The Heroines Among Us
Melissa St. Pierre’s unfeigned love and appreciation of her mother will make you want to go hug your own mom tight! Come read their journey as mother and daughter through trying times and the unceasing dedication that gave them strength.
Melissa St. Pierre
The Notebook was the most popular film of the year. Usher had a hit with “YEAH”. Facebook was founded, and Sprint landed on Mars. 2004 was an interesting year, but for me, I vividly remember the last month and a half. I turned eighteen in 2003, legally making me an adult, but I didn’t become one until a year later.
I was nineteen and in the midst of my first semester of my second year of college. I knew my major, I worked multiple jobs, and I had a plan. But what does anyone know at nineteen?
My mom. She knew at nineteen.
By the time she was nineteen, she had already lived on her own, was serving in the United States Army, and had been married to my dad for a year.
At nineteen, I lived with my parents. I worked part-time at the mall, and I could cook macaroni and cheese from a box. I was nowhere near as educated or savvy as my mom. She was everything that I wanted to be when I “grew up”.
My mom stands at approximately 5’3. Some days she’s shorter than I am and other days she is taller. She has naturally red hair and beautiful green eyes, making her a leprechaun in all of the best ways.
She is witty and charming, could sell snow to a sled dog, and she enjoys a good pun. My mom appreciates good shoes and rides motorcycles. She is also the most photogenic person that I know. She has also been a breast cancer survivor for eleven years.
My mom, my template for how to live, was diagnosed with breast cancer in November, 2004. When I was nineteen years old.
I have tried many times to remember the events leading up to my mom telling me “I have breast cancer”. I think she told me over the phone, but I am not sure about that either. She was unceremoniously informed of her diagnosis over the phone while she was at work, so I might be putting myself in her position. Her doctor lacked a courtesy that should be common to anyone working in medicine.
The memory I have regarding my initial reaction is sliding down the wall between my family home’s kitchen and the living room. I don’t know if I said anything out loud, but I repeated, “no, no, no” over and over in my mind. I pounded my fists on the floor and screamed. I was not ready to lose my mom and begged God, Mother Earth, the
universe, every spiritual, non-corporeal being I could think of.
At nineteen, cancer happened to other people. It was a thing that took the lives of fictional characters in books or movies. I could reanimate them with the power of flipping the book over or pushing rewind.
We had a family meeting: my mom, dad, and me. Our brand and our band of Three Musketeers. My mom’s outlook was always that could, and would, beat cancer.
“I got this.” She said confidently. “We are a family, and we are going to get through this.” My mom always reminded me, and still does, that we are family and families can do anything.
My mom’s cancer was stage one. She was diagnosed with intraductal carcinoma in-stu, which meant that cancer had invaded her milk ducts. She was quickly scheduled for surgery, and December 27 was the date. She elected to go with a double mastectomy, although cancer was only present on one side. A general surgeon would perform the mastectomy, and a plastic surgeon would reshape a stomach muscle back into breasts. My mom would look “normal” coming out of surgery, just as she had going in. The surgery alone would take up to twelve hours, maybe more if any complications came up in the operating room. My parents made arrangements for me to handle finances for our family in case of an emergency. I was added onto my mom and dad’s checking account and named an authorized user on their only credit card. “
I am sure that I had thoughts about this at the time, and they were likely a mix of “oh my GOD! This cannot be happening” and “I can’t feel anything right now.” But, being responsible, and acting like a grown up were talents that I had developed early in life.
I’d been responsible since I could understand what the word meant. By all accounts, I was a “picture perfect” teenager. So these added responsibilities were manageable. I was more than trustworthy.
The time between making plans and the date of surgery is blurry, but I remember being disappointed in my extended family. This is a theme that would continue. I have two cousins, both from my dad’s brother’s first marriage. Their mom passed away in December, 2004. As sad as that was for them, I didn’t know their mom. She was married to my uncle before I was born. My cousin “Curtis”, the younger of the two boys, asked my dad to be a pallbearer at his mom’s funeral. I have a vision of him getting perturbed with my dad when he explained that he couldn’t. My mom’s surgery and his mom’s funeral were on the same day. Curtis’ attitude toward my dad was that of disdain. He appeared to have a cavalier attitude about my mom, which for me, solidified him being forever called “my asshole cousin.” Thank God being an asshole isn’t
The rest of December ticked by slowly, and I hated everything. I hated Christmas music. All the cheer. All the happiness. All the good tidings. I could have thrown them all into a trash can and set it on fire. This was uncharacteristic of me. I was the girl that bought several boxes of Christmas cards, with 50 cards per box, because I gave one to every person I knew. I started decorating and Christmas shopping in October. I could listen to Christmas music in July.
I publicly cried once. It was at school. I’d just finished Linguistics 181: Development and Change of the English Language. I was in love with the class and LIN 181 was one of my first classes of the day. The morning I cried, all it took was for one peer to
tell me to have a good weekend. I muttered an unenthusiastic “you too”. Then, I cried. I am not a silent crier either. I show every emotion I have, and poker is not my game.
I went to my “happy place”, a study nook that I claimed for myself on the campus library’s fourth floor. I sat down and gave myself a pep talk. “You cannot act like this. You cannot stop being you. Because mom needs you. She NEEDS you. The real you.” And after I completed this conversation with myself, I picked myself up the best I could, by what was left of my bootstraps. My mom was so sincere in her belief that she would be fine, and I needed to be as well. Fear, as it turns out, is a sneaky little bitch. But she is also easily defeated.
After my pep talk, I did my best to replace fear with an eagerness. Hope weighs more than fear and crushes it in rock/paper/scissors every time. I made my mom feel better both before surgery and after by telling her about the zany things that happened at my
stupid retail job, about my classes, or life in general. We looked forward to resuming our lunches together, shopping days, and movie nights.
On December 27, 2004, my mom had the surgery to rid my family of breast cancer. Her surgery took over twelve hours. Every few seconds, my dad and I looked anxiously at the magical double doors, waiting for her doctors.
My dad and I had each other to lean on. While we had family members present in the waiting room, in the end, it came down to him and me. As it always did, it was the Three Musketeers.
Five days. My mom stayed in the hospital for five days. Every morning, my dad and I got up, got dressed, and we went to sit with my mom. We stayed all day. Dining on cafeteria food and stale pop. It was delicious because we were together. Even if my mom slept, dad watched television, and I read or wrote in my journal.
And on New Year’s Eve 2004, on an uncharacteristically warm, 60 degree day in
Michigan, we brought her home. Cancer free.
She couldn’t leave the house for a few weeks, so I had to deny entry to well-wishing and well- meaning friends and family. Only my dad and I were allowed entry. My mom began begging me to take her into Oxford to get carry out from our favorite family style restaurant, The Nugget. “I’ll be good Tut, I won’t get out of the car.” Tut is my nickname from her, and how could I resist? I couldn’t deny taking my mom out for a change of scenery.
After surgery, my mom received an outpouring of love and support. It was nice to see her get cards and flowers from her friends, coworkers, and family members. But I discovered that other people’s well wishes soon died off, and very few people asked about my dad and me, and the people that did weren’t necessarily our family members.
My grandparents left for Florida the day after my mom’s surgery. They didn’t even wait to make sure she made it home safely. I guess flea markets and cheap campgrounds were more important than their son and only granddaughter. My dad’s aunt brought dinners to us a few times. I think it was out of guilt for being snide and making snarky comments about my mom and dad over the years. I’ve never forgiven her for calling them both “fat” once.
My dad’s cousin wrote a card and said that if we needed anything to call, but I think those words were more for her than for us.
My uncle did not call once. My aunt, my dad’s only sister, may have called the house once or twice. But she was “too busy” to come to her own grandmother’s funeral, so I didn’t expect much.
I was never close to my extended family, my dad’s aunts, uncles, and their children. Now I know why. They don’t show up. They talk a big talk but their actions don’t match their words, and for someone like me, words mean everything.
When I was two, my mom enrolled me in Tumblebees, which was an enrichment program for kids in Oxford before they were old enough for preschool. She met another mom, and she and Paula became friends quickly. Paula called me multiple times to ask how I was doing, and again, she asked about my dad.
The people that showed up for us and remained there were people that my mom worked with. She’s worked at the same place since I was seven years old. Her boss was the one that called me between classes to ask how my mom was, but more
importantly, she asked about my dad. It mattered to me that people cared about him. My dad is such a good man. He’s immeasurably kind, and when people treat him poorly, they are voted off of my island.
When I was nineteen, I learned that my mom will always be right. She will always know more than I do, and her unwavering faith that everything would be okay turned out to be true. A routine mammogram caught her cancer two years before a lump would have formed, and she didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation.
A person can survive breast cancer, but a family beats it. My family. I was surprised at my ability to become a stronger version of myself. All along, my mom was Wonder Woman. Somehow she had faith that she would be fine, and she showed me how to be strong and how to believe as well. I saw my family as fallible and mortality was something that was no longer fiction. I saw people that like to claim my mom, dad, and I as family, but they only treated us as such when it was convenient and to make them feel better about themselves. I saw excuses, and I heard many “reasons” why people couldn’t, or didn’t, come around. I saw many things, but what I actually saw was myself becoming an adult. And I saw my definition of family change.
Going on sixteen full years later, I am a thirty-five year old woman. My mom and I have done the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk two times, and she did it once on her own. We have also walked 5K’s for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. We still have lunch dates, shopping days, and movie nights. She still rides motorcycles and is looking forward to a golden retirement with my dad in the near future.
I am grateful that my family did beat breast cancer. I have my mom and so many others don’t have their moms, sisters, aunts, girlfriends, and grandmothers. I am lucky to have my template for how to live, and now I can tease her a little. “Remember the time you begged me to take you to the Nugget? I’ll be good Tut.”
Melissa St. Pierre teaches writing and rhetoric at Oakland University in Michigan. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Blue Nib, Panoply, 45 Women’s Literary Journal, Valiant Scribe, and Elizabeth River Press Literary Anthology. St.Pierre has also performed her work in Listen to Your Mother, a literary nonfiction storytelling showcase. When she’s not writing, she enjoys playing with her daughter, misplacing things, creating construction paper art, and laughing up a storm.