When my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year, I kept coming back to a photograph I had taken of a sand dollar that summer. You see, when we were growing up, my mom had a thing for seashells and sand dollars. She loved hunting for those little treasures on our Florida beaches and our house was filled with them. The sand dollar from my California beach was beautifully bleached and perfectly round, but with a gaping hole in its center. For me, the sand dollar was my mom– her beauty and grace was intact but her shell was broken.
When faced with the mortality of our parents, it drives home our own vulnerability. In my mom’s weakness and helplessness, I saw my own– how scared I was sometimes to be alone with her, fearful that something could happen and I wouldn’t know what to do for her. Next to losing her, it was my biggest fear. Not being enough. Not being able.
One particularly weak day, she wasn’t doing well and had taken herself into the bathroom. I didn’t hear any noises out of the ordinary, but when I came in a few minutes later to check on her, she was on the bathroom floor. Thankfully not hurt in any way, but so weak that she couldn’t lift herself up. And I wasn’t strong enough to lift her from the floor. We tried and tried, but even together we couldn’t do it. I was afraid of hurting her and she was afraid of me getting hurt trying to lift her. So we called my stepdad and we waited. For what seemed like an eternity.
We both shed a lot of tears that day. Most of mine came when I was back at my brother’s house, alone before the rest of the family came home. The weight of what could have happened came down on me, along with a tremendous feeling of relief and thankfulness that what could have happened– didn’t. But it had been there in that moment, more so than any other I spent with her, that I felt how vulnerable she was, how much this ugly disease had broken her beautiful shell.
She’s doing better these days. Still fighting this beast with all the strength her now tiny body can muster. When we talk she sounds more like herself than she has in months. I hear a hope in her voice and it gives me hope, a feeling that has sometimes eluded me through this process. As impossibly difficult as it has been, she has not let it break her. Her shell is different, but her spirit is still the same.
All images are via the artist’s website.