Several years ago, for a graduate class, I wrote a personal narrative. This is breast cancer awareness month, so to honor my mother, I'm sharing it here on the blog.
The late afternoon North Carolina sun beat down on my burnt skin. Heat shimmered off the pavement. I reluctantly crawled out of the air-conditioned car and stood in the parking lot next to the lighthouse. I felt gross. After a day at the beach, I was sunburned, windblown, had sand in my shoes and that itchy feeling that comes from swimming in saltwater. My two boys, then eight and five, were tired and whiny.
“Why do we have to stop? We can see the lighthouse from the road.”
“I’m thirsty. I want to go to the pool.”
I explained for what seemed like the fiftieth time, “Because this is what Grandmom wants to do. You got to play on the beach all day. Grandmom wants to see the lighthouse.”
Actually, I was thirsty too, and the cool water of the pool sounded a lot more inviting than the inside of a musty old lighthouse. But my mom loved lighthouses. She collected little lighthouse figurines with the strict criteria that she displayed only the ones she had personally visited. My whole family vacationed on the Outer Banks every summer, but for some reason we hadn’t managed to visit the Currituck Lighthouse, even though it was the closest lighthouse to where we stayed. This year my mother was determined to visit it.
Two months earlier, my mom had been told that the breast cancer which had been “gone” for two years had spread to her liver and the bones in her right hip. She was in the sixth week of an eight-week chemotherapy cycle and would be flying home early to receive her weekly IV cocktail of cancer drugs.
She stood looking up at the stately red brick structure.
“I want to go to the top,” she announced.
“Do you think you can make it?” I asked anxiously.
My mom was a strong woman. Her quiet will and determination were legendary in my family, but I knew her hip had been bothering her, and she was weakened by the chemotherapy. My chest tightened as I imagined her slipping on the narrow staircase.
“I want to go to the top,” she repeated firmly. “Bruce can follow me in case I slip. It’ll take a while, but I can do it.”
I sighed. Of course, the decision had been made the moment she announced her desire to go to the top. The kids were delighted by the idea. Suddenly, the lighthouse seemed more exciting, an adventure to be had. They raced ahead with my brother and his daughter. My mom started slowly up the iron staircase with me in front of her and Bruce behind.
It was excruciatingly slow. She stepped up with her left foot, grabbed the rail with her left hand, and then painfully pulled her cancer-riddled right hip up to the next step. She labored up and around that spiral staircase. Step, grab, pull. Throngs of people passed us, and the kids went up and down twice as we slowly wound our way to the top. We didn’t talk much. Mom was concentrating all of her energy on the next step. Step, grab, pull. Two hundred fifteen times she repeated that painful process.
I was so caught up in the rhythm of the climb, looking behind at Mom instead of ahead to the top, that it took me a bit off-guard when we finally reached it. I stepped out of the damp, dark lighthouse and onto the platform. The sun shone brilliantly, blinding me for a moment as it reflected off the waters of the Currituck Sound to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The din of voices and the sound of people clamoring up the iron staircase were abruptly silenced, replaced by the steady rush of the wind.
Mom limped to the rail and gazed for a long time at the sea. To the stranger’s eye, I’m sure she appeared small, weight and hair lost to the harshness of chemotherapy. I have never seen anything as strong and beautiful as my mother in that moment.
She smiled at me and said, “I made it.”
I wondered how I could have ever doubted she would. Her reverie was eventually interrupted by her three grandchildren as they ran over to show her all the things they could see from the lighthouse. She was as excited as they were, pointing out every familiar landmark on the narrow island. Finally, it was time to go back down. The descent was slow, but somehow it didn’t seem as hard. Mom was energized by her achievement and its reward.
Mom made it back to the Outer Banks two more times and added the Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island Lighthouses to her collection. Throughout my life, my mother taught me the value of setting goals and working hard to achieve them, but never was the lesson more powerful than when I stood next to her at the top of that lighthouse.
I keep a picture of the Currituck Lighthouse on my living room wall and my mother’s strong steady light in my heart.