Before I left California a few weeks ago, I gave my mom a small journal to write in. It was rainbow colored and covered in French phrases and cartoon monuments of Paris. I hoped it would cheer her up just looking at it. I read about the benefits of journaling in the Coping With Cancer magazine I picked up at the oncologist’s office earlier that week. I looked at the lady in the magazine photo supposedly journaling – the one in deep thought pressing her pen to her lips, and mused, “Will this be Mom?” I tried to imagine it and then thought, “Uh, probably not.” First of all, I don’t think she could sit in that position with her back pain and secondly, I can barely get myself to sit down and write on a regular basis! I penned a little note in the journal encouraging her to use it for whatever she saw fit, like writing down her favorite cuss words. (Anyone who knows my mom knows that is a joke. I think I’ve heard her cuss once in my life. For those interested, it took place in Nice, France in 1999 and what happens in Nice stays in Nice.) The journal was meant to serve as an outlet, but really, any gift I give her is just a big, “I love you, Mom, and please don’t forget it.”
So here I am back in Paris, still thinking about my week in Northern California. I wrote and posted one story, “Sylvia,” which flowed out of me, along with buckets of tears. Since then I haven’t been able to write. I’ve written emails and texts, bien sûr, but I haven’t revisited my experience with my mom, dad and sister in writing. A few months ago I met up with a fellow blogger in Paris (she was here from the US running a marathon) and I asked her why she started her blog. I was thinking of launching my own and I was really caught up in the “why” aspect of it. Her answer was so insightful. In addition to fulfilling a need out there – she shares resources with other Anglophone parents who want to raise their children speaking French – she said writing was a way for her to process information and things going on in her life. That answer, that very idea, has stuck with me. Maybe that’s exactly why I write. Processing can be enlightening, invigorating, encouraging, cathartic and healing. Of course there is a flip side. Sometimes letting my mind come to terms with certain experiences can be completely overwhelming and painful. I guess that explains why there are times when I don’t write. I simply don’t want to go there.
The last few weeks have been hard. I’ve ugly-cried in front of more people in Paris than I care to admit. The grief I feel when asked about my mom comes fast and furious. It surprises me sometimes. I think, “It’s okay, I’ve got this,” and then I see one earnest, sympathetic look and the lump in my throat arrives. I try to fight the wave of emotion and I almost always fail and end up in tears. This has happened so many times I was starting to think I shouldn’t go out in public anymore. Every single time I’ve lost it, I’ve apologized – which I now see is kind of silly because if someone cried in front of me I wouldn’t mind it a bit. But I am my mother’s daughter. We don’t want to burden anyone. Is this what coping with cancer looks like? Losing control of your emotions, apologizing to everyone through tears and then realizing you don’t really need to apologize?
I read that magazine from cover to cover and I can’t say I absorbed very many coping skills. Truth be told, I read it solely for my mom. I highlighted the parts I thought were important or interesting and hoped she’d read them later. The medication she’s taking makes it hard for her to concentrate and read longer texts, so I wanted her to be able to flip through and get to the good stuff. I’m obviously not the one dealing with cancer every day, and I have no idea what that feels like, but perhaps there is some good stuff in there for me too. Doing yoga, meditating, eating healthy foods, getting outside and enjoying fresh air, spending time with friends and family: all good advice. Not being too hard on yourself: great advice. And what about journaling? I might want to take that up again. I recently found this diary entry from when I was 10 years old and started cracking up. I clearly needed to work something out while my mom was in my siblings’ rooms kissing them goodnight, and thankfully I did. Wait, does Mom really love Timmy and Hilly more than me? Just kidding.
Taking cues from Coping With Cancer magazine and in the spirit of journaling, I’m going to write a bit more about my trip to Sonoma last August.
I showed up on Mom and Dad’s doorstep on a Monday morning – August 28th to be exact. They had no idea I was flying in from Paris. After Mom ended up in the ER for the second time with severe back and chest pain and trouble breathing I decided I couldn’t wait any longer to come. I booked my plane ticket and left 36 hours later. I arranged for the boys to be in childcare during the week so Jonas would not have to take time off work. It was difficult to leave them all but I was laser focused on getting to my mom. I flew from Paris to Iceland, spent 4 hours reading, walking around and taking ridiculous selfies in front of posters of Icelandic attractions in the Keflavik airport and then continued on to SFO. Hilary picked me up and we drove straight to Sonoma. Actually we stopped at In ‘N’ Out first. It was very late so we stayed with a family friend that night and devised a plan to surprise my parents the next day.
Mom and Dad’s modern white farmhouse with black accents was gleaming in the morning sunlight. Hilly and I approached cautiously. I hopped over the picket fence, scurried across the damp lawn and knocked on the front door. I was hiding behind a T-shirt I’d bought for my dad which featured an Eiffel Tower made out of stacked pigs. Hilary also insisted I wear a hoodie and sunglasses just in case. Mom answered the door, read the words on the shirt aloud (“Tour de Cochon?”) and I lowered the T-shirt to reveal my face. Shocked, she said, “Brook” softly, then succumbed to her tears. I hadn’t seen her in a year. I was afraid to hug her too tightly because of her back pain. We embraced and cried for a long time and then I cradled her face. I was so happy to see her. Dad was in the shower when I arrived. When he finally came into the kitchen and saw me sitting there, he was shocked, delighted and playfully angry at my sis for not letting him in on the surprise in advance. Hilary captured his emotions perfectly on camera.
I was able to go to the oncologist’s that day and hear Mom’s diagnosis. It was gut-wrenching, but it meant so much to me that I could be there to support her and my dad and ask questions. I spent the rest of the week attempting to help out at home wherever I could and taking a crash course in Cancer 101 via the internet. The days were full. When Mom wasn’t doing tests or scans in Santa Rosa or Petaluma (both 30-45 minutes away), prepping for future appointments or picking up prescriptions and paperwork from doctors, she rested at home. She tried to find a comfortable position for her back while watching TV, snuggled with Star, her feisty Papillon, chatted with me or relaxed on her bed. When she had energy, she prepared meals with my dad, did laundry, organized piles of medical papers and tried to sneak around and straighten up the rest of the house until I’d say, “Stop. Let me do that.” This is my mom we’re talking about. As a kid, I remember her always in motion – feeding us, cleaning up, organizing, all the while very present. She always talked and listened to us while working hard to maintain a peaceful, neat, warm and comfortable home. Talk about a Supermom.
Although I did my best to carry on like everything was normal, it was heartbreaking to see my mama in pain. She was feeling it mainly in her back and chest. We learned this was due to the cancer cells in her spine growing and pushing on the nerves. The term for this is spinal compression. We were told that radiation would relieve some of that pressure once she started treatment. We couldn’t wait for her to begin. At this point my mom hadn’t found the right medicine to manage her pain and she unfortunately experienced terrible side effects from some of the drugs – namely Tramadol and Percocet. As I mentioned before, the previous week she woke up unable to breathe properly and in excruciating pain. My dad finally convinced her to go to the ER. After that she told me she was afraid to try new medicines and feared going to sleep at night. I don’t blame her. I keep thinking it must be so hard to go on day after day feeling miserable and of course I don’t want her to suffer. But I don’t want her to give up either. How do people with cancer do it? Mom told me how one morning she woke up and forgot for a moment that she was sick and this was all happening. Just a moment. The weight of that thought crushed me. As the days passed I found myself longing for a similar moment of respite. I couldn’t find it.
But I found joy. I found it in the little moments, like being able to hold my mom’s hands and help her in and out of the car, staying up late to watch House Hunters International (we were both exhausted, but there was a Paris episode so we had to), debating if the cop show Live PD was REALLY live, sharing meals, picking out gifts for Rhône and Rocky at Target and studying the fish tank at the radiation oncologist’s office and learning that my grandpa had a similar tank with brightly colored fish in it when my mom was young. I shared some special moments with my dad and sister too. My parents kept encouraging Hilary and I to “go out and have some fun” so one evening we walked to the Sonoma Farmer’s Market. We bought dahlias for Mom, shared a couple dishes at a nearby Himalayan restaurant, got gourmet ice cream at Sweet Scoops and were randomly given a balloon animal by a guy working at a wine shop because he said we were the youngest people on the block he could find at that moment. Ha! One sunny day I decided to take a bike ride along the Sonoma City Trail. My dad started giving me recommendations on where to go and then said, “Maybe I could come.” On that ride I think I learned more about him than I have in years. He told me stories, pointed out landmarks and as we stopped to rest and sip some water, he shared some of his deepest feelings.
I’m thankful for all these moments and more. Since I’ve been back in Paris I’ve noticed that things I might have taken for granted in the past – hugs from my kids, having a healthy spouse, being able to go outside and walk long distances without any sort of physical impediment – I recognize and cherish now. Cancer is devastating to all involved but there are blessings in these trials. Hmm, if I can accept and realize that, maybe I am learning to cope with cancer. I am often a crying mess and I can’t seem to figure out how to rein in my emotions, but I suppose that’s all part of it. I’ve received so many hugs and felt so much compassion and love in these raw moments. And that’s a beautiful thing. Imogen Heap says it (and sings it) much better than I ever could: there’s beauty in the breakdown.
Although our family is experiencing hardships, I know we are going to be okay. The support we’ve received from people near and far reminds me that we are not walking this road alone. That collective strength combined with our faith, determination and our love for one another will carry us through.
Hey y’all, this journaling stuff really works. I encourage you to give it a try! If you don’t know where to begin, just channel your inner 10-year-old and start with, “Dear Diary…”