Let’s talk about 2016!! Because, for real, until recently, it had been awhile since my last blog! Judging by my lack of being the best at blogging here at Echo by Design, you might have questioned whether or not I was still photographing weddings here in the Dayton and surrounding areas. I can’t blame you, as I was pretty quiet this last year.
Can I be real with you for a minute?
I didn’t live up to the best goals that I had planned for the better part of 2016. I vowed last year was going to be different. I was SO excited to be putting myself on a schedule to rock n’ roll through blogging and totally crush my social media presence.
But that didn’t happen.
My OCD self even had topics picked out, something to talk about each day and written neatly in on the calendar for the month. Twelve pretty sheets printed out and ready for the year. Because let’s be honest, that was the only way I would keep myself accountable with two small kiddos.
I was off to a good start for the year, finding my groove, and being challenged in 6 weeks of crazy with back-to-back weddings! Two of those being destinations with one right after the other in Pennsylvania and then in Northern Michigan! I was on a wedding high and loving every single travel minute!
And then life got messy. Real. Messy.
Right before I left for Michigan, my Dad’s best friend suddenly passed from a massive heart attack. My parents were crushed. Meanwhile, my Grandma had been placed in the hospital, on the verge of needing kidney dialysis. Worried that her body was beginning to fail her, we returned from Michigan, unsure if we would need to travel back to our hometown to be with her.
Then I received the phone call that changed everything.
My Mom didn’t call me. She called my husband. I knew instantly that something was very wrong. Assuming it was my Grandma, I braced myself to hear bad news. She was repeatedly asking me if Brad was nearby, and I reassured her he was. Then she uttered the words, I never thought I would or wanted to hear…
“I have cancer.”
I sunk in disbelief with a flood of instant tears, as I sat sobbing at the bottom of my basement steps. Editing, forgotten. Emails, forgotten. Dinner, forgotten. She had just gotten home and one by one she was contacting everyone. Being 3 hours away, I was the only one in our family who didn’t get to hug my Mom and squeeze her extra tight that night. I was the one who couldn’t just hop in my car and be there in 5 minutes, because I’m the only one in my family who chose to move away. She kept apologizing that she couldn’t tell me in person, and I apologized that I couldn’t get home to her. I expressed how much I loved her, as I hung up the phone so she could continue to spread the word. Guilt. Devastation. Heartache. And it was heavy.
The extent of what she knew was little. Her specialist couldn’t even touch her questions. But the only thing they could tell her was, “it’s not good and it’s aggressive.” That’s all, and it was gut wrenching.
My sweet Elijah walked downstairs and sat across my lap. He put both of his hands on my face, and said, “Mommy, look me in the eyes.” As I barely opened them through my tears, he went on, “Now take a deep breath.” I did, as I smiled through that painful moment. And then I listened to him in all of his 5-year-old wisdom, he said, “It’s going to be alright.”
I was so proud of him. I needed him in that moment. While Brad was upstairs trying to care for our daughter, up from her nap, I needed that comfort. I hugged him so tightly, and so unbelievably thankful that God sent his little heart to me right where I needed it.
The day that followed was as ugly as the storms had been that night. All I wanted, was to be with my Mom at home. But I had an amazing couple that I was committed to that weekend, and there wasn’t anything I could change at the moment. I hadn’t eaten; I hadn’t slept; yet it was my responsibility to be the happy, cheerful, spunky, photographer on the best day of their lives. And I was.
After I found out, I had contacted them to let them know what had happened, and they were so gracious. In a spare moment after their first look, they both looked at me and asked if they could pray for me. I was nervous that I was going to completely lose every ounce of the composure I had managed to muster up for the day. As they began to pray, I cried, but found the reassurance in their words. Affirmation that I needed, and that God had his hand over the steps prepared for her life and the battle ahead.
On the way home from their wedding, I wrestled with staying up to pack, or catching a good night’s rest and wait to pack in the morning. Zoned out, I pulled into my driveway, only to find my parent’s vehicle already parked there. It took everything I had to even put my car in park and turn it off before I darted inside. My eyes so full of tears I could barely see. My Mom was waiting for me in our living room and I buried my face in her shoulder, unleashing the flood I had held in all day.
We were both mentally exhausted, and after my shower, we sat on the couch and talked for hours. She told me we could talk as long as I wanted. My head rested in her lap, while she ran her fingers through my hair. Just like she used to do when I was a little girl. We cried, I prayed, we talked about all the tests she would need, and how hard it was for her to tell my Grandma while she was still in the hospital. Not to mention, even harder to tell one of her best friends just days after she lost her husband. We were up till almost three in the morning, and I pried myself off her lap and into bed to get the rest I desperately needed.
That whole weekend I did nothing but cling to her, my eyes getting teary watching her play with my kids on the floor. To them nothing was wrong with her. We decided to get out of the house and took them to the museum, where my Dad shoved his camera at me, “Get lots of pictures of her and the kids.” I could barely. I didn’t even want to focus on the thought those could be some of the last possible memories she would share with us. But there those thoughts lingered, like an uninvited dark shadow.
After several tests in those coming weeks, the doctors discovered that she had Stage 3 Kidney Cancer. The cancer had completely overtaken her left kidney and had spread into some surrounding lymph nodes. One scan had shown that what was supposed to be a 1 cm node had been enlarged to the size of a small orange. Her doctor in Toledo stated that he would allow no one in the area to touch her, and that he was sending her straight to the Cleveland Clinic.
It was terrifying. Cleveland Clinic is one of the best at what they do. They are a highly esteemed hospital, and ranked nationally, but you only go there when you are thought to be at your worst. Yet, that’s where we were headed. The unknown was still extremely unknown. We didn’t know if surgery was a possibility, or which treatments would be available to her. So we waited until we could see her doctor.
When my Mom had her appointment with the specialist, he looked over her scans and charts, and ordered a few more tests. He agreed to take on her surgery and thought that was the best course of action. That in itself was a huge relief, as we knew many who didn’t have that as an option. We had heard that it could be several weeks; up to at least 5 before she could even get in, but MY God is the creator of miracles. Her doctor received word that another gentleman, whom was scheduled that next week, was unable to pass some of his heart examinations. A spot had opened, and my Mom was getting it! What we thought would take weeks, took days. That is God right there!!
On July 27th, we headed up and prepped Mom for surgery. She was in the best spirit, at peace that the doctor’s had it completely under control. I’m glad she did, because I was a mess on the inside. After we said goodbye, we began the waiting game. For hours we sat next to a TV screen with her number, and her beeper around our neck. We’d get little updates here and there that the surgery was going as planned. And then, her doctor paged us and was ready to see us in the consultation office. I didn’t care that I left every valuable personal belonging I owned in the waiting room, as I ran with my family to meet her doctor.
I felt like everything came in short sentences, a blur, as my brain was so anxious it muffled all the things together. I gripped my Dad’s hand so tightly my knuckles were white. The surgery went as planned. She did great. I believed I removed all of the cancer. She is in recovery. You can see her in a few hours.
He stood up and shook my Dad’s hand, then extended his hand to me. I bypassed his hand and gave him the biggest hug of his life. I’m sure I caught him off guard, but I didn’t care. At that moment I needed to show him my gratitude. My family and I then just collapsed in joyful tears, while we took turns hugging each other. Unbelievably thankful that in 4 hours, my Mom’s life expectancy potentially had a huge shift.
The wait to see her was excruciating. We grabbed lunch, and then we sat, and sat, and sat some more. Finally, they had her in a room and we could go visit. The best sight in the world was seeing her propped up and smiling!! They hadn’t filled her in on the surgery at all, and we were able to tell her the fantastic news, “They believe the cancer was completely removed!” More. Tears.
Her recovery was no smooth sailing, and just days after her release, she had to go right back to the Cleveland Clinic for surgery complications. It meant for a lot of traveling, introducing our kiddos to hospitals and sickness, hand holding, tears of thankfulness, prayers, and support. Her room was filled with flowers, her mailbox overflowing with get well cards, pictures being drawn and hung on her hospital walls, and friends endless texts, phone calls, and what-can-I-help-you-with’s? There were meals made, visits from friends, and clients of mine pouring out gifts of love to my Mom and to me.
And we were ever so grateful.
Those weeks in the in between were the most difficult of my entire life. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. Amongst dealing with the mental roller coaster of my Mom’s diagnosis, we learned we were pregnant. Something we wanted and we were excited for. But, I couldn’t even think about my pregnancy until my Mom was okay. So we kept our family out of the loop for a long time, quietly battling nausea and first trimester exhaustion. It wasn’t a pretty mix, but somehow I managed to keep it a secret through her surgery and recovery.
Weeks later at my son’s birthday party, my Mom wanted to be the one to make the announcement. So while she stood up and thanked everyone for supporting her through everything, she said she couldn’t wait to meet another addition to the family. While everyone was thrilled, it was less exciting than my Mom’s next announcement. “But they aren’t the only ones.” My sister, Lollie was also expecting, and due just days behind me!! Two little tiny miracles in the midst of a season where we desperately needed some joy.
I learned a lot this last year. I learned for me, it was incredibly important that family was everything, and they came first. No. Matter. What. I learned more than ever to put my phone down and be in the moment, and I learned that in order to be upheld you need to be vulnerable. Without that vulnerability, I wouldn’t have been able to seek out the prayer that I desperately needed, to keep me going on a daily basis. To get me through even the darkest of days. Because the truth was, they were deeply overwhelming.
The months that have followed those days have increasingly gotten better. After her recovery and the all-clear for her to be tested again post op; we found out in October that MY Mom, the one who stayed brave and believed with her whole heart that she wasn’t done on this Earth, was given the best news of her life…
“Your scans are clean and you are cancer free!!”
I was in the car on my way home with Brad and the kids, McDonald’s meals in my lap. The phone rang and I closed my eyes and answered. The joy in her voice, it was so bittersweet. I grabbed Brad’s hand and bawled just knowing everything could have been so much worse. No chemo. No radiation. No cancer.
For our family it was a “short” road, but nonetheless, hard. My Mom still has after effects from the surgery, mostly with her incision, which stretches chevron style across her midsection. But the most odd is that one foot remains warm, while the other is cold. She limits protein, and has to be sure to eat nutritionally rich foods to keep her right kidney healthy. But she is thriving. Within the last few months she has been able to get back to working out and being active. She loves working in her garden beds, taking 20 mile bike rides, and playing tennis. All possible, because of the Cleveland Clinic and their specialists. She’s required to have scans every 4 months for a year, and thankfully the last 2 have come out clean. We are currently waiting for her upcoming 3rd scan, and ask that you keep her in your thoughts and prayers! Words could never fully express our gratitude to the doctors who took on her risky case. Cancer sucks, it claims many, but Terri Vargas isn’t one of them.
..I LOVE YOU MOM..