My Mom Brings a Flash of Light Through Darkness

Max Gongaware | Apr 17, 2020 | Stories

When my mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in late 2016, she was given an estimated 36 months to live. If you’re doing the math at home, well… I’d prefer not to finish that sentence.

I want to be clear: All things considered, my mom is doing really well right now. She’s still on her first course of treatment. She’s still working. She’s still judging me appropriately for shaving my beard down to a mustache while quarantined during the COVID-19 crisis. I’m not really sure if this will make sense, but she’s still at a place where, when my friends ask how she’s doing, I’m not entirely clear on what to say. Maybe the best metaphor is that we’re in a continuous state of “calm before the storm.” We don’t know when the storm is coming, but it’s going to be a bad one. Might as well take advantage of the good weather while we can.

And that’s essentially what I expressed last time I wrote about my mom: Cherishing Every Moment. And as I’m sure you can imagine and empathize with, the moment-cherishing is a bit hard to come by right now, given the global pandemic.

I haven’t seen my mom since Thursday, March 12. It was the day the remainder of the ACC Basketball Tournament in my mom’s hometown of Greensboro, N.C. was canceled. Instead of spending the day together in the Greensboro Coliseum, we took a ride down Cornwallis Dr. and spent the afternoon on a park bench across the street from her childhood home. And we talked.

It was a trap.

Before long, she (expertly) turned the conversation to the elephant in the room: My mom has stage IV cancer. She’s not going to beat it. How am I handling that?

One of the traits I admire most in my mom is her poise. For as long as I can remember, I’ve watched her prepare for and deliver challenging speeches, deal with difficult personal and professional situations, keep calm despite surprising circumstances, and power through hard conversations. I don’t think my mom has ever played chess in her life, but the strategic way in which she navigates through crises gives you the sense she’s always three moves ahead.

I aspire to have the poise that she has. But in that moment, I did not. For the first time since this all started, I cried in front of her. And it came as no surprise that as I cried (and subsequently made fun of myself for snotting everywhere), my mom remained poised, asking all the correct probing questions to move the conversation forward. We talked about what I was most afraid of, how she wants me to grieve, what she’s most afraid of, and (because she was being opportunistic with my feelings) how come I don’t have a girlfriend. It was exactly the conversation that was needed.

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation since then. This time of social isolation is asking a lot of us. We must remain poised. We must have – as my mom likes to say – “faith in the distance” while waiting this out. And I’m doing my best. And y’all are doing your best. But the more time I’ve had to sit around and twiddle my thumbs, the more I’m beginning to realize that I admire my mom’s poise so much because of the moments I have to juxtapose it against.

If you know my mom well, you’ve been enamored with her poise while dealing with challenging situations, but you’ve also witnessed her furiously cussing at the TV during a basketball game, and found it equally charming. Maybe you’ve admired her as she calmly dealt with a flat tire while driving from Norfolk to Raleigh, but you’ve also been infected by one of her contagious and unpredictable fits of cackling laughter. I love the woman who prepares for and delivers challenging speeches, but even more so, I admire the woman who loses her mind with glee when she sees her first lightning bug of the summer.

During our conversation on that park bench in Greensboro, my mom expressed one of her fears is that she hasn’t shared some “magical piece of wisdom” with us before she… well… I’d prefer not to finish that sentence.

Wisdom is overrated.

Give me that thing about lightning bugs. Every. Single. Time.

With Mother’s Day approaching, I know that at some point in the next few weeks, I’m going to see my first lightning bug of the season. And I’m going to think about my mom. I’m going to think of the joy she must be feeling. I’ll think about how lightning bugs present themselves in one way for the majority of their lives, but when they flash their light, that is what makes them even more special. I’m going to think about the importance of being able to see that flash of light through the darkness. I’m going to think about ways to maintain my “faith in the distance.”

And with all that thinking going on, maybe something “wise” will cross my mind after all. I’ll definitely keep you in the loop, mom.