What Is Strength, Anyway?
“You’re doing so well,” they say.
“I don’t know if I could be as strong as you,” they say.
I was raised in a wealthy suburb of NYC, attended a private university, work at an interesting job for a company I believe in, live in Manhattan and have a larger support system and group of friends than I could have ever dreamed possible. I am a white, blonde, cisgendered, heterosexual woman.
By all means, I was raised, and frankly still live, a life of privilege.
Cancer doesn’t know privilege.
Depression doesn’t know privilege.
Eighteen months ago, my mother was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer. My parents live just over 20 miles from NYC; we were able to get my mom treated at a major teaching hospital in Manhattan.
I’d battled depression myself — severe to me, but clinically only “mild to moderate,”—starting the year before and after therapy wasn’t entirely cutting it, decided on a low dose of meds just to feel like I was operating even somewhere near my old baseline. In some ways, I’m grateful for that depression and choosing to start meds when I did; it gave me the skeleton of a toolkit to deal with my mom’s illness.
Because no matter what, nothing in the world prepares you for an ill parent and the fear that the inevitable is now coming much sooner than “planned.”
Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans, huh?
Relatively, her first bout with the cancer was replete with privilege and luck, too. Each time her doctor tested her blood levels for CA-125, an ovarian cancer marker, the levels fell dramatically. From 1000, to 300, to less than 100, until they were swiftly back in normal range and the doctor was able to remove any final evidence of disease and declare her disease-free just six months after diagnosis.
She eventually bounced back to far closer to her old “normal” than not. We did an ovarian cancer awareness walk together, and vowed to return yearly together to celebrate her remission with the other women on stage. We took a trip with my father to Rhode Island to see the famous gilded mansions. He’d had knee replacement surgery several years earlier and she walked better and had more energy than he did.
But several weeks after that, her abdominal pain returned, and with it, so did the cancer.
The intervening six months have been hell as she’s undergone numerous surgeries and procedures, and we’ve watched the cancer progress and turn my once-vibrant, sassy mother, into a shell of whom she once was. We watch as it progresses from Stage III to Stage IV; as she needs more and more medical interventions for everyday processes. ER visits and hospital stays become the new normal.
As a single woman with no siblings, I have no partner to accompany me on visits to her or to be at home to cuddle me when I return from a difficult visit. I have no siblings to share the pain and worry — or even to celebrate those few-and-far-between good days.
I worry almost constantly about my mom; I feel as though I’m wearing one of those lead jackets they give you for X-rays at the dentist’s office, only it’s made of fear and worry.
I put on a strong face in front of her because I don’t want her to see the pain I’m in and worry about me; she has enough to worry about.
I get on the train, and I bawl my eyes out under my Ray-Bans.
I attend doctors’ appointments with her and help her and my father advocate for answers, care.
I tell my friends I don’t know how much longer I can go on.
I show up to work and workouts and as many social activities as I can.
I cry in the phone booth at work; I learn that “carrying emotions in the hips” is a real thing as I surprise myself as tears fall in a pigeon pose (but hey, my hips feel a little better now.)
I reach over and squeeze my best friend’s hand when emotion overcomes me out of nowhere while “enjoying” a glass of Chardonnay, text her emergency emojis, and hug everyone I know a little tighter.
I don’t know if that’s strength.
I don’t know what strength is right now.