by Hannah Butman
My eyes locked on the glowing line darting across the black monitor next to my sleeping mother, lying motionless in the stiff, white hospital bed. Needles poking and prodding her every vein, tubes and wires hanging all around, my heart reached the pit of my stomach as I suddenly saw the strongest woman in my life become the weakest. As I watched her chest slowly rise and fall, I felt a small tear trickle down the side of my cheek and a lump form in the bottom of my throat. Although on the outside I tried to maintain a cool composure, on the inside every muscle of my body had melted into nothing.
I want to take you back to December 18, 2007. It was the day that served as both my biggest curse and relative blessing. I had never seen my mom cry before, so when she walked through our kitchen door tears streaming down her face, I immediately understood something was terribly wrong. I later learned news that would change my life forever, for better and for worse. My mom had been diagnosed with cancer. A high-grade liposarcoma. As a typical twelve-year old, I tried to act like it was no big deal, that I was too cool to be affected by such alarming news. But secretly deep down, visions of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgeries flooded my head creating an instant migraine.
Friends and family began showering us with concern in the form of flowers, food, cards, phone calls and anything else you could imagine. Everywhere I went I was constantly bombarded with people asking me hundreds of questions. Coming from a person who is already emotionally reserved, talking about my mom’s cancer was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. As some of you might now, I’m not an extremely shy person but when it comes to personal information, I like to keep it to myself. I told some of my closest friends but for the most part kept my mom’s cancer a secret because I didn’t want to be looked at differently by everyone I talked to. Seeing as I am someone who doesn’t particularly like to share their feelings, some of you may be wondering why I am up here on this stage today. Ever since I was a freshman, I’ve watched as other juniors and seniors braved their way onto this stage sharing personal stories or experiences that has either had an impact on their lives or made them the way they are today. Listening to them, I was inspired and promised myself before I graduate I would work up the courage to share something I’ve learned just as those students did, no matter how difficult it seemed.
Not knowing how to accept what was happening around me, I was a mess, frazzled and depressed. With my world just turned upside down, all I wanted was my life to go back to normal. While my mom and I don’t have a terrible relationship, any one of my friends can tell you we are far from perfect. Like any teenager and their parents, we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs throughout the years. We’ve argued over the stupidest little things and the big ones. I immediately thought back to all of our stupid fights wishing they had never happened and I had never taken her for granted. I had treated the most influential woman in my life with such neglect. Needless to say I was disgusted with myself. Noticing my dejected behavior, my mom sat me down and gave me an inspirational talk that immediately changed my point of view. Though I can’t remember her exact words, I walked out of that conversation with a completely different perspective on the situation at hand. I had constantly been asking myself, “Why me?” But realized the better question should be “Why not me?” After listening to her I soon realized this wasn’t a burden at all, but a sort of blessing in disguise. Something had finally taught me to stop micromanaging my entire life and instead focus on the day at hand and what time I had left with my mom. I remember thinking, is it possible for something so wrong to be so right?
My mother’s revelatory advice taught me to accept life as it is with its challenges as well as its joys. From that moment on, I viewed life with an entirely different attitude. Instead of living for the future or dwelling in the past, I began to live in the present, embracing each day as it comes. My mom’s theme song, “Live Like You’re Dying” by Tim McGraw, became my new motto as I learned to take chances and cherish opportunity. Because her cancer is reoccurring, I started living in the moment, treasuring each second I had with her like it was my last. Thoreau once said, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” My eyes have been truly opened to an entirely different perspective of life, one that would be of immeasurable value in the years to come. So I guess that’s why I’m here today, standing up here in front of you, sharing something incredibly personal to me even though it’s the last thing I’d prefer to do. This new perspective has been so helpful to me over the years I hope that by sharing it, it might help others think about difficult situations in a new way.
At six-month intervals, it becomes time for another check-up. With every check-up comes another surgery, with every surgery comes more tears, but with more tears comes another reminder; a reminder of acceptance. By living in the present, you’re living in acceptance, relishing life as it is now, not as it could or should have been. We have no control over what happens to us in life, so spending our time fighting the present is pointless. In my opinion, I’ve learned one of the most valuable lessons I could ever imagine at a considerably young age. I’m sure every one of you have had something unfortunate happen to you sometime during your life; whether it was getting rejected from your favorite college, not making the team you wanted, getting a bad grade on an important assignment, or a million other things, bad things happen to all of us. Some things, like your study habits, you can control. Other things, like a cancer diagnoses, you can’t. Sometimes life gets in the way, and sometimes it takes you in directions you never asked for or wanted. However, instead of focusing on the things you can’t control, focus on those you can, like your perspective. It’s like what Chris Waddell said when he was here earlier this year, “It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you DO with what happens to you.” I can’t make my mom’s cancer go away or take back all the fights we had, and you can’t force your favorite college to admit you. But that’s okay.
Nobody knows what my mom’s future will hold; how long till her next surgery, how long till a cure, or how long till she passes away. However, that can be said for everyone. The future is simple—it’s unpredictable. Because I am at peace with my mom’s uncertain future, I am able to focus my energy and love in the present, instead of worrying about what is yet to come. She still has cancer but she’s still fighting. There is a tumor lodged near her spleen and spine but for now we’re just waiting for it to grow larger before she goes back in for another surgery.
Although I have to acknowledge the fact that she might not be able to see me graduate from college, get married, or have kids, she is here now, and that’s all that really matters. My hero, my mentor, my blessing, my mom.