What doesn’t kill you fucks you up mentally.
To understand me and what/why I write, you’re going to need some knowledge of how I got to this place in life.
Though my defining moment came when my mom died in the early morning hours of July 27, 2009, my story really began two years prior.
I was 16 when my paternal grandmother (aka grandma) was diagnosed with colon cancer. Until that point, she hadn’t much of a key influence on my life. It was the cancer that changed that, and for that, I am grateful. Because of her illness, I got to know more about her in her last year on Earth than I had ever gotten to know. I learned that she was a funny woman, actually, she was down right hilarious. Her favorite movie was “Dirty Dancing.” And her life had been filled with more heartache than I will possibly ever know.
She even helped me buy my first car. A 1999 VW Jetta that I think I financed for around $5,000. It was a piece of shit and eventually broke down on me, of course. Getting rid of that car a year after my grandma passed away was more difficult than I expected. Even though the windows didn’t roll down, the AC didn’t work, and I couldn’t drive it in rainstorms, that death trap on four wheels was one of the last connections I felt to my grandma. I cried the day I sold it.
I helped my mom and dad care for her when I could after school and on the weekends. Someone needed to stay with her around the clock as her prognosis worsened, so to give them a break, I volunteered to have sleepovers at grandma’s. She and I would pile up in her bed and watch movies until she dozed off, then I would slink back into the living room and curl up on the couch where I could hear her if she yelled for me.
It’s true what they say, you never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.
Her last Christmas and birthday, as well as various other times we found cause to celebrate, live on in photographs. Images that, on the surface, show a family full of joy and laughter, celebrating life’s finest moments. But, behind the smiles captured on those 4×6 prints, we were a family just trying to survive the inevitable and do whatever it took to give this matriarch a beautiful final year.
Barbara Ruth Biggs Ledford died in April 2007. There was snow on the ground the day we buried her.
Silly me, at that time it didn’t occur that a greater loss was possible, or that it was on the horizon.
Life went on after grandma’s death. I’ve since learned that the world doesn’t stop spinning for your grief.
Going into my senior year of high school, I started looking at colleges and planning my big escape from small town Swannanoa. My parents even humored me by taking me to look at College of Charleston. It was my dream school, the only place I wanted to go.
Life has a way of shitting on your plans, though.
Not even a year after we laid grandma to rest, my mom was diagnosed with stage IV cervical cancer. I learned much later, after she died, that her doctors only gave her a year to live. Still, she fought. At 45, she had a full hysterectomy. She was hospitalized for a couple of weeks after doctors put in her port (so she could receive chemotherapy) and collapsed her lung. She cut her hair short (like Jamie Lee Curtis short) and then shaved it when it started falling out. She sat in a cold chemotherapy room for hours at a time to receive treatments. She read her Bible and prayed. She was hospitalized again, and again, and again … So many times that I lost count.
None of my friends really knew what my family was battling behind closed doors. They would ask how my mom was and I would tell them fine. But she wasn’t fine. And I wasn’t fine.
I was in the second semester of my senior year of high school when she was diagnosed. Suddenly, all my plans to leave home after graduation were abandoned, and I submitted last minute applications to colleges and universities in driving distance from my house. I couldn’t leave her and I couldn’t leave my dad to care for her by himself.
That semester was anything but normal for an 18-year-old. All my friends were going to parties and celebrating their new-found “adulthood,” and while I did engage in my fair share of parties, I had already been forced into an adult life that none of them knew anything about.
At 18, I stood next to my mom in the salon, fighting back tears as I watched her thick brown locks fall to the floor. She knew her hair would fall out when she started treatment in a few weeks so she cut her hair short, very short, so it wouldn’t be such a shock later on.
In the days leading up to my senior prom I was preparing my date, who happened to be one of my very best friends, for a different kind of pre-prom stop. This was during the time that mom was hospitalized with a collapsed lung and we didn’t think she would be out of the hospital before my silly dance.
She came home the day before, and despite the fact that she had been in the hospital for weeks and was very, very tired, she went with me to do all the things girls and their moms do before prom. My cousin pushed her in a wheelchair and mom watched as the hairdresser curled and styled my hair in the half up, half down look I requested.
Mom thought it needed a little something extra, though, and on the way home she had my cousin stop and get baby’s breath. I now have a beautiful memory of her sticking baby’s breath in my hair. We stood under the Dogwood tree in our front yard for pictures. These images would become some of my most cherished.
Two days after my high school graduation, mom started chemotherapy.
When I started at UNC Asheville that August, my mom was my biggest supporter. My first college class was at 8 a.m. and as I was up early that morning getting myself ready for this new adventure, my mom was awake and standing in the kitchen waiting on me despite the toll chemotherapy had taken on her body. I hope I never forget the words she said to me as I made my way to the door that morning. Hopefully, by writing them down, I never will. She said, “Hali, I am so proud of you.” It might not be a big deal to most when their parents tell them they’re proud, and at the time it wasn’t a big deal to me. I would give anything to hear those words come from her today, though.
I made it through my first year of college; I did homework in hospital rooms, skipped classes for chemo, and made late-night runs to the ER for extreme dehydration. Still, no one knew how bad it was. Looking back, I wish I would have told someone. Anyone. Instead, I put on a strong face for mom and cried in the shower so she wouldn’t know.
I made a decision early in the summer after my freshman year, a decision that would ultimately change the course of my life.
We had just found out that, after finishing chemo, mom’s cancer was back. Hearing that cancer has returned is more devastating than the initial diagnosis. It was for us, at least. That’s when we knew the prognosis didn’t look good and our time with her was limited. Still, she fought.
On the day we found out the cancer had returned, I received a letter from school asking me to confirm my enrollment for the fall semester. At the time, all we knew about mom’s situation was that it didn’t look good and the chances of chemo working were slim. I called my dad and told him about the letter and told him I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to go back to school in the fall. I told him I didn’t want to be in school if something happened to her. Dad told me it wasn’t an option, that I was going back. I was 19 and my dad was telling me what to do, and to this day I am thankful for that..
I watched my mom, the most beautiful woman I have ever known, be broken down by a disease. I watched it shatter her spirit, take her gorgeous smile from her face, and kill her from the inside out. It took every ounce of life from her.
She died July 27, 2009, after spending a week in the hospital. Sometimes the events of the 24 hours surrounding her death haunt me, playing over in my head like a nightmare I can’t wake up from.
The only thing that saved me from caving in on myself was continuing to live. Again, the world doesn’t stop for your grief. I went back to work and in August I went back to school. I poured all my emotion into my assignments and finished the year on the Dean’s List. I joined the school newspaper, The Blue Banner, and started laying the foundation for my career.
School went on. Work continued. Life got harder. Without going into detail, let’s just say I learned early on how bad life really does suck. But, it’s also really beautiful.
I struggled through college for four years. Literally struggled. I sometimes worked three jobs to keep food on the table, was editor of the UNCA newspaper (a full-time job itself), and still managed a full course load.
When graduation came in 2012, I cried during the entire ceremony — from the moment my class began walking across the quad until the very last name was called. I cried for many reasons, but the main one was because it was raining. I’m not talking about a little drizzle, either. It flat-out poured and our ceremony was outside. I wasn’t upset that I was sitting in a downpour, though. Oh no, I was happy to be drenched from head to toe. I love rain, and I truly believe that it’s tears from Heaven.
Blah, blah, blah. Skip ahead to November 2013 when my maternal grandfather died and then February 2014 when my maternal grandmother died. Talk about a back-to-back double punch to the stomach. All of my grandparents were dead, my mom was gone, and I had almost lost my dad on more than one occasion.
All of a sudden I realized that my life, the world I had been living in for 20-plus years, was no more, and I wasn’t really sure who I was anymore. Home no longer was home, but the one bedroom apartment I was living in outside of Charlotte didn’t feel like home either. I felt like I didn’t have anywhere to run when I needed a safe place to go to hide from the world. That, truly, was devastating. What makes it even worse is that nobody understood. I tried to talk about what I was experiencing, but no one got it. So, I just kept it to myself and pushed forward.
Last year was a struggle; it was 100 percent difficult and most of the time miserable. I spent 2014 trying to figure out who I am with all these influential people gone from my life. And what emerged from that darkness is this:
- A woman who found her voice
- A woman who tries to find the humor in every situation
- A woman who reminds herself daily that all she can do is the best she can
- A woman who is perfectly fine being alone, but still loves the company of her boyfriend of five years
- A woman who needs to be alone sometimes
- A woman who needs to feel pain, sometimes. And when she starts to cry, she just needs to cry
- A woman who enjoys a good craft beer and a bottle of red wine from time to time
- A woman who is learning to thrive
- A woman who has a very small filter. If she’s thinking it, chances are she’ll say it
- A woman who isn’t afraid to say what she wants when she wants it
This list is ever-growing because I learn something new about myself daily. I realize that every person has sadness and that my story doesn’t mean much to most, but that doesn’t stop me from telling it and owning it.
Thank you, Universe, for making my life difficult and unbearable at times; I am a stronger woman and a better human because of it. Hey, I can say I survived — and continue to do so with a little humor, very little grace, the occasional F-bomb, and almost no style.