A Mother Lost to a Brain Tumor
May has always been my favorite month. Since childhood, I have waited through April showers in anticipation of May flowers. The month of May presents both the end of Spring and the beginning of Summer break, giving Mississippians a special season all our own wherein the temperature is blissfully warm enough for Summer activities without being too hot. The grass is green and the flowers are blooming, yet the oppressive heat and humidity are mostly held at bay. You can actually lay out by the pool or go out on the Reservoir without feeling like you are melting. May is a beautiful month for hiking and picnicking by day, listening to the frogs and crickets in the evening, and star-watching at night. May is the month of our family’s annual beach trip and, of course, the month we celebrate mothers. This May will still be all of those lovely, sunny things, but, as I face my first Mother’s Day without my mother, this will also be a gray May.
As May approaches, a thousand emotions keep entering my heart, but a single word keeps
coming to mind –mama. The word “mama” is the same or similar across the world and in most languages. While its origins may stem from baby babble, the word “mama” (for those of us lucky enough) conjures up words like warmth, safety, and unconditional love.
Mama had a way with words.
Speaking of words, my Mama sure loved to use them. As a child, I saw her as a beautiful social butterfly. She would flitter around the room at a party or outside the church sanctuary, stopping to talk to each person. I would hide behind the skirt of her dress, shy and quiet, but watching in awe as she laughed and spoke to everyone with ease. When I was a teenager, sometimes all of Mama’s talking would embarrass me. She never met a stranger. On a shopping trip, my cheeks would grow red as Mom chatted up any and every cashier as if they had known each other forever.
I also watched Mama use her words for good during those years. She talked my siblings and me through many hard times, always knowing just what to say, and she did the same for many of our friends. As much as Mom loved talking, she knew how to keep a secret. I have friends who only confided in me now as adults how much my mom’s words helped them when we were younger.
Mom also used her words to go to bat for her kids or anyone she saw in need of help. Whether as PTA president or giving someone an earful if they crossed a line, her mama bear side would kick in when needed. Mom was always good at words of reassurance, too. Good heavens, she could build you up with her words! I could look my absolute worst and she’d swear I looked amazing, genuinely pointing out the beauty she saw. While she was good with words, she often didn’t even need them. It was her presence, her hug, her back tickles, or her reassuring smile that said more than words ever could.
A mother always giving to others.
As the years passed, Mom wasn’t as social as she used to be. Our family devoured all her time and energy…be it planning for, cooking at, and cleaning after family get-togethers or keeping her grandkids. She continued to use her voice, though –for singing to her grandchildren or reading them stories. She also used written words for things she was passionate about, especially God and His word. For years, she would send out daily devotions to extended family and friends.
She was our favorite weather woman, sending us emails and texts to start each day with a forecast update, including her cautious phrases like “wear layers” or “be careful”. As good as Mom was with words, she was also a great listener. For nearly my entire adult life, I called and talked to her every day.
As so often is the case with mothers, my mom was my best friend –even if I was not always hers. Mom gave, created, and cultivated an incredible one-sided friendship.
I would call her to vent, cry, or just blab about my day, my work, my problems, my kids, my life, but Mom rarely did the same. She listened and she advised. She was my biggest cheerleader, a true best friend, with no requirement or expectation of reciprocation. She was that for each of her three kids every single time we called her, and we called her often. And even though Mom surely grew weary of the calls from time to time, she always made time to talk.
In April 2020, when Mom started getting off the phone with us faster, we knew it wasn’t like her. She had missed her family so much since the Covid quarantine began just the month before. We were social distancing in an effort to keep Mom and Dad safe. We saw signs Mom was acting differently, but we assumed the change in her personality and decrease in chattiness was due to missing her grandbabies and feeling depressed. Then, my dad said, “Your mom isn’t talking much, and YOU KNOW that isn’t like her.”
One gray day in May
On a beautiful day during the first week of May 2020, Dad walked into the kitchen to find Mom, seemingly dazed and holding a knife in one hand and a lemon in the other. Mom couldn’t remember why she was standing there or what she had planned to do with that lemon. She was having trouble even speaking. Dad was alarmed. Had Mom had a series of strokes? Was this early Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia? Dad guided Mom to the car and they headed to St. Dominic’s emergency room wherein Mom was ultimately diagnosed with a glioblastoma (“GBM”), the most common but most complex, treatment-resistant, and deadliest type of brain tumor.
Things progressed quickly from there and we learned a lot over the next few days and weeks. Mom no longer acted like herself. Her tone was different. Her affect was flat. We no longer heard her normal cheery voice, and she no longer sang or read to the grandkids. Mom did not express much emotion, and she frequently had trouble finding the right words. Yet, in true Mom fashion, she still found a way to say a lot. You see, my Mama did not get diagnosed with brain cancer any ole time but did so during the month of May, which is brain tumor awareness month.
A philanthropist’s mission
Raising awareness about brain cancer was something near and dear to Mom’s heart as our
family lost our precious Natalie –Mom’s great niece– to Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (“DIPG”), the deadliest childhood brain cancer, on October 11, 2019. Natalie was only 15 years old, and as the Lord would have it, my mom was there in the room as Natalie took her last breath. When Natalie died, Mom’s heart was broken. Mom hurt for her sister, Natalie’s grandmother. Mom cried for her niece, Natalie’s mother. We all ached for their entire family, but Mom’s health seemed to be fine at that time. None of us could have ever imagined it possible, but seven months after Natalie died due to a brain tumor, my sweet Mama, on the beautiful and sunny first week of May 2020, was also diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Five months, countless doctors, several treatments, two surgeries, and one long hospital stay later, Mom, like Natalie, passed away due to her brain tumor. I believe that Natalie was there to greet Mom as she stepped into Heaven just as Mom had been there when Natalie left this world to enter those gates.
Carrying on the mission – A Gray May.
May is still the warm and beautiful month I have always loved so dearly. It is also brain cancer awareness month, and that is another reason that, for me and my family, the month of May will be gray. I will “Go Gray In May” to raise awareness, increase funding, and support families like mine impacted by brain tumors. Named for “gray matter,” gray is the color to represent brain tumor awareness. According to the National Brain Tumor Society, “nearly 700,000 Americans are living with a brain tumor. And, many more will be diagnosed each year.
Brain tumors are deadly, and can strike men, women, and children at any time.” According to the American Brain Tumor Association, in the year 2021, “[m]ore than 84,000 people will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor,” and “approximately 18,000 will die as a result of a primary malignant brain tumor.” The types of brain tumors that took Mom and Natalie, GBM and DIPG, are just two of the 120 different types of primary brain tumors.
This May, I will remember my Mom and honor the incredible mother she was. I urge you to hug your own mother extra tight this May and soak in every word she says. I will also remember beautiful Natalie, this May, as well as her Mama, my cousin Amanda, a mother who lost her baby girl to brain cancer and misses her every day.
The month of May is still beautiful, but brain cancer is ugly and awful and we are working to increase brain tumor awareness. So, this May, please support “Go Gray in May” to raise awareness about brain cancer and brain tumors. This movement and the hashtag #gograyinmay help individuals and families impacted by brain tumors to find resources, receive acknowledgement, feel supported, and retain hope. You can show your support by wearing gray throughout the month of May and by donating to brain tumor research. To learn more, to donate, or to help raise awareness, visit the National Brain Tumor Society, the American Brain Tumor Association, and/or The Gray Matters Foundation.