My mother was my greatest cheerleader. She grew up without a lot of money, so she worked tirelessly when she was young to provide for herself. She wasn’t able to get a college education, so she insisted that I go. My mom wanted nothing more than to see me succeed.
In 2016, our dream came true when I enrolled in Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. But one month before I was supposed to leave home for the college dorms, my 43-year-old mother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. In an instant, my family’s world, which had previously been predictable, was now precarious and uncertain.
My mother still insisted that her diagnosis not derail my college plans, so I went. From a distance, I watched as my mother went through treatments and surgeries — all defining my college experience.
At first, I struggled to fit in with the other freshmen
When I first arrived on campus, I felt a bit like a monkey in a business suit; I was outside of my comfort zone. In this new environment, I felt reluctant to connect with other students.
For starters, I didn’t really know what to talk to them about. I wanted to talk about my mother’s chemotherapy and the final trip we took together as a family. But those stories wouldn’t exactly make me the life of the party.
My emotions around my mother’s diagnosis often weighed more heavily on my mind than worrying about fitting in with my peers. For the first semester, I opted to stay quiet and keep to myself.
I quickly realized the typical college environment doesn’t foster healthy coping mechanisms
It seemed all around me people were hooking up, drinking, and experimenting with drugs. Like many of my peers, I participated in some of these seemingly normal college activities. But in time, I realized I was leaning too much on these activities to cope — and they only functioned as a temporary respite.
I had to switch gears. I opted instead for weekend trips in Oregon’s nature, and I got involved in academic projects that inspired me. Both offered me healthier coping mechanisms. Finding these safe spaces grounded me in reality while processing the difficult events back home.
Eventually, I found the right friends who I opened up to
I started to open up to acquaintances and learned some were experiencing similar things and coping quietly, too. Society’s expectation that grief and sadness should be managed behind closed doors only discourages genuine connection.
Throughout my four years in college, I was very fortunate to find accepting friends who helped uplift me from my grief when I was ready to talk. These friends sat with me while I waited anxiously to hear the outcomes of surgeries, scans, and clinical-trial appointments.
I learned that having a “chosen family” was the most natural remedy to my loneliness. With them by my side, I was less alone, and it made me realize I shouldn’t have been so hesitant to share in the first place.
I’m glad I got to go to college and that my mother got to see me graduate
I’m grateful that I could achieve this goal before my mother passed. I am grateful for the lessons about vulnerability and connection that cancer taught me; it brought me friends who are now permanent fixtures in my life.
I am also grateful that my mother fought so courageously and that we had four treasured years together after her initial diagnosis. Most of all, I am grateful for the 21 years of love we shared in this lifetime.
I always think back to the time my mom visited me while I was in college. We shared a beautiful long weekend, eating at my favorite restaurants and walking along the Oregon coast. When she finally met all my friends I’d told her about over the phone, I could tell it made her happy.
“You’ve made a life for yourself, and you have friends who love you,” she told me on that trip. “I feel at peace to see you have all you need.”