I was encouraged to write a blog about a mother and her sons by a friend of mine who began reading my blog about a year ago. I have avoided it until now not because I didn’t want to write it but I knew the complete emotional fortitude it would take for me to pen my feelings about my two sons. Mother’s Day will be celebrated soon. I love Mother’s Day because of my sons but writing this blog is appropriate each day I am a mother to these two amazing and imperfectly perfect men.
What they have been asked to do as sons is beyond what anyone would want their children to go through but these two stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the ball park when it came to taking care of me not once, but twice during breast cancer and through reconstruction. The first time they were so young; too young. Our oldest son was 2,300 miles away and a freshman in college with no cell phone. We had to call security police to pull him out of class and tell him the news via a pay phone call.
It was gut wrenching and tearful but we knew we had to find him and tell him. My throat tightens thinking about that moment because I wasn’t there and wouldn’t see him for another two months until we flew him home for spring break. There were moments of silence on the other end of the phone as we tried to tell him what we thought he needed to know. I know he was trying furiously to think of details and questions to ask while he stood there alone at that stupid pay phone. Tears rolling down my face, these words rolled over and over again in my head, “This is not fair, this is not fair!”
Our youngest son was only fourteen and in the eighth grade. I found out I had breast cancer early in the morning that fateful day via a phone call. Although my husband drove home from work at break neck speeds to be with me, we decided to let our youngest son finish out his school day and tell him when he got home. That wait for both of us was grueling as we watched the clock until the bus dropped him off and he opened the front door. When he walked in he knew by the grim look on our faces that something was off.
He is and has been one of the most observant individuals I have known and he was already interpreting that he was going to be told something terrible. When we told him, all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around him, but he went immediately upstairs to process the information. He needed to be alone and understand what just happened to him and I had to respect that. When he finally came back downstairs he had a lot of questions but one always stands out in my mind. He asked what my chances of survival were. I told him because I caught my cancer early the doctors gave me a 95% chance. He looked at me and said, “Why can’t they say 100%?” I think I received some divine intervention at that very moment and without a pause I replied, “Because they are not God and they can’t say 100%. You pray to God really hard for 100%.”
Memories of my oldest son during my first diagnosis.
At nineteen years old he drove by himself from Washington state to Texas, over 2,300 miles, in a soft-top jeep with only the two seats in front and no air conditioning to be with me to help with my treatments that summer. I had been through two rounds of chemo and my hair was gone the day he pulled into the driveway. I had on a bandana the day he walked in our house from that road trip. He had not seen me bald yet and the first thing he said when he walked in was, “Take it off Momma. Let’s see it.” I did and with that he smiled, rubbed my bald head and said, “Where’s the olive oil? Let’s grease you up.”
He would drive me 45 minutes each way for my chemotherapy treatments so that my husband wouldn’t have to take days off work. I was treated at MD Anderson and they were quite accommodating when it came to making their patients comfortable for chemo. They would put you in recliners and give you warm blankets and something cool to drink while you watched the toxicity drip into your veins. My oldest son was so laid back and part of why I actually enjoyed having him along for these not so pleasant trips. He always tried to lighten things up for Momma. That particular day he took a seat in the recliner first not thinking I was the one who was going to be in that chair. The nurse looked at him and said, “You’re welcome to stay in that chair but if you don’t get out I have to give you the chemo.” He jumped up pretty quick but we were both laughing pretty hard at that point.
He had to take off at the end of July. He was in military reserves at the time and had to be back for his two week training before he started back to fall classes at college. By the time he left I only had one more round of chemo but I was an ashen gray and had lost a lot of weight at that point. Watching him pack up was emotionally exhausting knowing he had to make that road trip back alone. This is the photo we took that day he left. As he pulled out of the driveway he flashed the grin that to this day, each time I have to tell him good bye I always see. That’s just how we roll!
Memories of my youngest son during my first diagnosis.
His older brother would drive me the distance into MD Anderson for my treatments but my youngest son kicked in when I was back at home. He kept a quiet, tender, watchful eye on me when it was just the two of us at home. I remember one night in particular after my last treatment. We were both truly happy they were over but as I said, at the end I felt and looked like I had been put through the ringer.
This particular evening I was lying on the couch and my fever began to climb. Earlier in the summer we had to suddenly leave a weekend trip and drive through the night to get me to MD Anderson because I developed a neutropenic fever. I had to be hospitalized for four days. That memory was playing back in his mind that evening. It was early August and we were having one of our frequent summer thunderstorms in Texas. There were threats of flooding in downtown Houston. Our oldest son was gone at this point and my husband was still downtown at work. We were 45 minutes north of Houston and my youngest son kept checking my forehead and asking me to take my temperature. Driving in to MD Anderson that night was out of the question. It was just the two of us. I did what I could to reassure him but he was my caretaker that night and did it with courage and determination. My fever stabilized but that’s what this young gentleman had to deal with. Again, not fair, not fair!
I do, however, remember a brighter moment on the last day of my treatments. I had finished my eighteen weeks of chemo and six weeks of daily radiation. I wanted him to be there with me and my husband to celebrate this day. It was a school day. I called the office to let them know why we pulled him out of school and it was not a problem for them at all. At MD Anderson, when you finish your final day of treatments you ring a bell in celebration. I wanted him there for that moment and here is the photo of that sweet memory. We went to lunch afterwards and savored every sweet minute together and championed everything he did for me that long, arduous summer.
Not Once but Twice
Fast forward twelve years to the day I found out about my recurrence through a yearly mammogram. I was alone that day. My husband was overseas on a business trip. Our oldest son was now newly married to my beautiful daughter-in-law and living 1,500 miles away from us. Our youngest son was living at home with us and carrying a heavy load of hours getting a second degree after returning from teaching English overseas for a year. I think being alone gave me a certain bit of grit, steel in my back that day. I cried briefly when the radiologist told me she highly suspected it was cancer. I was alone the day I walked into my breast surgeon’s office a few days later to confirm that it was cancer. I was OK that day. Maybe I was also very distracted because that is also the day she told me about DIEP flap breast reconstruction. I’ll admit I was gob smacked by the very notion of using my own tissue to rebuild my breasts that she told me she was going to have to remove. I had never heard of such a procedure and the thought of it was a good distraction for me.
My courage and strength was short-lived and I would need the strong shoulders of these now grown sons yet again. We found out a few short days later following some scans that were ordered that I was diagnosed stage IV metastatic. I still haven’t written a blog about that day and it will take some time to do so. It was the single darkest day of either diagnosis for any of us. Again, I had to tell my oldest son over the phone. This time, there weren’t enough tissues to wipe away my tears. My husband stood helplessly by as he watched me choke out the news to our oldest son.
My youngest son described those few days after we found out as “mind altering”. But the diagnosis would be retracted after films from seven years previous were sent to my oncologist to compare some lesions that were spotted on my spine. Those lesions hadn’t changed in seven years. The stage IV diagnosis was retracted, monitored and to this day, no changes. That’s the happy ending to that very dark day that my sons had to go through.
Mother’s Day 2012 was one of the sweetest days ever, thanks to my two sons. My generous husband made reservations to take us all to brunch that day. I was scheduled to have my double mastectomy the following week. I walked out of the bedroom that morning dressed and ready to go out with the gentlemen in my life. Our sweet daughter-in-law couldn’t be with us but I think she knew in her heart she needed her husband, my oldest son, to be with me that day. My two sons had presented me with this beautiful bouquet of red roses. We went to brunch and enjoyed the morning and I will always treasure this photo standing between these two strong men, my sons.
My oldest son would have to leave the day before my mastectomy but he would return just one week later to help with my recovery so my husband again did not have to miss much work and his younger brother could finish up those crucial final days of his course work. I could only think about the generosity of my daughter-in-law, my son leaving his new bride behind to be there for me.
Our new mantra, and with our daughter-in-law now a member, we dubbed ourselves, Team Coutee. The day I had my mastectomy, I handed a picture of all us, Team Coutee, to my breast surgeon and asked her to please put it up somewhere in the OR as she worked to remove the vessels that held the breast cancer. I wanted to be surrounded by their strength!
The men in my life kicked in to help out with recovery from my mastectomy but it was a tough day when our oldest left to go back home. I remember that day and wouldn’t take my sun glasses off for this photo because, well, Momma’s cry when their sons leave. I still had my drains in that lovely black bag and was wearing my favorite plaid shirt to hide my now amputated breasts.
Let’s fast forward to happy endings because who doesn’t love a happy ending? They saw me through two cancer diagnosis and breast reconstruction. None of us signed up for those tasks but, because that’s what we do, Team Coutee made it through! You might notice, and for no apparent reason, I interchangeably use the word “my” and “our” in this blog referring to our boys.
The Very Pulse of my Heart
These two wonderful sons are the very pulse of my heart. They are strong, crazy-fun to be with, imperfectly perfect, smart, hard working and the best part of what being a Momma symbolizes. I write this with several tissues sitting beside my computer because although it was difficult to write, I have shared some of the sweetest moments of my life with these two. They make me laugh, stir up my Irish temper on occasion, occasionally beat me in our all time favorite family game, backgammon, and best of all, their legacy lives on in what they have become as citizens and oh yes, my beautiful new grandson. I am forever surrounded by men and I love it!
Thanks for stepping up to the plate and knocking it out of the ball park with love that only the three of us will ever know!
I love you both to the moon and back ~ Momma
Terri Coutee is the founder of http://diepcjourney.com/. Her blog provides resources along with a personal account of her own breast reconstruction. While working on her M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership, Terri was diagnosed for the second time with breast cancer. She turned her years of being an educator into a purposeful life becoming an advocate for breast reconstruction options after mastectomy. She has taken a keen interest in the passage of the Breast Cancer Patient Education Act. She actively participates in social media administering an on-line support group, sharing evidence based research and engaging in community activities that support breast cancer and breast reconstruction. You can find her on Twitter @6state or on Pinterest and Instagram @tgcoutee.