My shoulder aches from pressing against the plastic wall. I lift the pillow higher, but my neck muscles strain against the unnatural position. A small groan escapes my throat as I stretch.
“Yeah, rough night,” he says, cringing while shifting in his seat.
I look over at him and smile while rolling my eyes. Our friendship formed quickly with the tight economy quarters and similar personalities, but our time together is coming to an end as we approach Spain.
I turn towards the window, lifting the plastic shade. My eyes are gritty from the sleepless night, protesting my brain’s signals for sight. Fighting the urge to close them again, I watch the wing take shape as we fly east towards the sunrise. Light begins to expose the world, and my mind wanders to the last time I moved towards a dawn and watched the sun rise through an airplane window.
Ten months ago I flew to Morocco with my mom and daughter n a trip designed as a celebration. In the 2019 she and I would turn 70 and 40, respectively. Unfortunately, my mom never made it to her 70th birthday.
Though my mom received an unofficial diagnosis of Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer two days before our scheduled departure, she chose to take the trip. Opinions have fallen on both sides with some people believing Mom should have stayed and start her fight while others argue she should embrace the trip with me and my daughter. Regardless what was to follow our return home, I never regretted my persuasion that she go to Morocco.
Watching the sun rise on that plane ride, I sat sandwiched between my 5-year-old daughter and my mother. I felt the figurative strain, realizing I would become responsible for taking care of both of them, but I didn’t yet understand how the experience would affect me, forever changing my approach and outlook to life.
My mother appeared to be a healthy individual. She exercised with a trainer two days a week, was careful about what she ate, and in general tried to live a health conscious life. She had her vices, as we all do, but she and I both held a subconscious belief she would live another 20 years. The emergency room CT scan exposed the extent of the cancer in her body, and that belief dissipated into a much different reality. Compounded by cancer complications and family dynamics, the last few months of my mom’s life were difficult and miserable for everyone involved.
The experience with my mom was a large boulder thrown into my brain, sending waves through my life and neurons while displacing some long held beliefs. Though some aspects hit me quickly after my mom’s death, a short five months after her official diagnosis on April 24th, other ripples are just now lapping against my brain. Death takes time to process, and cancer burdens death with additional traumas and experiences.
Whether I felt the impact immediately or only now months later, I walked away from those five months a changed person.
Until the summer of 2019, I lived my life in anxiety and fear. To minimize my anxiety, I often chose the safest and most stable options available to me, sometimes sacrificing needs and giving up on dreams to avoid the uncomfortable buzzing in my chest.
One of my immediate responses to my mom’s death is life is too short. Too short to delay doing things I enjoy, and too short to keep procrastinating in fear of failure. I realized life is only lived by making choices based on what provides fulfillment and is true to who we are, not what we fear or what reduces anxiety.
The lesson, however, is proving to be much larger and deeper than life is short.
I became Mom’s caregiver and medical provider. I administered medicine and feedings via access directly to her heart. I cleaned fluids and dealt with situations where my mom’s life hung on a minute’s choice. My choice. As I move through life after my mom’s death, things that used to create panic in me no longer have the same result.
Most of my life I hid my opinions and thoughts to avoid rejection, and I hid my craziness and emotions to ensure acceptance. Despite being an introvert, I would exhaust my energy to not have to sit with myself. I worked very hard to control perceptions of me, trying to appear put together and calm despite my thoughts spinning constantly and my chest buzzing incessantly.
After sitting in a death vacuum with my mom and watching her struggle with her demons, I have learned to accept who I am. I no longer feel the urge to explain myself in an effort to minimize negativity, and I am making choices based on my beliefs and priorities instead of allowing public opinion to sway me.
The fear of abandonment left me when my mom stopped breathing. Now I can sit in quiet solitude.
Having survived the most frightening experience of my life and living through the inevitable abandonment of a parent, my fears about life have all but disappeared. Anxiety continues to exist in my chest; anxiety has been my lifelong companion, and this experience will not change that. Yet I have gained perspective, allowing me to note my anxiety and keep moving forward instead of shying away from the feeling.
Life has moments of pain. We cannot avoid the pain of life, but in trying, we end up missing out on all the beauty and peace life also offers.
I am no longer sandwiched between my daughter and my mother. Facing my daughter, I am focused on giving her the care and love she needs and deserves. My approach has changed, though. Nurturing and loving my daughter does not mean keeping her safe from everything that scares me or her. I intend on teaching her to embrace life and herself, accepting everything in her nature.
Now I understand being a strong woman doesn’t mean fearlessness; strength is found in being true to yourself and acting in spite of fear.