I’m so sorry, Mom.

Five years ago today, we tried to celebrate my mom’s birthday with a sad little piece of a cake that the oncology nurse brought to her room. I don’t remember any of us taking as much as a bite of it. Happy birthday wishes didn’t seem right, either. Because five years ago today for her birthday, my mom got the world’s worst gift: the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Five years ago today was the last time my mom marked a birthday. She never saw her next one. I’ve remembered every one since. First with depression then with just plain tears then by lashing out at my family and then by trying to ignore it by spending the day with friends burying myself in anything busy.

This year, I’m giving her the one gift I wish I could have given her while she was still alive. This year, I’m finally able to forgive her for the six months that followed that birthday.

I didn’t realize it until recently. But I was really, really mad at her. I never talked about it or dealt with it because I didn’t even realize it was there. Until a couple of months ago… when Patrick Swayze died.

From the day it was announced that Patrick Swayze had pancreatic cancer, I was on his death watch. It was the first headline I scanned for every morning on the internet. Often, it was the last thing I’d look for before going to bed. And in the hours in between, I seethed at the way he was living with his diagnosis.

A few days after his death, I was sitting on a balcony in Italy sipping wine with a friend who’d been there with me throughout my mom being sick. I asked her if she’d heard about Patrick Swayze, since she was on vacation when the news broke. “Yes,” she said. “And I was thinking you could write a book: ‘When I Stopped Hating Patrick Swayze.’ Let me know when it’s done.”

I came back home and couldn’t stop thinking about what she said. A book about when I stopped hating Patrick Swayze. But to me it seemed like an impossible challenge, because it would mean having to stop hating him in the first place. And I didn’t see that ever happening.

So I sat down and wrote out all the reasons why I did hate him. Every picture of him at a basketball game or smoking a cigarette or working or smiling with his wife… every mention of how he was beating the odds… going to work… doing well… it all chipped away at me and made me hate him more and more.

I left it at that. A single chapter book about my burning hatred for a man I’d never met. A man who had to have suffered just as much as my mom, but made it a suffering I didn’t have to watch play out for the world to see.

Then one day while I was vacuuming, it hit me. None of those things made me hate Patrick Swayze. Every one of those things made me hate my own mother. Because every one of those things was something I didn’t see her do after her diagnosis. And if he could do them… why couldn’t she? If Patrick Swayze could get up and go to work, why couldn’t she just take a shower? If Patrick Swayze could go to a basketball game, why couldn’t she just come downstairs and enjoy a tv show with me? If Patrick Swayze could take a private jet to his chemo, why couldn’t she just ride there in the car without bending over to put her head on the dashboard and moaning in pain? I didn’t see Patrick Swayze’s family having to lug around a bucket in which he could vomit everywhere they went. I didn’t see Patrick Swayze’s family cringing at dinner because they could hear him in the next room, throwing up the two bites he’d managed to choke down minutes earlier. I didn’t see Patrick Swayze just lying in his bed staring out into the hallway at his family as they tried to just pretend there wasn’t this dying person in the house.

And when I realized all those things, an amazing thing happened. I stopped hating both of them. I still hate pancreatic cancer. It is a horrible, horrible thing. Some people are lucky enough to still have a few months of a sort-of normal existence after learning they have it. Those are the lucky ones. If you can ever use the word lucky when you’re describing someone who’s just been handed a death sentence. Others find out so late that the explanation for why they can’t sit up without excruciating pain gives them license to just lay down and stay that way.

I suddenly understood, standing there crying giant tears in my living room, that my mom was in the second group. She’d been sick for months and was trying not to admit it to anyone. By the time someone figured out what was wrong with her, she’d already been fighting for a long time. I just didn’t see that part of it. And once she found out it was pancreatic cancer, she tried the best she could. If she could have helped me plant flowers or watched a tv show with me or gone to the store or played a game or held her granddaughter (she couldn’t; it hurt too much) or sat with us at dinner without getting sick… she would have. I know she would have. She did what she could. She held on as long as she could. And my only hope now is that she forgives me for not seeing that until now.

The thing I said made me hate Patrick Swayze the most was that he didn’t raise awareness of pancreatic cancer. Of the suffering. The pain. The torture living through it and the torture watching a loved one waste away until they are barely more than a skeleton and finally pass away. But that wasn’t his job. That’s the job of anyone touched… no… smacked by pancreatic cancer. It’s up to each of us to do what we can… whatever that is… big or small… to one day put a stop to this disease’s one-sided battle. Until then, the one thing we cannot let it take from us is our love… and respect… for those who fight it.

I love you, Mom. I miss you.

One Response to “I’m so sorry, Mom.”

  1. D.A.D. says:

    I just read your entry on your Mom and Patrick Swayze. I broke down in tears sitting at my desk. Thank you for capturing such a difficult emotion about such a difficult subject so well.


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