so much that I’m half convinced and constantly making dark jokes that we’re all going to die from it one day. But I guess I never imagined it would touch my parents. I would have sooner imagined it getting to me before I would have thought of it getting to either of them. As a child, I thought my parents were infallible, invincible, indestructible, incorruptible. Whether I had accidentally stapled my thumb or was delirious from typhoid fever, my parents were always the superheroes who came to make everything better. Last December, I was forced to acknowledge that parents – my parents – are human just like me. They get sick, they get hurt, they get scared just like me.
Well, maybe not just like me.
Scared isn’t a word I would use to describe my mom right now. Even as she is staring cancer in the face, she is brave. Since I learned of her illness, I have gone back and forth between crying, furtively meditating on words like prognosis and remission, and thinking about wig options. Meanwhile, she is busy living her life. Prayer meetings, dinner dates with my dad, parties, telenovelas. It’s been business as usual for her. She prays, she believes, she hopes, and she believes some more. She’s not made of steel, nor can she dodge bullets; but she has superhuman faith. That makes her a superhero.
All things considered and death being the only real guarantee in life, illness is irrelevant. We all get sick. We all fade to dust. But faith, hope, and love, these are the things that survive all outcomes, even death. Unlike our human form, these three things are indeed infallible, invincible, indestructible, and incorruptible. What I thought I saw in my parents as a child were two people who had superpowers, but what I actually witnessed were two people who lived in faith, hope, and love. This is why they seemed larger than life: because they were animated by virtues and held up by strengths that were bigger than themselves.
What makes my mom a superhero is not that she bandaged my stapled thumb or nursed me through my typhoid fever. It’s not even that she will beat cancer (although she will). It’s that she has faith, hope, and love. We live, we breathe, and we fight for these three things. And as I look back on that text message, I rejoice. That silly little smiley emoji, absurd and incongruent though it may have been to me in that moment, proves to me now that my mother has faith. My mother has hope. My mother has love. She’s just getting started with her fight, but she’s already winning the battle.
So Ma, thanks for the message. As it turns out, it did make me feel better.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
2 Corinthians 12:9
Note: Mom was very blessed to have caught the cancer very early. At the moment, it remains contained and should be relatively simple to treat. We hope to finish the year with the word “cancer” referred to in past tense. Thank you to all who have expressed concern and support through prayer and encouragement. On behalf of mom, we are truly grateful for your friendship.