In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I dedicate this story about my mom to everyone who has lost someone to Breast Cancer and I send you a hug.
I was sixteen years old and it was a typical day of in the life of a suburban teenage girl, came home from track practice, plopped my book bag on the floor where it didn’t belong, raided the snack cabinet and headed upstairs to check in with my mom. My mom worked from home and typically she would take an hour break to watch Oprah with me after practice and drill me with questions about my ultra secretive teenage life. This sunny spring day was different, the windows were not open to let in the scent of fresh cut well watered suburban grass, the lights were off and it looked like my mom wasn’t home. I peaked in her office and then I found her in her room, she was crying uncontrollably. She heaved herself at me while she was confronted with her mortality and wondering if she would be able to watch the remainder of my youth, frantically saying her doctor found a lump. She was 36 years old, and had stage 4 breast cancer. Kathryn Muoio, the over protective mother of two daughters, dog lover, music lover, and kitchen maven was staring at the face of death. During the important teenage years of being popular, being pretty and making friends, deciding whether you would go to MSU or U of M, this news trumped all my superficial teenage goals and priorities.
After my mom’s first surgery, she had to undergo chemotherapy. She aged very fast and the drugs weighed heavily on her day to day personality. She bought a wig, it was weird. It was like watching a grape turn into a raisin, she was tired all the time and her sickness overpowered her, instead of running after life’s goals she was dashing from death. Even though she empowered me to be very independent the stress of potentially losing my primary parent was a stress I cannot explain. During high school while most were busy focusing of homework, friends and puppy love, I would snuggle her in bed in the mornings and she would occasionally let me miss school so we could have picnics in the park. In retrospect, I am so thankful to all my teachers who let me get away with missing school and having those unforgettable moments. Time passed and she was able to recover until about 2 weeks before her five year anniversary of being “cancer-free”. One day while she was driving she needed to pull over because of dizzy spells and a major headache, she went to the ER while she thought she had allergies and migraines they discovered she had four brain tumors.
Seeing her in the cold sterile ICU with her head shaved covered in staples and stitches hoping she would wake up after her open cranial surgery was to say the least a surreal moment. The mom I needed to make my favorite meals, to make sure I was flossing, to make sure I was dating nice boys, the make every holiday special, to call me on my birthday, to worry when I traveled, to hug me when I was sad was lying there like science experiment and it seemed like it wasn’t really my life and it was all a dream.
After that surgery I tried to be a part of her treatments as horrifying as they were. (I typically faint when I have my blood taken at the doctor and HATED every moment of her being at doctor’s offices, the hospital, everything – it would make me ill for days.) Even though she pulled through the surgery she went blind in one eye and was permanently disabled and needed a walker. My mom at the age of 45 was an elderly person, she couldn’t write anymore, she would forget things often and it was heartbreaking to have your parent need your support when you needed them more than ever. In my youth I lived a fast forward version of what it is like to take care of an aging parent. I managed to balance the burden and my senior year of college I was offered a job from my internship and it was going to take me to Boston. As much as I have hometown pride, I needed to escape Detroit. I wanted more to discover and knew it was a chance to further my career and take a step to live my dreams. I called my mom with the news and she was very excited and cried at the same time. I didn’t want to leave her, but I couldn’t stay in Detroit and slowly die with her any longer…
I packed up and left my mom, my friends and my life without knowing a soul in Beantown, it seems cruel but at a certain point you need to seize opportunities and live life. The position was stressful and I was remorseful for leaving her. Two months after I moved I received a phone call from my stepfather, I was entertaining a band that was in town for work and he said, “you need to come home, it’s time”. For years, anxiety of the phone calls of her being sent to the ER, or wondering if it was going to be the last time I was going to see her was actually coming true. I went home during the coldest most depressing part of the winter in March, and we set up hospice for her. She was unimaginably sick, she laid in a hospital bed in her bedroom and we would watch our favorite shows and snuggle our family labrador for comfort. The roles had been reversed from all the childhood years of when I had the flu, chicken pox, stomach viruses- I stayed up and would hold the barf buckets, change her pajamas, help her out of bed, help her go to the bathroom, feed her and try to talk to her about some of our favorite memories. I wrote a painful goodbye letter to her, how do you say goodbye and thank the person who taught you how to walk, talk, say please and thank you, read you Charlotte’s Web every night before bed, made your sandwiches just right, leave little notes in your lunch box, cheer you on at all your sports, braid your hair, teach you how to drive, she taught me how to love most importantly. I read it to her, I thanked her for all of the things I could think of and how I hope I will be able to carry on all the traditions she gave to me. I was then faced with a decision, my job needed me to return and she was still hanging on and I sadly needed to go back to Boston. On the last day I saw her, I painted her nails, which was one of my favorite things to do with her when I was a little girl and held her and while played with my hair and promised me I would still be happy in life. My best friend arrived to drive me to the airport, I had to give one last goodbye, she hugged me one last time and said “no matter what you are going to be loved and you will always be fine, everything will be great for you and you will always be my Lissa Lou…”
When I returned to Boston, I had several nervous breakdowns and called her at least 3 times a day to tell her I loved her. Everything happening was like a dream and looking back I don’t know how I survived, it seemed like one of those dreams that you have and when I would wake up, be a child and run to tell my mommy I had a nightmare and give her a big hug and kiss. During the 9 years of her battle I always wondered what it would feel like when she was actually gone, the amount of hurt you think you are going to feel versus the devastation you actually feel is not even measurable. I called on a thursday afternoon and she wasn’t able to talk anymore only make humming sounds, at that point I booked a flight to get to her the next day at 5pm. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I only cried, I stayed up all night and went into work, I planned on giving her one more hug and holding her hand until the end. My sister called me at 11am and told me she was gone, I lost a piece of myself forever in that moment as I never made it in time. I still wonder if she missed me in that last moment of her life…
I deliriously left Boston and when I arrived at the house to see her life there without her I think may have lost several years of my life. Her hugs, her voice, her smell was gone forever. I think I hugged all her sweaters in her closet and screamed several times like an old italian mother mourning a lost solider son. While I am grateful to have such a strong support system and amazing friends I don’t really remember any conversations or even who was at the funeral, I just remember how weird it was the see my mom, the mom who I still needed to teach me how to make all her recipes, to go wedding dress shopping with me, to teach me how to raise children was there in the room laying in a casket. Still to this day on my birthday there is a feeling that she is still going to call me, I wonder if it will ever go away. We all need our moms, some people need them more than others but I will always need mine. I will always need her to call her with good news, with sad news, with no news just to gab, but instead I know I can just make her proud with decisions and accomplishments I make in life. Cancer is ugly, my mom would still be here to listen to my silly stories, to nag me about taking vitamins, to forward me emails with neighborhood crime stats, to send me clothes that are always a size too big and to share memories together. I am confident in my lifetime there will be a cure for cancer and nobody will ever have to feel this sort of loss. I hope after reading this you will call your mom, make a donation to a breast cancer fund and live your life to the fullest. You can’t go back in time, you can only make the most of your future. X