I moved out when I was 19 because I wanted the chance to be on my own, only to move back home less than a year later when my mom was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. I had only been a licensed driver for less than a year but it was my job to drive my mom home from the hospital after her mastectomy, carefully avoiding every bump while she tried not to vomit in the car.

She laid on the couch while I warmed up soup, then emptied her drains, then helped her to the bathroom. Day after day it was just me and her. Her trying to be stoic and me trying to be brave. Of course I was scared.

Even during the years she didn’t have cancer she was never well. Fibromyalgia and migraines kept her pretty low and she suffered through part-time and full-time jobs that were soul sucking, just so she could pay the bills. I don’t know why she kept fighting to stay alive and be well in those early years, except that everything she did was to give me a better life. She may have also been living with undiagnosed depression and anxiety caused by years of trauma in her marriage and childhood.

After she won her second battle with cancer she started a new stage of her life. Her kids were all raised and now it was just about her. She was never really able to work much and had a lot of guilt about that. But she did get some counseling and started to pick up some of her hobbies again. It was probably the first time she really lived without having to constantly put out fires.

She moved to Utah, then Oregon. She dated someone, got engaged, broke up. She became a grandma. She still struggled with things emotionally, and with her body when it refused to cooperate, but she had a lot of her best years.

My boys were influence by her, even though they were young when she passed away from ovarian cancer. Jeffrey has her eyes, her feet, the shape of her back even and her stubbornness. Jack is artistic like her.

When she found out the cancer was back, she bought all the art supplies she ever wanted but had always told herself she couldn't afford, and she spent the remainder of her life painting. She'd always wanted to be an artist but as a single parent with no money or time, and being told from a young age that she couldn't make a living that way, it just never happened. But in the last year of her life she was an artist.

A couple of months before she passed away she took me and Jeffrey and Jack out to the desert near St. George to look at dinosaur footprints. We didn't walk far. Just far enough. I took a picture of her happily perched on red rocks. She asked me to. It was the first time she'd ever asked me to take her picture. I have decades of avoidance photos of my mom: her shoulder, her back, her hair across her face, her tongue sticking out. But at 56 she finally was happy with herself.

Her crooked teeth, her flat chest, her misshapen legs, her mousey brown hair - all the things she had previously been ashamed of were suddenly the things that defined her worth and beauty. This was the body that carried her through life. The body that gave birth to her 3 children and 4 others who were in heaven. The body that let her laugh and think and paint and watch her grandkids be silly. I’m so glad she didn’t give up. She had every right to give up. Sometimes her life was just a process of wading through shit but even the shit was precious.

She had been gone almost 2 years when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was glad she didn’t have to watch me suffer through that. It would have broken her heart to know she passed that gene on to me. And I’m sure she probably wished I wasn’t forced to watch her go through cancer. But watching her and helping her, helped me to go through my own battles. I was not afraid to lose my breasts. I was not afraid to empty those bulbs and change those bandages. She showed me how to get through bad days. She showed me how to play the long game of survival. She taught me that years and years and years of suffering can lead to happy blessed moments. She taught me that the color of a person’s life is not defined by how dark the sky is today, but by the possibility of what tomorrow may bring.

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