The Story I Don’t Want To Tell You (About My Cancer) – Part V: Mother & Daughter

SHERO  (pronounced SHEE-roe) a female hero, a feminist warrior, a woman who’s willing to be a badass 

There are a few sheros in this story. And one of them is my mother. That’s her and me in the cover photo. She was 22 at the time and I was her firstborn. I look at this photo and know that from Day 1, I would always be safe in her protective energy field. Mommies have that knack, and my Mommy’s got it in spades.

Carmen, as she is known to everyone who doesn’t call her “Mom,” lives across the country from me on the upper westside of Manhattan. She’s had (and continues to have) a very full life. She has three other grown children besides me to worry about, she recently settled into a nice rhythm of life after retiring from her full-time job as an attorney for the New York State Attorney General’s office, and she celebrated her 80th birthday this last August. She is showing no signs of stopping.

Mom being hugged by Sonia Sotomayor (yes, that Sonia Sotomayor). I don’t know who to credit for the photo.

And in case you’re thinking, “Wow, that’s pretty remarkable for an 80-year old,” her mother (my grandmother) turns 97 this November and is probably going to outlive all of us. Wait till someone tells her I let the whole world know her age; she’s going to wring my neck! [Update: Mama Frances passed away at the age of 99 in April of 2019.]

My almost 97-year old grandmother, Mama Frances. Photo by Ben Torrent (my uncle)

Mom is the kind of mother we send Father’s Day cards to because she really did both jobs. She’s the kind of family member who will give you legal advice for free before you go and waste your hard-earned money on an expensive attorney; she’s the kind of relative who has your back because “blood is blood” whether you’re her brother or a fourth cousin twice removed; and she’s the kind of parent who is five steps ahead of you, strategizing your way out of a problem before you’ve even asked for help.

If truth be told, I haven’t always wanted her assistance. In fact, I made a point of  getting through a few life crises without her help. Her wisdom might actually have come in handy, but I was stubborn back then. I insisted on finding my own way.

This time, however, I was smart enough to acknowledge I didn’t want to go through cancer and cancer treatment all by my lonesome. I knew I was going to need a team. And my generous Mom stepped up to the plate, no questions asked.

I already owed my mother big-time. You know, for LIFE. But her care of me during cancer bumped me up into a new level of IOU. I know she doesn’t think of it that way; she was just being my mom. But trust me; her contribution was above and beyond.

She stayed with me for over two months. And she did everything. Cooked me three meals a day plus healthy snacks and desserts, nudged me to eat and drink (even when I had NO appetite but still required nourishment and hydration), monitored my meds (which was complicated), shopped, cleaned, did laundry, drove me to and from my many appointments (even though she hadn’t driven in a few years, wasn’t familiar with my car, could barely see over the dashboard and didn’t know her way around), walked fed and picked up after my dog, tended to my wounds/burns, held me in her arms when I completely lost it, and kept me sane. That’s a lot for someone pushing 80, even if she is SuperWoman.

And then, Monday morning of Week 3 of radiation (just as I was beginning to really feel the effects of the treatment), this happened…

It was before 6:00 a.m. and still dark when I woke up. I immediately sensed the presence of someone in my room standing close to me. Under normal circumstances, I would have jumped out of bed, but my body had already transitioned from healthy and normal to dealing with and adjusting to the side effects of treatment.

“Mommy, what’s the matter? How long have you been standing there?” I asked a number of questions as I slowly rolled to my side, avoided pressing my legs together, and then pushed myself into a vertical position while skipping sitting altogether. This was going to be my getting-out-of-bed maneuver for the next eight weeks.

“Ay, Celenia. I didn’t want to wake you, but I’m in so much pain,” she sobbed.

“When did it start?”

“Over an hour ago,” she whispered, as if ashamed to be such a bother.

I could tell right away we had an emergency on our hands. My mother’s pain threshold is pretty high. She was holding her left side, as if something might fall out. Please, God, not a heart attack. For some reason, I thought of Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack and how the signs of heart attacks in women differ from those in men. Although for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what those symptoms were. Already, the chemo and radiation were messing with my short- and long-term memory. What I did know was Mom required immediate medical attention and I couldn’t drive. My radiated private parts were already too burnt to sit.

“I’m calling 911. We need an ambulance.” I then texted my next door neighbor (another shero in this story) who drove me to the hospital. Later that afternoon, my mother had emergency gallbladder surgery. They removed the troublesome organ through her umbilicus. Seriously.

There was a moment, while they were loading her into the back of the ambulance, when my tough-as-nails mother transformed before my eyes into a frail and vulnerable being. My illness had been shining a light on my aches and pains and needs for several weeks, while my mother lovingly tended to me, never uttering a complaint or expressing fatigue. Now, the tables had turned, and I was scared. Would she be OK? And if not, who would take care of me? All I could do was look upwards towards the supposed heavens and whisper, “What. The. Fuck.”

Gratefully, she was home two days later. (Two days!) My youngest sister, Claudia (yet another shero), flew from New York City immediately and stayed till the weekend so that someone could take care of both me and my mother. Another sister, Camelia (the sheros just kept lining up), came from Utah and spent the next week with me and my mother as our respective health status changed dramatically but in opposite directions.

Left to right: Celenia, Claudia, Carmen, Camelia (1978?). Not in photo: my brother Gio. Maybe he was taking the photo!

In a warped way, the timing was actually perfect; from that point on, my condition deteriorated rapidly, while Mom’s improved just as quickly. She was up and taking care of me again in less than a week. Granted, gallbladder surgery is a relatively minor procedure when done laparoscopically. Still, the woman was almost 80 years old! Like I said…SuperWoman. SuperMom. My original and forever Shero.



Next: Part VI – Radiation





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