The fact that we were sitting on opposite sides of the room made it feel like an interrogation. She looked at me in a way that made me feel guilty for not believing her. I guess women’s intuition isn’t all a myth. “Mija, the doctor did find a tumor on my right breast. I do have cancer.”
My ears started to ring. I felt the air thicken. The little plant in the corner of my Abuelita’s living room began to blur. In scenarios like these, God is always the first person I blame. In my eyes, he had it all wrong. He didn’t know a damn thing about my mom. It felt like no matter how many choir practices and church masses she attended, it would never be enough for him to believe in his own morals.
After losing my Abuelito to Alzheimer’s the Christmas prior, the diagnosis felt painfully coincidental. It felt like my family members were just a bunch of rag-dolls that could be meddled with when heaven began looking a little boring. Unlike my mom, I wasn’t religious, but when it came to her well-being, I was a firm believer in a prayer every night before bed. While I was begging God to fix his mistake, my mom was dealing with the bold realities of her diagnosis.
Most chemotherapy patients reach a certain threshold where it’s easier to shave off the hair that’s left rather than have it keep falling out, so that’s exactly what we did. After giving my mom a buzz cut on a hot June day, I decided to accompany her as she bought her first Santee Alley wig. We followed the aroma of savory, bacon-wrapped hotdogs until we stumbled across a little boutique filled with synthetic neon wigs and bootleg eyeshadow palettes. She scrutinized every wig in the store until she finally settled on one; it was a jet-black bob that looked straight out of a progressive women’s magazine.
“How does this look?”
“I love it!” I said with the utmost sarcasm.
“Aye Danie,” she said as she smacked me across the head, “I’m taking it.”
I hated that wig. Luckily for both of us, she preferred the feeling of her bare head more than covering up. My mom has always been confident with who she is as a person and her diagnosis was proof of her self-assured nature. At my 8th grade culmination, I couldn’t help but notice all the stolen glances. With my certificate tightly stuffed under my arm and my other hand clenching a bundle of roses, I was ready to leave as soon as pictures had been taken, but no. My mom lingered and laughed and took up all the space in the room with her jubilation. She didn’t care that people looked longer than they should. She was happy with herself and it showed.
Although my mother’s spirit remained kindled, at times, she was failing to fight back. All I could do was watch as the chemo hijacked her body. I saw her throw-up on her good days, and not even get out of bed on her bad ones. The food she loved to eat was suddenly flavorless mush, and her once full-body became skin-tight. A fourteen-year-old girl should not have to see her mom weigh less than her. Witnessing the woman I love most in the world suffer like that made me swallow a large pill really early in life.
While swimming in a pool of my own despair, I thought about a life without her and it just didn’t click. Then I thought about a life where I never really knew her, a life where I didn’t know her highs and lows, a life where I didn’t know her fears or aspirations, and it felt like I threw a toaster in the bathtub. “I don’t even know who my mom is.” Don’t get me wrong, I knew that I loved her, but I never told her so. Every night before bed, before I would talk to God, she would tell me “I love you” like clockwork. Scared of the vulnerability that those three words manifest, I would always stay quiet, and I hated myself for it. Every time I tried to say it back, my tongue would tie and my throat would tighten.
I refused to let this define the entirety of our relationship, so I began to tell her about all there is to share when you’re a teenage girl: I told her about all the crushes, all the drama, all the stress. At first, the oversharing felt disingenuous, but over time, a bond grew that absorbed every bit of the fraudulence. From then on forward, she stopped being just my mom- she became my best friend. Although it took me a while to understand all the pain God inflicted on us, I finally realize that his motives were with good intention. He taught me that nothing happens without reason. The tragedy my mom and I bore together inevitably led to an everlasting connection—one we couldn’t have imagined having prior to her diagnosis.
“I love you, mija.”
“I love you, too.”