Slowly, I walked away, praying that the tingling sensation in my nose would subside and that the tears that stung my eyes would evaporate. You’re so selfish. All you care about is yourself. His words reverberated off the walls of my mind; I couldn’t contain them in any one place. You want people to feel sorry for you. Standing alone in my birthday dress, I squirmed, disgusted by the feel of my own skin, and wrapped my arms tightly around my middle. Your mom’s not that sick. It’s not like she’s going to die. As color rose into my cheeks, they rouged, and I felt a nauseating twinge of humiliation. You’re pathetic.
His words were cruel and callous, and they struck me with great intensity. Pain, anger, and grief tugged at my insides and wrestled violently, each struggling to the surface of my mind. Though so much of what he said was gratuitous, I saw truth in his words. I had been selfish. I had been needy. I had been looking for anything that would justify my behavior.
On December 19, 2005, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It runs in the family. I remember my grandpa with the trachea tube. Throat cancer. I was nine. I remember my uncle in bed, disgustingly emaciated. A sarcoma. I was twelve. And at 15, I find myself looking into my own mother’s eyes as she attempts to recount the diagnosis her oncologist has given her. Both of us fight back tears. She promises me that she will persevere and that nothing–in all its power– can take her away from me, from my brother, and from my dad. But I’ve learned from past experience: cancer kills.
When my mother began chemotherapy in early February of 2006, she spent endless hours hunched lethargically on the couch as the chemicals consumed her body. I watched. There was nothing I could do. I realize now that as my mother progressed towards a vegetative state, she took part of my person with her: my happiness, my laughter, my pride, and my courage. She left me behind with only the company of my own faults, which easily extinguished my spark. It was at this point that I blindly became the kind of person that I once frowned upon with distaste. I craved attention and had grown accustomed to receiving pity from others. I thrived off of it, squirreling away every ounce that was offered in a desperate attempt to fill the void I felt when I lost communication with my mother.
On my sixteenth birthday that year, harsh words were spoken and feelings were hurt, but I wasn’t blind any more. The words of a boy, a peer of mine, brought me back to my senses. Immediately, I began to practice a new approach to difficult situations, grinning in the face of anger and laughing at sorrow. At first these efforts caused me to feel false and transparent, but in due course I became increasingly confident and upbeat.
I am, to this day, so grateful for the criticism that I received on that day. I’m seventeen now, and smiles and laughter are no longer foreign to my character, but have instead become the outermost emotions on my sleeve. A few crude words changed my life. I now fight with optimism because it numbs the pain.
And by the way—my mom is getting better.