At the risk of sounding perverse, one of my pet peeves is reading "after a courageous battle with cancer" in nearly every obituary involving a cancer-caused death. I do not doubt the claim; it just seems a little too formulaic.
Breast cancer took my mother 25 years ago. She was in her early 50s. She fought it with every fiber of her being for about 10 years, at a time when treatment was relatively primitive, and I remain as amazed by her strength now as I was back then.
Growing up (rebellious teen that I was), I'd never seen my mother as strong. She was instead that woman who wouldn't let me play Grateful Dead records at home or wear blue jeans to school (even though "everyone else was doing it"), and disapproved of every one of my girlfriends.
My perception changed 100 percent after she was diagnosed with cancer. My mother had always been a very law-abiding woman; once she got cancer, she became a regular law breaker. She went to both Germany and Mexico for treatment that was then illegal in the U.S. and even arranged to have cancer drugs smuggled back from Germany after she left that country.
She challenged the medical establishment with a vigor that belied the illness in her, and she seemed to relish those battles. I believe that the conduct of those battles did as much to improve her quality of life in her latter years as did any cancer treatment she received.
Now I am battling advanced-stage throat cancer. I don't know whether I'm courageous, but I have become quite reflective since my diagnosis and treatment, and when I feel a little weak, I reflect upon how she conducted herself during her own fight.
At those times, my weakness shames me a little. My mother and I were not always close, but we'd reconciled just before I learned of her illness (she withheld that information from me for a while, afraid I'd "run away" again). We had amazing, deep conversations in those days. She once told me that I'd driven her crazy back then but that now she understood what I was doing and that just as I had rebelled against parental authority, she was rebelling against the "authority" of cancer's death sentence.
She never lost sight of what was really important to her, the simplest of things: her love for her children and her faith. Even though this Christian God she so fervently revered had allowed these malignant cells to invade her body, she never lost that faith.
Even as her body withered away, as the pain and morphine rendered her virtually speechless, she projected that amazing strength, and the memory of that strength comforts me greatly during those inevitably difficult days every cancer patient knows so well. As she passed, so shall I pass, and thanks to her, I have absolutely no fear of that day.
Is that courage? I don't know. I do know this: My mother was the most courageous person I've ever known.
James S. Severson is an aspiring writer and a New England transplant who moved to Boise six years ago.