I moved home when my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer last fall. My mom had no idea she was sick until severe stomach pain sent her to the ER, where a doctor wrote it off as passing gallstones and dismissed her to see a primary care doctor for a follow-up. A week later, our family doctor captured the first glimpse of a growing tumor during a precautionary ultrasound. 6cm by 5.9cm, these are the exact measurements that began an earth-shattering odyssey of my favorite person in the world being diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer on August 11, her birthday. It wasn’t much of a celebration, and I returned to NYC to finish out the workweek. As I busied myself at the magazine where I was working, pulling make up samples and sending emails, there wasn’t much on my mind other than my mom’s newly revealed death sentence.
“I can’t stand here picking out lipsticks knowing my mom is so sick.” I remember saying to a coworker… I couldn’t be anywhere but with my best friend.
I moved home the following Monday, and as the weeks stretched on I turned 24 and my mom began her chemo treatments for palliative care. Her hair fell out, and I ripped mine out, as we adjusted to family life with cancer. There were good days, and lots of bad days, which eventually made the really good days feel like miracles. We even managed a trip across the country to California so my mom could visit my Nana and uncles. I started a part time job consulting on the media plan for a new women’s activewear line, and my mom had a steady influx of caring visitors to cheer her up. We learned the set patterns of how chemotherapy affected my mom– when to giver her tylenol or ibuprofen for fevers and what days would be her best or her worst. Life seemed to be adjusting to this new disaster. We even had good news in early November when her first scan showed the cancer was holding stable, amazing!
But as the holidays hit, it was obvious my mama wasn’t up for her normal supermom activities like: decorating & redecorating the house, ringing the bell for the Salvation Army, shopping the perfect presents for my dad, brother & I, and of course, baking EVERYTHING for EVERYONE in town. When diagnosed with cancer, so many big things are lost, and so are lots of little things. It sounds vain to worry about hair loss and baking cookies when dealing with a terminal disease, but cancer takes away not only a loved one’s health but also so much of his or her identity as a healthy person. I shouldered her holiday checklist and did my best to pick up the pieces when she felt too tired to finish a project. Despite my lack of prowess and confidence in the kitchen, I jumped into helping her with Thanksgiving dinner, and I even took on the making of the pies. Living in NYC, I had worked for a couple of women’s fashion magazines, People StyleWatch and Allure… back then my mind was continuously focused on fashion week, eyeshadow palettes, season previews, setting up run throughs, and working with little to no thoughts of food or sleep. My studio apartment didn’t even have an oven, (which would have been handy for storing clothes.) Something sparked in me, though, the day I made those mini pumpkin pies. I topped each one with hand-drawn cutouts of pumpkins and fall leaves using the leftover pie dough… it was my first taste of creative freedom since leaving my life in the city.
The next few months were a blur of stumbling through hard times as a caregiver and amateur cancer researcher, by day, and then baking all kinds of treats ranging from my family’s favorite Christmas cookies to mini Mascarpone cheesecakes or broiled cinnamon rolls, by night. I’d tuck my mama in by 8-8:30pm, and then I’d bake. Sometimes, I would keep going until 5am and crawl into my bed exhausted as well as lightly dusted in powdered sugar. I grew more and more fascinated by different buttercream frosting recipes and what the heck a “sponge” meant within the food realm. Baking took my mind off things, like how much my heart was breaking to see my mama laying on the couch all day, and it kept me from crying all night, which was a bad habit I’d fallen prey to for coping. Plus, as a bonus it was an outlet for all my built-up workaholic, artistic energy. I began taking on new challenges to push myself in learning ambitious skills and to also allow baking to creep into my limited daytime hours. Our home care nurse, who was a nun, kept coming back for more of my intricately decorated angel sugar cookies to bring to her sisters. She called them works of art. Our family church asked women of the congregation to donate a couple pies to the annual men’s dinner, so I delivered a variety of ten, (I also choked back my inner-New Yorker who cursed about how super sexist the ways of suburbia are… men’s dinner, really?) For a neighbor’s Hanukah celebration I ventured into blue & white cupcake decorating, a jewelry fundraiser hosted for pancreatic cancer research prompted me to craft 50 purple ribbons out of fondant, and there was ALWAYS a reason for CAKE.
My new hobby continued well past Christmas, with every holiday serving as a welcomed excuse for me to bake treats, including: my first three-tier cake for the Super Bowl… or as I like to call it, the lumpy-layered, green cake with a potato-shaped topper. I began baking my family out of house and home, with quite the cookie stockpile going, so my dad suggested we start handing out cookies to patients during my mom’s chemo treatments. The undeniable joy we saw in the eyes of so many brave, cancer-fighting warriors, their caregivers and our sweet nurses inspired my dad and I to keep brainstorming what we could bring in for everyone the following week. We relished in how quickly the cookies would disappear if set out in the waiting room and looked forward to handing them out room by room together.
All those darn-good tasting cookies… they were a little bit of light in a dark valley.