“The love of a mother is the veil of a softer light between the heart and the heavenly Father.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
During spring football practice my junior year of high school, I grew disillusioned with being on the team and told my coach that I was quitting. I wanted the dream senior year: partying with my friends and doing what little work I could while still graduating. My lacrosse coach, however, had other plans. He “suggested” that I run cross country to stay in shape for lacrosse season. I loved running so I figured, “Why not?”
Deciding to run cross country meant getting a physical before school started. Since that was only a few weeks away, I couldn’t get an appointment with my own doctor and had to get it at school with whatever doctor was doing them at the time. Shortly after the school year began, the results of that physical brought our family the first in a string of increasingly troubling news. My red blood cell count was six times normal levels.
After a couple of weeks of doctor appointments, blood tests, CT scans, and some weird thing called an MRI (it was 1984, they were relatively new), we heard the second bit of troubling news: I had a tumor in my kidney and needed surgery.
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” (John 15:12)
When I received the call from my doctor with the news, I was at home on a school day for some reason (probably lunch since I lived so close to school). I went back to school and straight to my mom’s office. She was crying. I hugged her and told her, “Don’t worry, mom, God knows what He’s doing.” I know God put that on my heart because it sure didn’t come from me.
It was a crazy time. Nobody knew what it meant or where it would lead, only that their seventeen-year-old son, grandson, brother, and nephew needed surgery. I may have been the first one in our extended family to have major surgery, now that I think about it, other than my mom’s caesarean section when she had my sister.
While my dad was doing what dads do, staying strong for all of us, continuing at his job as a teacher and coach to support us, all the while dealing with his own fears for his son and his own inner turmoil, my mom — blessed with a compassionate boss who gave her all the time off she needed — was with me at every doctor appointment, every consultation, every moment in the weeks leading up to my surgery.
In the first week of October, I was admitted into Yale New Haven Hospital. The last thing I remember before surgery is looking around the operating room while they started the anesthesia and thinking, “Wow, cool gadgets.” The next thing I remember is waking up in the most insane pain I’d ever felt, then or since, before they administered the blessed morphine. The next few days were a blur. I awoke for brief moments at random times to excruciating pain, not even aware enough to wonder before drifting off again into unconsciousness if it would ever end.
I was aware of only two things in those days following my surgery: pain and my mom.
“And you yourself a sword will pierce.” (Luke 2:35)
I don’t know how much my mom slept, if at all, but I do know that every time I regained consciousness, she was there, awake and feeling every bit of her child’s pain. It must have been horrific for her, yet there she was, staying vigil beside me in my painful days of recovery.
She was also there when we received the most devastating news yet: the tumor was malignant. I had cancer.
For the remainder of my stay in the hospital when I received my first chemotherapy treatments, mom was with me, never leaving my side. She was also there for the remaining year of treatments, driving me to my appointments, even when my selfish, “grown up” self thought I was too old to be babied like that. I only learned the fundamental and comforting truth after I really did grow up: everyone, however old they are, is their mother’s baby.
Until my senior year, I had a pretty happy childhood, free of anything terrible happening to any of us, but this near tragedy forged a bond between my mom and I that is deeper than any of those many happy moments ever could. To this day, we sign our cards and emails with a line from a song we sang on retreats:
“How much do you love me?” The world has asked of this man now crucified. / “I love you this much,” I heard Him say as He bowed His head and died.
Though she’s never said it that I remember, I know that my mom, if she could have, would have traded places with me in a beat of her loving heart to spare me the pain and torment that the surgery and treatments inflicted on my body.
Flashing forward to today, there’s a chance that I might have back surgery this year to correct an old “surfing” injury that’s getting increasingly painful as I get older. My mom, of course, has volunteered to come down and stay with me to help me through it. Like my idiot seventeen-year-old self, I’ve privately resisted this offer, feeling that, at 48 years old, I’m “too old” to have my mom take care of me. At the very moment I wrote that previous sentence I realized, “Could I be so foolish again?” Of course she’ll be here. I couldn’t keep her away. And I don’t want to.
Since it’s Mother’s Day, I thought about ending this story thanking my mom for all the things she’s done for me (countless) and all the sacrifices her and my dad made for us (lots of those too), and maybe apologize for all the times I was a stupid little shit to her (even more of those). Instead, I’ll just end it the way we end our cards and emails:
I love you this much.
Image: A Mother is…Always there by Baloozer
“This Much I Love You” lyrics by Dan Schutte, S.J.; © Daniel L. Schutte, S.J. and NALR