It happened in the frozen food section at my parent’s local supermarket. She could no longer keep up niceties. She was a woman melting down because she just wanted a frozen dessert. Cancer got the best of her while standing in front of the ice cream looking for Neapolitan.
Right there in aisle 5, sat a tragically beautiful woman. I was helpless to give her ice cream, or more time, or any answers about what was happening to her, but I had, in a heartbeat, grown into the daughter who could hold her and bear compassionate witness to the remainder of her life. And that's what I did.
My mother had advanced colon cancer. A surgery performed in an attempt to remove the cancer resulted in the need for a colostomy bag. There would be rounds of radiation treatment and chemotherapy to follow.
The cancer marched on, breaching boundaries and moving into her liver where it would take her life. But not before she could find purpose in cancer by agreeing to be a part of research. She was, as I remember it, part of an early trial group using a chemo-pump. The pump was a 4" x 8" device she wore in a fanny pack around her waist. It connected to a treatment port in her chest. With the pump, her treatment was delivered more slowly with less side effects and it allowed for fewer trips to the cancer center. Cancer also played to her strengths as a natural and gifted teacher. She began volunteering to help other people with colostomy bags learn to take care of themselves.
The way my mother negotiated cancer taught me there is no part of my person or my challenges too awful that it can't be used as a meaningful path to service. I saw I only needed to play to my strengths to face my fears or shortcomings. Anything I’m willing to face becomes a means to be of service.
Before my mother’s diagnosis I had little confidence in myself or anything I did. I repeatedly sabotaged my efforts and opportunities. But from the melt down to her death bed, my mother’s examples saved my life.
Two weeks after laying her to rest, I returned to college at age 32, to complete my undergraduate degree. I went from dropout to graduating magna cum laude. I continued my education to become the first legally blind visual artist to receive an MFA from the University of Michigan.
Every step of the way I used (and still use) challenges and character defects as the compost for my strengths to find ways to grow possibilities I share with others. I created my business, ProNagger, out of my own challenges. I started ProNagger because I know there are people, like me, who have valuable things to offer and can’t get them done and/or out into the world because of some type of emotional paralysis. The same kind of paralysis that once crippled me more than any visual impairment could. Please don’t let anything cripple you too. We need your special kind of goodness in the world.
Rachel Z Cornell
Currently in Michigan, in the United States
PS: While I was writing this email, a friend, the beautifully honest poet, Ilyse Kusnetz passed away. I’m crying as I type this. Her most recent works integrate love and cancer and dying into brilliant poems and prose, because writing was her strength. Her words will resonate in hearts and minds forever.