In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I wanted to share the story of my mom and how she lost her battle with breast cancer four years ago, and how I miss her more than ever.
My mom, Susan Perlman, was diagnosed with breast cancer in June of 2006. We knew she was going in for tests. She had found a bump a week or so earlier. But it was more than a bump at this point. It had disfigured her breast. I stayed home from work that day as if I knew the results were going to be bad. My mom called me. She told me it was not good. She had Stage 4 breast cancer and it wasn’t going away. She tried to hold back the tears. She didn’t want me to hear her crying. But could hear her, and she could hear me. My sister’s husband Rich picked me up because my mom didn’t want me driving. She wanted me to get to my parents’ house in Wellington, but knew I wouldn’t make it if I was driving. I sobbed in the car the whole way, looking out the window, not talking, and unable to control myself. It was the worst moment of my life.
I walked into my parents’ house. My mom was sitting waiting for us to arrive. I didn’t want to cry in front of her or show her that I couldn’t control myself. I wanted to be strong. But how could I be strong when deep inside me, I needed her more than anything in my life. My mom was my everything.
I remember calling a friend from college that same day I found out. I called her because she had lost her father in college. It had destroyed her – left her heartbroken and damaged. I met her after her dad had died, after she went through a period of depression, after she suffered the majority of the pain. But there was still a lot left over. I wanted to call her because I knew she would know how I felt. I would listen to what she told me…not push her away and assume she knew nothing about what I was going through – like I did with others. I just worried about what I had coming to me. I loved my mom more than anything and I knew if there was pain out there to be felt – I was going to feel it. My friend listened. She didn’t tell me it would get easier – because she knew it wouldn’t. But I felt like I wasn’t so alone when I spoke to her…like she understood.
After the diagnosis
No one knows how someone should feel or act when they are diagnosed with cancer; and no one knows how someone should feel or act when the person closest to them is diagnosed with cancer. When my mom was first diagnosed – it was a balancing act. I had just started a new relationship that I knew wasn’t going anywhere – but it became a distraction. I remember the weekend after my mom diagnosed – the guy I was dating took me to the Keys for the day. We swam with the dolphins, ate dinner and came back to South Florida – or reality. I would do that a lot. Get away and not think about my mom or how she was dying. The other half of the time – I would cry alone. I would go to my parents’ house and hide out in my old room where I could cry alone in my bed, surrounded by belongings, pictures and things that once meant so much. One time, I recall my dad coming upstairs to check on me. He found me crying and said he knew it all too well. We would often sit up there together and cry. I’m not sure if my mom ever knew what we were doing.
At work – people would ask me how I was. And I would explain. I remember Brian Levine, my boss, telling me that I can’t wait around for the next 2, 4, 6, 10 years for my mom to die or not to. That I can’t go to her house every weekend and ignore my own life and needs. I knew that he meant well and that he didn’t want me to put off life to be with my mom, but I yelled back at him telling him that I wasn’t waiting…that I needed to be with her every weekend for my own sanity and that I wanted to spend time with her and have no regrets.
I remember explaining to Gerri Pinvidic, who sat in the cubicle adjacent to my own, how I wanted to be with my mom and going out was not important in comparison. Gerri, who was a mom herself and two daughters around the same age as me, disagreed. She told me I should start going out; spend Friday night with friends, and then drive to my parents’ house on Saturday morning and spend the weekend there. I started doing that. Saturday and Sunday afternoons I spent with my mom, going to the mall, having lunch, and just being near each other. I sometimes wonder had I not lived so close to my parents at this time what I would have done…left work, moved home, etc. Honestly, if I had to do it again – I would have moved back in with my mom permanently and spent every second with her…there never seemed to be enough time.
One afternoon at work – there was a dedication service going on in the parking lot near one of the buildings at Office Depot’s corporate campus. I stood in my boss Brian’s office looking out at the trees and the gathering people. They were making a dedication to Jim, a Vice President in the Finance Division at Office Depot who died in a motorcycle accident. His wife and daughter stood outside holding hands crying. I cried uncontrollably in Brian’s office. No one was there to hear me or see me. I closed the door to be alone. I was crying because I knew this day was coming for me. That soon my dad, sister, brother and I would stand there just like them – staring straight ahead without my mom. This is the day I began to accept my fate.
The next two years were kind of a blur. Every week there was something new. The doctors kept telling us about the latest drugs that they wanted to test. At one point, the doctors couldn’t do anything right – even misdiagnosing my mom’s specific type of cancer (pre-menopausal or not) and prescribing her the wrong medication. We were full of anger, blame, resentment and sadness. And simultaneously there were chemo and radiation sessions for weeks on end. My mom was sick. Her appetite was fading. She was losing weight, felt tired and was on ridiculously high doses of pain medicine. The only thing for her to look forward to, in her mind, was the Bracha or “breast cancer gene” test during and after which she prayed the results would confirm she didn’t carry the gene. When she found out the good news she called with a relieved sound in her voice: “I received the best news. All I care about is that I do not carry the cancer gene and my girls won’t get it.” (Or at least our odds were lessened.)
A couple of months later, my parents vacationed in Hawaii. Before leaving, a few tests were given to my mom – but no answers provided. My parents decided they wanted to enjoy their trip – and not know the results, which they assumed were bad. Upon their return, we were shocked and elated to learn the news was good and that the cancer was gone. My mom was in remission. She called me screaming and laughing on the phone. She said the radiologist gave her the report and told her not to read it. She didn’t listen. How could she? She started reading the document as she walked out of the hospital. She read the report: “No sign of the cancer…” She cried and she called my dad to tell him. Then, all of us. She thought that this was it – that things were going to get better for her, for all of us.
Unfortunately, the results were wrong or temporary. And only months later – the cancer was back. It had not just returned; it had come back with a vengeance. The cancer was in her back, ribs and neck – and in bones located critically close to important organs. The doctors kept repeating: “The cancer can’t kill you if it is in your bones. We are in trouble when it spreads to other organs.”
Disney Wedding Together
In May of 2008, the whole family went to Orlando, FL for my cousin Brandon’s wedding. We all stayed together in a little condo just outside Disney. It was something that I could only dream up – my parents were downstairs, Lindsay, Rich, the boys, Michael and me upstairs. On the wedding night, we took picture after picture of our family, together in the chapel, the ballroom and then dancing. We somehow knew that these were going to be lasting pictures. The pictures of my mom were beautiful. Even though because of the medicine she was thin from not eating, she was still beautiful in every way. Her brown eyes were dark and they were mesmerizing. During the entire night my mom took pictures of me, my dad, Michael, Lindsay, etc. dancing. She was loving it. It was her role – the one she had when I was growing up…taking pictures of us kids, in front of old fancy cars, on the beach, in trees, and on the track/fields. She was a fantastic photographer. I don’t have a million pictures of my mom and me today; However, I know almost every picture of me, or my siblings that was ever taken – had my mom’s hands on it, as she was the one clicking the camera.
One week later – my mom and dad returned to Orlando for a friend’s daughter’s wedding. On the way back my mom’s eye started to act up – it was no longer closing properly. Next, the whole side of her face was frozen – no longer moving. When I saw her that weekend, I was shocked – not expecting the change. It was later that week that my mom checked in the hospital. She wasn’t feeling well and because of her face, they thought it was time. My dad called me and I immediately drove to see her. Michael, me, Lindsay, Rich and my dad sat around the bed where my mom was laying. We knew it was bad. My mom didn’t look strong. I didn’t understand how it had happened so fast – she was okay just weeks earlier and now things had changed so quickly. My dad told us the cancer was aggressive and it had moved to my mom’s skull. It was causing pressure to on her brain and her face was paralyzed as a result. The doctor thought that by giving my mom radiation she would improve and she did. But it was clear that the improvement would be temporary.
The first thing my mom said to me was that I needed to go to Israel. I had been scheduled to go to Israel in August as part of a free “birthright” trip for 18 to 26 year olds. I was thinking how I couldn’t go and that I didn’t want to go. I would never forgive myself if my mom got sicker and I wasn’t around. But my mom begged me to go. The doctor confirmed that it was a good idea for me to go. My mom said she wanted to see my pictures after I returned. I ultimately agreed and know now it was the right decision – because the emails from my mom I have over the two weeks that are my most treasured possessions.
I returned from Israel in mid-July and my mom was waiting for me at the airport. It reminded me of college – how every summer and winter break when I would come home – mom would be waiting for me. I always complained to my mom that she wasn’t as showy as the other moms…How she didn’t send me care packages in the mail with candy, stuffed animals and cards…Instead I received boxes filled with vitamins of all types that would help me feel better, run better, get stronger. My mom would do anything to make my life easier, to make it better. She didn’t do it because it was cutesy or fun. She did it all for a reason. We walked from the airport to where my dad was waiting for us. We went home and in the car I told my mom and dad about my adventures in Israel.
Kyle’s first birthday party. Yellow, glasses.
Lindsay planned a first birthday party for her second child, Kyle, close to his birthday in mid-August after I had returned from Israel. Mom showed up wearing sunglasses to cover up her left eye that wasn’t closing properly, which she was embarrassed about. Her skin and eyes had turned yellow – her liver was failing we were told. I spent the birthday sitting near my mom. We sat on the couch together; I crouched near her seat at the table. Dad said that Mom’s last goal was to make it to Kyle’s first birthday party. We had also booked a cruise for the following month (early September) of which I fully assumed mom would make it to. Mom told dad that she wanted us to go on the cruise regardless – and to not cancel it because of her. Dad agreed. A friend of Lindsay’s took the last picture of my mom and me at Kyle’s birthday.
The last few weeks….
The most important thing I did before my mom’s death was move in with my parents for about two weeks. I was there at the end, and while it was emotional, hard and devastating at times, I will never forget those moments and being there for my mom. While she had trouble showing her love, because she was consumed with pain and sadness, she knew I was there for her, and I know that made her feel good. Those last two weeks were the hardest of my life. Day by day – things seemed to get worse. It went from my mom being tired and laying in bed all day; to sleeping for the majority of the time and only getting up for short spurts; to laying there and not speaking at all except to cry in pain; to no longer being able to get out of bed – even with assistance; to finally being unable to respond.
August 30, 2008
My mom died Saturday, August 30. It was 10pm at night. I had just gone to sleep a few minutes earlier when my dad came into the room that I was staying in and said “Melissa – she’s gone. Mom just passed.” I ran into the room and cried, sitting next to her bed. My dad then called Lindsay and Rich. Lindsay raced over immediately. Rich stayed with the kids. Michael asked not to be told if mom passed until the next morning. My dad called the funeral director – and they came to take mom away. Lindsay and I cried together. My grandma (mom’s mom), who had also been staying at my parents’ house for the prior few weeks, came in and cried with us. Grandpa stayed in his room. Reality had finally set in.
Days earlier when the Rabbi had visited the house, he mentioned how four people speaking could get lengthy. My dad, Lindsay, Michael and I all wanted to say something – our own words, our own memories of our mom. The four of us saying something special in our own unique way turned out to be the most beautiful way to remember her. We expressed the love we had for mom and the love she had for us. I asked the Rabbi to read the following passage from an email my mom had sent me while I was in Israel…Some of her most emotional words came through in writing on that trip.
I just love you so much, you have grown to be a wonderful loving mature daughter. G-d has already indeed blessed me more than I could ever imagine. I am so indebted to him for all he has given me. I really mean that. You 3 kids are everything to me, you are all my most amazing accomplishments. No matter what else I have done, my children are the true successes and major achievements of my life, always remember that.
The words were haunting…and summed up my mom’s life and the love she gave us all everyday. She would absolutely do anything for us and give anything for us. That was her priority – and we felt it everyday.
My dad, Lindsay, Michael and I were then given the chance to speak. Following were my words…
My mom for many of you was a friend, a consult and a resource. But to me, this woman that we celebrate today was much more. My mom was and is everything to me. She is the first person I call when I get a raise or a promotion at work; the first person I describe those first date butterflies to; the first person I call when my car blows out a tire and I’m stuck on the side of I 95; the first person I cry to, laugh with and celebrate life with. My mom has been more than a mother to me. She has been my best friend, my confidant and my person that I can tell anything and say anything to.
When I think about what life will be like tomorrow, or next week – waking up, going to work, going to Pei Wei for lunch, running in a 5k race, attending one of our big Sunday family brunches, going to my parents’ house for the weekend – and not having my mom there waiting for me, smiling at me, hugging me and all-around just being with me – is unimaginable.
For those of you that know our family, you know that we are close…beyond close. There is no one that I’d rather spend my birthday with, New Years Eve with, a Caribbean cruise with – than my family – my parents. The ongoing joke in our family for the past few years has been that my mom and dad can’t get away from us…that the problem isn’t the parents following their kids – it’s us following them. That’s how amazing and special my parents are – and always will be to me.
I can remember high school and my mom waking me up before I left for school to cook me breakfast and make me lunch. My mom and dad watched every high school track and cross country race I was in. My dad yelled and videotaped me running; while my mom took hundreds of pictures of me and my teammates – running, posing, candids, everything…in fact she and the photo manager at what was then Eckerd’s in Boca Raton became close friends. Every week the photo lab knew to expect my mom and her three plus rolls of film that needed to be developed. My mom did more than that. She would drive to the Sun Sentinel and Boca News offices to ask for the original screens of newspaper articles I was in so she could frame them and hang them on my bedroom walls. And they are still hanging in my parents’ house today.
And then in college – when I was far away in Rhode Island – and my mom in FL – she would come and visit me for full weekends and we’d spend every moment together – shopping, eating out, going to Borders for coffee, and walking around the streets of Providence. One of my mom’s favorite stories was when we walked into Ocean’s – a bagel shop and café on Brown’s campus – and the guy at the counter took a double take at us and was speechless, saying we looked like twins.
The stories that I could tell you are endless…my mom was one-of-a-kind and everyone that had the opportunity to meet her knew that. One of the most amazing qualities of my mom was her want and willingness to do anything to help her children – to fix a problem, to help us, to make things better and to give us the tools and support to succeed. My mom has jumped in the car to drive half way across Florida to pick me up when I called and told her I needed her; when my tire blew out, she parked her SUV behind my car on the shoulder of I 95 to protect me from passing vehicles until the cops arrived; she has stood up for me countless times – specifically once in fourth grade when a teacher punished me and made me clean the cafeteria floors; she has slept by my side in my old West Palm Beach apartment after it was flooded by the hurricanes; my mom has taken me on a week long vacation to the west coast of Florida for some one-on-one time – just me and her – in the sun…why? Because I needed it. And my mom knew it.
As my dad describes her – she is a lion – and she protected Lindsay, Michael and I as if we were her cubs. We have always been number one to her. We were her priority and she has always made us feel it.
I can’t tell you how many wonderful afternoons my mom and I have spent together – at Sweet Tomatoes, Pei Wei, Starbucks, Petsmart, Banana Republic, the mall, or Barnes and Noble talking, laughing and just being with one another. The two of us have been inseparable – spending hours in the mall, trying on clothing in Banana, and modeling it for each other. The salespeople always giggled with us when we came into the store and I know it’s because they saw how special and rare our relationship was… How lucky we were and are to have each other.
You see – I know I am lucky. I consider myself to be the luckiest person in the world – for the life that I have lived so far and for the 26 years of love, of time, of care, of support, of trust, of teaching, of guidance – from my mom. She is absolutely the most amazing person in the world that I know.
When we were little – my mom would watch Little House on the Prairie with us…in fact I was named after Melissa Gilbert – the actress who played Sarah Ingles. And I can remember one of our favorite episodes…when one of the characters “Julia Sanderson” died…she asked the Reverend to read something at her funeral –something that affected us both…she said:
“Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I’ll remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all.”
And that is what I keep telling myself now…that I have a choice. To spend the rest of my life sad for what I am missing out on – for the life experiences, dreams and moments going forward that mom won’t be here for physically…or thanking god and smiling for the time that I’ve had, for the life I’ve had and for my mom. Because I truly believe that my relationship with my mom and the amount of love that we have shared will hold me forever…
Mommy, I love you. And I thank you for being the person you are, the mother you have been, and for the person you have helped me become. My only hope is that I continue to make you proud…and that you watch down on me forever. I love you.
Love Always, Melissa
Days later, I remember my colleague Yalmaz Siddiqui writing me and telling me it was the most beautiful funeral he had ever been to…that our words, our memories were so well preserved and expressed.
I had to agree.