A few years ago, ohana—for me—basically meant my mom, my dad and my brother. Since losing my mother to a rare form of cancer, ohana has come to mean much more.
As a child I was constantly afraid that one day I would wake up and my mom would be dead. I remember in seventh grade waking up to my brother telling me that my mom was in the hospital yet again. She had multiple diseases that led to hospital visits, surgeries, and numerous visits to doctors.
During my junior year of high school, my fear of losing my mom was intensified. In April 2006, Mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cholangiocarcinoma—a rare cancer of the bile ducts. The doctors told her that her cancer had a very poor prognosis and that she would probably live for about a year. They told her she could try chemotherapy, but that it probably wouldn’t shrink the size of her tumors. My mom started chemotherapy on Sept. 11, 2006—just two weeks into my senior year of high school.
Throughout the next six months, as my mom received chemotherapy, I watched her independence slowly diminish. First she could no longer drive. After that the cancer took away her balance, her memory, and everything that made my mom who she was. With each new development, my fear would increase.
Every morning I would wake up and make sure that she was still here in my life, alive. Before school I would go into her bedroom and give her a kiss on the cheek. She would wake up for a second, smile, say “I love you,” and then fall right back to sleep. I wanted to make sure that if my mom died while I was gone that she would know I loved her—and that I would know I had kissed her before I left.
Throughout all of this, I was trying to live my life as a high school senior. I applied to colleges, held numerous leadership positions at my high school, and worked part time. Looking back I now recognize how alone I felt. I didn’t have any friends who had a parent with cancer; I felt like no one understood what I was going through.
In March 2007 the doctors stopped my mom’s chemotherapy as it was no longer proving beneficial. But she held on long enough to see me graduate from high school, hear my graduation speech, and celebrate my 18th birthday.
My mom’s health really began to decline that summer. She slowly became more swollen and forgot how to perform daily functions. Worst of all, she had trouble remembering who I was.
On Aug. 2, 2007—the day after her 50th birthday—I rode in the ambulance as we moved her to a nursing home. As tears streamed down her face, it suddenly hit me: My mom was never going to see our house again. She was going to die in this nursing home where all the patients appeared twice her age.
At 6:48 a.m. on Aug. 8, I awoke to my father shaking me. He had just returned from my mom’s nursing home—and told me that Mom had passed away 10 minutes before he’d arrived there.
At first I did not believe him. I was hurt and angry. The hospice nurses were supposed to let us know when she was supposed to pass. They’d said she had at least a few more weeks to live. I did not understand. I could not believe that I would never be able to hug my mom again or kiss her and tell her that I love her.
My mom’s funeral was my first funeral. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know that the family went to the funeral home in the morning before the funeral Mass. After we said our goodbyes at the funeral home, we sat in the limo and waited for them to roll my mom’s casket to where it would be placed in the hearse. I watched as these men slowly transported the casket from the church to the hearse, and I thought, My mom can’t possibly be in there.
As we walked down the church aisle with my dad in the middle—one arm around me, the other around my brother—I remember realizing, This is it. This is my family now. My mom was in the casket that was slowly moving in front of me. She really was never coming back.
After my mom’s death, I did not know what to do with myself. I did not want to sit around and cry all day—Mom would not want me to do that. Everything I saw reminded me of her and how she was no longer here. I wanted just to curl up in a ball and hope that if I prayed hard enough that maybe she could come back.
I was told that I was supposed to grieve. I was leaving for college at Vanderbilt University in less than two weeks. I had not started my dorm shopping, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to school for the fall semester. But one conversation kept playing back in my head.
Earlier that summer my mom had sat me down on the couch next to her. She told me that regardless of how she was doing, she wanted me to go to school on time, and that knowing I was at school getting closer to my dream would put a smile on her face. My dad always tells me that my mom passed when she did because she wanted me to go to college more than anything.
I knew what I had to do, but I did not know how I would be able to survive.
Move-in day at college amplified my loneliness and pain. While I was unpacking my things and trying to organize my room, some of the other girls in the dorm were complaining about how annoying their moms were and how they couldn’t wait for their moms to leave so they could decorate their rooms the way they wanted to. I felt so alone and had absolutely no idea how I was going to survive in this new environment 1,100 miles away from my family back home in Massachusetts.
A few days into the semester, I became an emotional wreck, right around the one-year anniversary of when my mom started chemo. I visited the counseling center at Vanderbilt and met with a therapist, who gave me a pamphlet about this place called Gilda’s Club—a support community for people with cancer and their families and friends.
I had never heard of the organization. Honestly, I thought my therapist was a little crazy and was trying to pawn me off on someone else. If this was such a great organization, why had I never heard of it? Why was there not one in Massachusetts where there are some of the best hospitals in the country?
I followed my therapist’s advice and went to a new-member meeting at Gilda’s Club. At the time, Gilda’s Club Nashville offered no support groups for people dealing with the loss of a parent, and I found it challenging even to get to the clubhouse. But toward the end of my first semester, as I really started to struggle with my mom’s death, I learned about Gilda’s Gang—a program started by a Gilda’s Club member, Gail Addlestone, MD’97, who died of breast cancer in 2007. The “gang” combines volunteer fundraising with a 16-week course of fitness training, which culminates in the group’s participation in the Country Music Half Marathon, held each spring in Nashville.
I thought participating in this effort would be a great way to challenge myself and to meet other people who had been affected by cancer. So, in January 2008, I joined Gilda’s Gang and started training for the Country Music Half Marathon—having never run a mile in my life.
For the next 16 weeks, I would wake up at 6:15 a.m. and walk over to Gilda’s Club for our 7 a.m. long runs. I remember how much I would struggle and question why in the world I was running 10 miles at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. But then I would remember my mom, how strong she was, and how hard she had fought for so long.
When I crossed the finish line, I was nearly in tears. My mom never would’ve believed I ran one mile, let alone 13.1 miles. I had done it all for her and to raise money for Gilda’s Club, which had helped me so much throughout that stressful year.
I decided to participate in Gilda’s Gang again in 2009 to give back to this organization that was becoming a huge part of my life—and an extension of my family. I had another incredible marathon experience with the team, even though my friends still thought I was crazy for waking up at 6:15 a.m. and my roommate didn’t really appreciate it.
A couple of weeks after the 2009 half-marathon, I was in the glass-painting group at Gilda’s with several other Gilda’s Gang participants. As we talked about how much fun we’d had during the Saturday morning runs, how we’d loved getting to know other members of the Gang, and how much fun the actual half-marathon had been, an older man who I had never met came in. His name was Mo Mantus. I learned he had been training for a half-marathon before his cancer diagnosis. He talked about how much he loved running, how he had previously completed half-marathons, and how it was his dream to do another one. He talked about how he no longer would be able to do a half-marathon on his own because he can only walk short distances.
Immediately I volunteered to push him in a wheelchair for the half–marathon, and one of the staff members agreed it could happen. Why I agreed to push a man twice my size in a wheelchair 13.1 miles is beyond me, but I guess it is kind of representative of my personality.
I spent the next few months working on finding a wheelchair and organizing a team to help me push Mo. We trained with the “gang” on Saturday mornings, and I developed a greater awareness of all the hills in Nashville. Mo made a little notecard indicating the pace we needed to maintain in order to finish in four hours. We told Mo we would get him across the finish line—but we were not promising to finish it in four hours.
April 24, 2010, is a day I will remember for the rest of my life. We were fearful about the weather throughout the race. Thunder and lightning held off until mile 11, at which point we were determined to finish. No way were we going to stop, even if we were pushing a metal wheelchair in a thunderstorm.
The rain held off just long enough for us to finish the race. Mo pushed his wheelchair across the finish line at 3:38:59. Literally, a minute after we crossed the finish line, it started to downpour.
On that day we helped make a man’s dream come true.
Gilda’s Club Nashville has provided me with more love and support than I ever thought possible. The members and staff have truly become my family. I know that anytime I need a hug, I can walk through the club’s signature red doors, and there will be at least 10 members with open arms ready to hug me.
Many of the women there remind me of my mom through their personalities, laughter and gentleness. There is now a “young adults grieving the loss of a parent” group, and during the past year and a half, I have grown close to the girls in my group. Twice a month I am able to talk about what it’s like to lose a parent to a group of people who completely understand.
That quote from Lilo & Stitch really resonates for me, now more than ever. Gilda’s has become my family, and therefore Mo has become part of my family.
So many things in life are out of my control. But helping Mo complete this race was one thing I could do to ensure that a new member of my “family” didn’t get left behind … and that my mom will never be forgotten.
Michelle Eckland is a child development major at Peabody College. She has received both the Mina Lanham Latimer Scholarship and the Jere Pinson Phillips Honor Scholarship at Vanderbilt. This essay was originally published in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center magazine, Momentum.