In Sickness

by Amanda Fretheim Gates

“We need this to look forward to,” my parents said. But as I stared at my mom lying in her hospital bed, tubes coming out of her arms, looking so small and frail, I couldn’t shake my feeling of selfishness. How could I talk to her about gowns, flowers, and caterers when she’s facing such a long road ahead? How could my fiancé and I possibly spend their generous contribution when we knew how much her prescriptions cost each month? It was almost too much to take.

Jon and I were engaged two weeks earlier. We spent a week up in Alexandria, Minnesota boating, grilling, reading, and relaxing. Jon got down on one knee amongst the apple trees at the local winery. The first person I called was my mom, and she couldn’t wait to tell her friends. We made it back to town for a Father’s Day celebration with the family and when it was just the two of us with my parents at the end of the night, we talked dates, venues, and budgets.

The following weekend my mom came with us to look at our ceremony and reception site. She wasn’t feeling well, and she couldn’t walk up the stone steps to the historic library without stopping to catch her breath. When I’d seen my dad the day before, he told me his concern about her health with tears running down his cheeks. We didn’t know what it was, but something wasn’t right.

My mom was admitted to the hospital two days later with low hemoglobin and questionable test results. The doctors began to eliminate possibilities, but still couldn’t put a name to her illness. On Wednesday I missed work to be with her for two scary procedures, and what turned out to be a discussion about the “C” word. She had cancer. Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cell, was eating away at her bone marrow, amongst other things, and the time to act was now. Chemotherapy, stem cell transplants, and months of recovery were to follow.

By then, planning a wedding seemed pretty ridiculous. Life itself was way more important than place cards and programs. I wanted her to be there and I wanted her to be healthy, so maybe sooner nuptials were better? I didn’t need a big party with a lot of razzle dazzle—all I needed was Jon and those few closest to us to help seal the deal.

Jon and I went to the hospital the next day prepared with a speech. We’ll get married before any other big procedures, to ensure my mom would be well enough to attend, and they could keep their contribution. I don’t think I spoke more than two sentences before my dad had heard enough. My parents had their faith, and that’s all they needed to know that everything would be okay. Things were to go on as planned. This “look forward to” was going to get them both through these tough months ahead.

As the youngest by a lot of years and the only girl, it was just my parents and me for a long time. I was very fortunate to receive all that I did. My parents paid for my car and they covered my insurance. I called my dad when I got a flat tire or needed an oil change. My mom would offer to buy me groceries. When my roommate moved out and I just couldn’t bear to find another, my parents helped me with my mortgage every month. Despite all they handed to me, my parents also taught me a good deal about responsibility and I matured quite quickly. But, I always knew they would be there to lean on, too.

Seeing my mom in the hospital, and watching her struggle with her health over the following months, I realized my parents’ mortality. They won’t always be there. And at age twenty-four, though I was living on my own, holding a job with benefits, and preparing to marry, I finally realized my place in the world. It was time for me to switch positions, from being their child to being an adult.

These thoughts came crashing down around me during those first few weeks. I could barely talk to either of my parents on the phone without welling up inside, tears dropping from the corners of my eyes. One night soon after my mom’s diagnosis, Jon and I were grilling hamburgers for dinner before we went to watch fireworks with friends. As we sat down at the table, I started to cry and I couldn’t stop for a long time. Jon held me in his arms and let me weep.

Through his murmurings of reassurance, it hit me that, without knowing it, I had already made the switch. While the two people who raised me would be around as long as they could, the person holding me was the one I would turn to now. By saying yes to Jon’s proposal, I was making a step toward a partnership of my own. I could use all that I learned by watching my parents’ marriage over the years and emulate that in my own, thus making their love truly everlasting. I’m thankful every day for the man in my life; I wouldn’t have made it through that summer without him. Months before he stood in front of me to say them, he lived up to our marriage vows.

Throughout the next several months the wedding planning continued alongside my mom’s treatment. When I was trying on gowns, my mom was ballooning up from the steroids. When we were taste-testing dinners and desserts, my mom was losing her appetite. When we were addressing invitations, my mom’s kidneys were failing her. And when we were designing a seating chart, she started dialysis. But through all her doctor visits and hospital stays, she had the wedding to talk about. Her nurses asked for updates and her doctors knew what she had to get better for. Her bravery and strength amazed me.

As Jon and I danced our final dance during our wedding reception, I looked over at my mom and dad sitting alongside the dance floor, her swollen feet propped up on a chair in front of her. I thought over the past year, when the word cancer entered our family, and, thankfully, the word remission did as well; when I wasn’t sure my mom would be well enough to be there at all, let alone for the whole night. I looked at the couple whose marriage I hoped to model ours after. They were going to be around for a long time to share their love with us. Together, we looked forward to that.

Photo: Christina Richards

Amanda Fretheim Gates is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis. She fortunately had five more years with her mom before she passed in April 2011.

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