When I was ten years old, my secure little snow globe of a world was upended. It was as if a giant hand took it and gave it a shake . . . hard. I was told my mom had cancer. I’m not even sure I realized exactly what made cancer any scarier than a cold at that age. A ten year old’s heart is still so trusting in the fact that life is good and safe. Nothing bad will happen if you just do as you’re told.
At first, it was hard for me to even process that she was sick. Her sunny disposition didn’t change too much in my child’s eyes. (Of course, I didn’t learn until many years later how much of a struggle that had been for her, making a conscious decision to shield me from her fear and pain.) In the cocoon she had provided for me, my world consisted of sleep overs, bike rides, and Nancy Drew. So wrapped up in myself and the business of growing into eleven, I didn’t notice her thinning hair, or the ashy pallor of her skin. That is, not until my world was upended again by the news that she and my dad would be going to M.D. Anderson, a world-renowned facility for cancer treatment, in Houston, Texas. She had not been responding well to treatment in our small town and had been encouraged to seek out a more aggressive approach to the cancer. Again, I had been shielded from this terrifying news. All that I knew was my mom and dad would be away from me and my sister for an unknown length of time. They had made the decision to leave both my sister and me in school under the careful eye of a family friend. The goal was to keep our world as normal as possible. My sister, seventeen at the time, stepped in as my caregiver. So many tears. So much confusion.
On the eve of the trip to M.D. Anderson, my mom presented me with a sack full of handmade clothes for my Barbies. She was an amazing seamstress whose talent could turn the tiniest scraps of fabric into treasures for a little girl with a drawer full of dolls. Sequins, lace, and fancy rickrack that made a little girl’s heart sing. As she handed me the sack full of clothes, she told me it was her wish for me that I thought of her every day while I made my Barbies fancy and gave them exciting adventures. That before I knew it, she would be back home. Her love enveloped me as I hugged her with all my might. I remember feeling for the first time how fragile she seemed. The weight had fallen away from her, leaving her a tiny wisp of a thing. An injured sparrow in the eye of the storm. For the first time in my short life, I tasted fear. Metallic, stomach churning fear of losing what I loved most in the world. My touchstone.
I’ll never forget that during a time when I know she was terrified of what her future held and not feeling well, she had taken the time to fashion all of those beautiful outfits for my dolls. Sitting at her sewing machine, possibly fighting off nausea, crafting something for her daughter that would offer comfort when she couldn’t be there to do it herself. This was the essence of who she was, in good times and bad. Her selflessness not only comforted me, but it taught me the kind of parent I wished to be when it was my turn.
Over the next few years, she seemed to bloom, a rose that had survived the frost of winter and was stronger for it. There was something different about her, that I couldn’t really put into words at the time. I just knew she was a joy to be around. When I was with her, seeing things through her eyes, the world was a more beautiful place. Now, I realize what had been different about her. Her fear had been replaced by peace. A peace that showed itself in her quick laughter and eager spirit. Fearing death had taught her how to live. When I was older, she shared that thought with me. Gently, she reminded me that no one is guaranteed a tomorrow. No matter how young or healthy they may be. Her motto had become, “I have today, and that’s enough.” She felt it important that she teach this to my sister and me, as well. Over the next two decades, she did just that. Her actions spoke louder than her words. She was too busy living to think about dying. An amazing mother, grandmother, friend and confidant, who always had time for others. A firecracker with the fuse lit.
When her cancer returned, she faced it head on and with a grace that was humbling for the rest of us. Her spirit grew even as her body weakened. Many mornings, she would rise early before the rest of the house, and have her cup of coffee on the back porch. “Just soaking in the day before the new wears off,” she would say with a tired smile when I joined her. So simple, yet so profound. “Soaking in the day before the new wears off.”
My mom and I shared a fierce love for fall and especially, the month of October. When it rolled around, she would have the house aflame with the oranges and yellows of fall. Most decorations she had made by hand. She was always creating something beautiful.
On the morning of October 9th, 2003, I had just returned from taking my son to school. The morning was dark and thick with drizzle, yet more cozy than dreary. The leaves were just starting to mellow into their fall colors before blanketing the ground. The pattering of the raindrops beat out a soothing tune as I poured myself another cup of coffee. There was a peacefulness about me, despite the worry of the past few weeks as she grew more and more fragile. The phone rang, interrupting the calm. I knew.
My mother had slipped away. My touchstone was gone. As I came to grips with her loss, I realized what I had gained. Appreciating the song of the rain on a busy morning, the love of autumn and its riot of fiery colors, and a peace in my soul amidst the worry, were all gifts from her and her grace in her struggle with illness. A reminder to soak in the beauty of the day. The small things always add up to big things as time passes.
Whenever I need to dig down deep and find an extra portion of strength in my life, I remember, “I have today, and that’s enough.”
~ Teri Liptak ~
For Ella Harrison Jones, with love and light forever.
Thank you for teaching me that the less you need, the more you have.