Words by Candi Barbagallo
I’m an “old” mom. My son arrived just ahead of my 35th birthday and before that year my husband and I weren’t sure we wanted to be parents. However, after my father-in-law died unexpectedly, the conversations about having a family of our own became more frequent. We faced the grim reality that if we didn’t stop riding the proverbial fence we may have a child whose grandparents never knew him. So when my mom was diagnosed with stage three anal cancer in April 2015, her positive biopsy swiftly led to my positive pregnancy test four short months later. I was not at all prepared for what was to come.
At six weeks pregnant, on our sixth wedding anniversary, my husband navigated the mountain highway that would take us to my parents’ home so we could announce our briefly held secret. We picked out a boy’s name and with each passing mile could hardly contain our excitement. I will never forget the joy on my dear mother’s face when we broke the news. Her littlest baby was having a baby and she’d be a grandmother for the fourth time. My dad cried. This grain of rice sized person was our beacon of hope. A small shining light in the face of the fear we all felt, but never spoke in those four months.
As the weeks passed, nausea and exhaustion set in. Mine due to pregnancy, my mother’s due to chemotherapy and radiation. My belly grew alongside her tumor and we half-joked about all the ways growing a person was so similar to growing cancer. Thanksgiving was a few weeks away when we learned our little light of hope was a boy, and just before Christmas the oncologist explained that the only next hope for my mother would be abdominoperineal surgery. My body changed dramatically over the next few months, but it was nothing compared to the transformation my mother’s body underwent. A second abdominal surgery was performed to correct complications from the first; the third abdominal surgery was mine. At 41 weeks our little light came into the world, none too eager to make his appearance. His name means “happy child, blessed child” and the joy he brought with him was palpable.
Between cancer treatments and health retreats, postpartum depression and sleep deprivation, we visited as often as we could, but the daily phone calls and near constant texts became the touchstone for us both. With an hour of mountains between us, the demands of new motherhood, and the busy-ness of cancer there was little else available. We laughed, cried, raged, cooed, sang, and sat in silence. Isolated in our own new and strange worlds, but together. We sent texts and shared Pinterest boards from our respective beds. We researched baby sleep and alternative cancer treatments. We shared books and poems and shopped for clothes to flatter our new bodies. We decorated our homes and daydreamed together. I have never been more grateful for technology.As my little boy grew so did the hope for healing. My mother, ever the warrior, left no stone unturned in the effort to save her own life. Organic foods, fresh juices, meditation, vitamin C treatments, essential oils, massage, supplements, and even my breastmilk were all in her arsenal. A second mortgage and donations from loving friends and kind strangers kept things going.
By the time my son was a year old my mom was in good form. We celebrated birthdays, took a beach trip, and she even crossed Hawaii off her bucket list. As the energetic burst of spring faded into the lush and lazy days of summer, our angel boy started walking. Meanwhile, my formerly active, fitness-loving mother found herself in a wheelchair as lymphedema began to take hold of her right leg. The tumor had a growth spurt of its own and was pressing into her lymph nodes. With little hesitation, my parents booked a westward flight so she could receive all the best integrative treatments healthcare has to offer. As the two-week mark approached, she became too weak to complete the therapy or to fly home. Within hours, my dear older sister and her new husband dropped everything, rented a van, borrowed a mattress, and spent four solid days on the road bringing my parents back to North Carolina where my mom was admitted to the hospital for several days before checking into hospice. The care staff had never seen anyone like her. She was smiling and radiant and there was a constant flurry of activity in her room. They sent her home after two weeks.
Meanwhile, my husband and I made the difficult decision to sell our beloved home and leave those beautiful mountains. We were struggling financially and I needed to be near my family more than ever. We moved into my parents’ house and shuttled things into a storage unit. I was determined to be back in my hometown by Halloween, my mother’s favorite holiday. Halloween night, as we Wild Things returned to our temporary home to put King Max to bed, my parents pulled in the driveway returning from a long day of treatment. My husband helped lift my mother into her wheelchair before unloading the oxygen tank. She hunched over herself, her small frame draped in blankets to block the unceasing cold, and I knew she wasn’t really there with us.
The next week was full of blessings. Despite the fact a tumor was now pressing into her vocal cords and she could only speak half the time, we found ways to laugh, to share, to carry on with life by her bedside. On November 7, she requested to return to hospice. I held her hand as she mouthed the words, “you’re beautiful”. A little over 24 hours later she took her last breath with my dad and her little sister by her side. I’ve only recently understood the full weight of those final words as I’ve found myself saying them to my own beautiful child 100 times a day.
As I research preschools for my son and fret and worry and literally lose sleep over his ability to transition into the world without his mother, I am also losing sleep as I make my transition into the world without my own mother. She will not be returning at the end of the day, yet I am finding ways to not only adapt, but to thrive without her. And I’m beginning to understand that as we seemed to lose her piece by piece, we got to keep all the pieces that matter. I hear her when I laugh. I see her when I look in the mirror. And I feel her, not only beside me, but within me every time I persevere, every time I find strength I didn’t know I had. And I am reminded that I am a warrior. And I am beautiful. Just like her. Just like my son.
About the Author:
Candi Barbagallo is a freelance writer, boy mom, executive assistant, and personal growth enthusiast. She values synchronicity, authenticity, and a healthy dose of cynicism. When she’s not chasing a toddler, she’s drinking coffee, trying to sleep, and daydreaming about all the things.