Transforming Pain into Purpose: A Son's Journey Through His Mother's Battle with Pancreatic Cancer

Transforming Pain into Purpose: A Son's Journey Through His Mother's Battle with Pancreatic Cancer

I'm writing this from grandmother's kitchen table in my hometown of Laurens, SC. My mother's birthday is today and I came home to celebrate with my family as I've often done in the past but this birthday will be different than all of the others I've experienced with her. This year I can't call her and joke with her about turning 21 for the 30th time.  I can't surprise her with flowers or a sweet card. There is chocolate cake here but it's what's leftover from what my grandmother baked for last Sunday's dinner, not a birthday cake. I won't see her smile or hear the voice that has calmed me more times than I can count. I won't be able to physically experience her at all this year because she passed away due to complications from Pancreatic Cancer in June of 2016. My mother was the third child my grandma has had to bury and honestly, I came home to be around her strength today. It's been nearly 7 months since my mother passed and the space between then and now has been filled with a lot of grief that I often don't know what to do with. This grief is preceded by about 2 years worth of confusion and guilt and depression and anxiety and anger and hopelessness and probably any other negative emotion that you can think of. I've suffered so much since that morning she called to give me the news. I definitely couldn't see it while going through it, but that suffering eventually led me to learning how to heal from the trauma of my past. That suffering brought me closer to my mom and closer to God than I've ever been. That suffering inspired creativity that I didn't know that I was capable of. That suffering led me to start questioning myself and everything I had ever been taught and has allowed me the grace to learn who I really am and become whole again.

I moved to Oklahoma City in August of 2013 to chase dreams of becoming a musician. I expected my mother to put up more of a fight when I told her the news that I was leaving but I think she knew how I felt about my hometown at that point. This would be my 2nd big move in less than a year – the first being 16 hours away to Boston, MA and this one being 15 hours away.  She fought hard to keep me home before I moved to Boston, even going so far as to put my weeping 10 year old brother on the phone to beg me to stay home after I called and told her that I was considering a job offer up there.  But this time there was not much resistance from him or her. So off to OKC I went, guilt free, and started what would end up being one of the most magical experiences of my life but it certainly didn't feel like magic all the time. In fact, it's in Oklahoma City that I first learned that my mom had cancer. As if hearing that kind of news from your mom isn't enough to make you feel awful, imagine hearing it while also being 1000 miles away from home and not being able to hold her and console her when she told you. What do you say to your mother when she calls you bawling with news like that? I don't know and didn't know then so I lied and told her everything would be alright. I told her that we would beat it. I told her not to worry about the statistics that the doctors gave her because statistics had never applied to us before so why would they start applying to us now? I held it together as best I could on the phone because I assumed that I needed to be strong but as soon as we hung up, I lost it.

I'm not sure the words "terror" and "hopeless" accurately describe what I felt in that moment. I didn't know what to do so I did what anyone else would do after hearing news like that, I got on the internet and started looking for ways to beat it. What I found instead were a lot of statistics that essentially said that we probably won't beat it. Statistics like, "95% of people diagnosed with PanCan die within 5 years of diagnosis". I've always been a glass half full kind of guy and it's really pretty hard to get me unhopeful about the future but I'm also a realist, and 5% is a slim margin. Not to mention, my mother's cancer was already in stage 4 when it was detected. These statistics haunted me everyday from the first day I read them. I've never felt more useless and hopeless than when talking to my mom who was suffering and not being able to make it better. Feeling useless was kryptonite to my superman complex. I needed to be in control and having no control in this situation made the pain so much worse. But eventually, through meditating and doing yoga, I began to forfeit control. I began to accept what is, instead of being so worried about what might be. I started living in the present and I stopped worrying about not having my mother in the future and instead switched my focus to appreciating her while she was here. Appreciating her fully – something I should have done a long time ago but I needed tragedy to remind me of what I had.

Like most of the other relationships I have with the women in my life, my relationship with my mother was complicated. Also like most other women in my life, we had trouble communicating and often I felt like she'd hear something completely different than what I said. There was always a lot of love between us but I felt very misunderstood growing up and I think that contributed to the issues me and my mom had with communicating our feelings to each other.  When I was 11, my little brother was born and I became a self-made victim of middle child syndrome. I started to feel forgotten or at least secondary in the family and I think that's why in my teenage years and a few years beyond, I didn't feel as close to my mom.  I also always felt judged by her and everyone else in my family because my style, goals, and interests in general were different from most others in my family. Judging is a normal thing to do in my family but it always pushed me further away and made me feel more isolated. At home I'd often hear comments like "why'd you buy those ugly shoes?", "why do you like those tight pants?", "you need to shave that hair off your face", "those tattoos are ugly" and again, never were those comments meant to be harmful – it's just the way some of my family members talk to each other but that stuff starts to get to you when it's coming from your family. I can brush off the judgements of strangers but it's different when it's coming from the people you've known the longest and are the closest to. Because I always felt judged by my family and because I couldn't stand my racist, closed-minded hometown, I couldn't wait to leave home for college. When I got to college, I didn't come home often at all even though I only lived about an hour away. I didn't realize it at the time but I later learned that my mom was hurt by this. Fast forward a few years to December of 2014, I came home from Oklahoma City to visit on Christmas break. It's worth mentioning that this is the first time I'm seeing my mom since she got sick and seeing how drastically she changed physically and it really impacted my mental state for the worse. At some point while being home my mom tells me that she doesn't like my hair which was in a natural (read: nappy) afro at the time. All she wanted was for me to comb it out and get it shaped up but I liked it how it was and I was such a hurt person back then and was so tired of feeling judged by them about how I chose to dress and live in general, so I decided to confront my sick mother about being judgmental right then and there.

We got in an argument and I told her that the reason I couldn't wait to leave Laurens was because I felt like I was always being judged here. What she heard instead was that the reason I didn't come home was because she was always judging me and it really hurt her feelings. For sake of time, I'll leave out the gory details, but eventually me and mom finally had a talk about it all while I was still home for break. A talk that the little boy in me had been longing for a long time. A talk that eventually led to her being more accepting of me and of my little brother's budding uniqueness. We both apologized about that misunderstanding and other misunderstandings and we honestly have never been closer than from that point on. My mom was sick and suffering and I felt so bad for causing her more pain. But us finally talking about the pain she felt and the pain I felt brought us so much closer together. That pain tore down walls that were built over 2 and half decades and really gave me my first friend back, not just my mom.

Initially I felt like God was picking on me for no reason when my mom got diagnosed. Of course it was her who had the cancer, but I felt like I was being punished through her getting it. I remember being so angry at God. I couldn’t fathom the idea of how some superior being who supposedly is love and loves me unconditionally could allow my mother to contract one of the worst diseases known to man. My ego was literally offended – I remember thinking that cancer wasn't supposed  to happen in my family even though my great aunt had just passed away from lung cancer a few years prior. Growing up, church was something I did because I felt like I was supposed to but always was repulsed by it deep down because I felt oppressed by it. By the time I left home for college, I felt like God was an authority figure always pointing the finger at me saying what he approved of and what he didn't approve of. I felt like he was always watching me but I wasn't really looking for him at that point in my life. I'd holla at him in a prayer when I was really down or if I wanted something, but other than that, I really didn't actively try to foster a relationship with God. I've always been spiritual so I thought about God often but usually as an afterthought.  When my mom got sick, I became so empty and so mad.

The anger that I felt led me to begin a search for God. Not to beg him to heal my mom. I was more than done with seeing him in that regard. No, I began to search for God because I wanted to give him a piece of my mind. I began to search for God because I was pissed off not only about my mom, but also because of Mike Brown and all of the other unarmed black people being murdered in the street with impunity around the same time. I wanted to confront God about those evils and all of the other evils he allows in this world. I wanted a fight and had forfeited any fear I may have had of Hell because I felt like I was already living Hell everyday in not knowing how soon I was going to lose my mother. I'm happy to say that eventually I did find God. Not in the heavens but in my heart and not until I stopped looking for God with binoculars and started looking with a mirror. In that mirror I met the God that I always knew existed but had forgotten all about.  A God that is love so he would never punish you because where there is condemnation, there is judgement, and where there is judgement, there cannot be love. A God that would never hurt me, but allows pain because suffering is grace. Suffering is the sandpaper that transformed me from being an ignorant, ego-serving, self-absorbed, inconsiderate human being that I was into the person who is constantly working on bettering himself that I am today. The pain I endured made me more compassionate for the pain that I know that all sentient beings endure.  Suffering also taught me that if I continue to allow my external circumstances to effect my happiness, I'll never be happy because I can't always control my external circumstances but I can always control how I react to them.

I've always liked that quote "smooth seas don't make for skillful sailors" but it took on new meaning to me while dealing with the storms that came along with my mom getting sick. Up until that point in my life, my happiness was directly correlated with what girl I was with, how much money I had, my relationships with friends and family, whether or not I felt like I was succeeding at life, and a ton of other circumstances that I don't have full control over.  For the first 6 months after hearing her tell me the diagnosis, I was depressed pretty much everyday. The anxiety was constant and at that time, I really didn't know what anxiety was, let alone how I could treat it. Now don't get me wrong, there were certainly days in which I experienced happiness but it always felt like that happiness was marked with an asterisk.

That "happiness" was usually just pleasure in disguise that I was getting from the sex, drugs, and other vices I used to escape the pain. I felt guilty for enjoying anything while knowing that my mom was suffering everyday. My pain, which sucked while it was happening, now seems to have been absolutely necessary for my development. That pain led to my heart opening and allowed me to forgive myself and the people I felt had wronged me. That pain allowed me to consider if what I thought I knew about everything was wrong. That pain led me to meditate for the first time where I first met unconditional love and where I could successfully find solace from the constant neuroses of my mind.  While there's nothing I want more right now than to call my mother and congratulate her on another successful trip around the Sun, I know that she finds peace in knowing that her suffering and early death wasn't in vain. Thank you for all of the sacrifices you made to make me better, mama. Thank you for suffering and for the grace that your pain allowed me to heal. Thank you for waging hope against Pancreatic Cancer and for beating it everyday for 2 years.  I miss you but I'm so grateful that you don't have to hurt anymore and that you can continue to inspire without the burdens that this material world placed on you. I know that our parting, like all other things in this place, is temporary and I look so forward to being reunited with you again.