When Devastation Meets Joy.
I thought my mom’s cancer diagnosis would destroy me. Then I got pregnant.
This is not the way I’d imagined or hoped my first pregnancy would play out, but when I begin to feel self-pity or count the various circumstances I wish were different, I remember that this baby is saving my ass in more ways than I can fully fathom, and my disappointments are quickly eclipsed by gratitude.
The thing is, I’m 35 years old and I live with my mom. I’m unemployed and broke. I miss my boyfriend and the life we built together, which has been on pause for the past year, and exists in an entirely different dimension, 500 miles north of here.
And my mom is dying.
I have been fearing and bracing myself for her death for as long as I can remember, and now it’s at the door.
Last August, after two years of mom enduring intense pain, extreme weight loss and ambivalent, half-assed explanations from the medical community, she developed a golf-ball-sized cyst on her throat. This was the glaring clue that the doctors needed to finally make a cogent diagnosis: my mom had stage IV Uterine Cancer.
Her PET Scan showed a tumor the size of a cantaloupe devouring her uterus, another gripped mercilessly to the nerve endings on her spine, flecks of cancer were splattered across her lungs and thrummed through her lymph system. It was fucking everywhere.
Her diagnosis annihilated and consumed me, but it didn’t surprise me. Since childhood, I’ve worried about my mom endlessly. My subconscious busily manufactured morbid dreams and hypothetical scenarios where I could see death sneaking up on her but could do nothing to save her.
Despite the lifetime of worries that crescendoed to this point, I was nowhere close to prepared for the wreckage her sickness would tear through our lives.
I relocated from San Francisco to my childhood home in Southern California to be with her, and initially, I prided myself on how useful I was in navigating this new reality. I researched treatment options, cooked alkaline food for her, drove her to and from work and her various appointments. After a few months of contemplating her options though, mom decided to forgo treatment entirely.
She refused to poison her already fragile body with chemotherapy or radiation, and was unwilling to spend her life savings and remaining time on earth experimenting with unsubstantiated alternative therapies. She wanted to spend the rest of her life in peace, at home.
In December, we enrolled her in hospice, dejected. She was no longer interested in the cancer-fighting foods I prepared, and there were no more doctor’s appointments to drive her to. I was just at home by her side, administering inadequate pain medication and watching her suffer. After a few months, I began to feel myself dying alongside her.
I couldn’t find a single iota of motivation to do anything healthy for myself, and I fiendishly ingested anything I could get my hands on to numb my discomfort. But there was no distraction or escape that could conceal the fact that my favorite, most kindred person was in horrific pain and dying before my eyes.
As her disease progressed, I became increasingly manic, disconsolate and terrified that once she passed, I would be irretrievably lost.
In March, I discovered that I was pregnant. It took three positive EPT tests and watching the grainy white heartbeat of my little fetus flicker on an ultrasound before I allowed myself to believe it was real. Over the past six years, I have taken at least a dozen pregnancy tests with great anticipation, and each negative result came with abject disappointment.
Becoming a mother has been my most earnest pursuit in life, but when I found out that I was finally pregnant, I was scared shitless. Being pregnant meant that I would have to endure the reality of my mom’s sickness sober, and I didn’t know if I could do that.
I hadn’t thought it was possible to feel any more vulnerable than I already was, until I realized that I was probably going to lose my mom while carrying the baby she had been begging my partner and I to conceive for years.
My nerves went haywire for the first few days after finding out, which aggravated my morning sickness and exacerbated the shakiness I felt from kicking alcohol, Xanax and cigarettes cold turkey. Through my pukey malaise of erratic heartbeats and insomnia, I felt desperate to control this pregnancy, especially since everything else in my life felt so completely out of control.
Aside from basic self- and prenatal care though, there wasn’t much for me to do. The idea that this baby would know how to develop without my instruction or effort was insane to me. The Universe seemed to be launching a strong campaign to coax me to surrender and teach me to trust.
Soon, I noticed an effervescent undercurrent that accompanied my panic and first trimester symptoms: a quiet, stabilizing joy. This has continued to expand within me throughout my pregnancy, outpacing even the growth of my belly, like a protective aura.
I am now seven months pregnant, and I have had the honor of sharing my pregnancy with my mom, which was a long-held fantasy I’d surrendered once she got sick. It is as wondrous to feel life grow inside me as it is heartbreaking to watch mom’s life slip away. It is still impossibly devastating to watch my mom suffer, but now I get to place her hand on my belly so that she can feel her granddaughter’s acrobatics.
We share smiles of bewilderment over my ever-changing body (particularly my new huge boobs) and the utter miracle of this child and her brilliant timing.
There is a mountain of complex logistics my partner and I need to navigate with regard to the birth of our daughter and my mom’s palliative care over the next three months, but I know with unflappable certainty that my task is to take this one day at a time and to trust that we will continue to tackle each challenge with grace, when the timing is right.
I’m still terrified of how deeply I will miss my mom when she passes, but she is alive now and I am here with her, and in this moment, I have everything I need.
After hearing horror stories about the havoc pregnancy hormones wreak upon many mamas-to-be, I’m exceedingly grateful that I’m actually less of a weepy whack job than I was before, and that this pregnancy has brought a potent centering and clarity to my life. To put it simply, this journey has restored my faith in divine intelligence.
And it’s restored my faith in myself, because I’ve learned how to survive, moment to moment, breath by breath, in this reality that I once thought would destroy me. Together, my mom and my daughter have shown me how much love, tenderness, and joy can coexist alongside immense pain, and that I can, in fact, hold all of it at once, with reverence and gratitude.
Desiree Lyons is a social entrepreneur who is preparing to launch a business that will support new moms and young kids in San Francisco. She and her partner are expecting their first child this November.