The thought that my mother could get seriously ill and die never entered my mind before. She has always been part of my life, busy at work and studying after hours or travelling around to give training. My mother thought I was too young to be left at home on those occasions when she had to sleep over in another town and I often missed a few days’ school travelling around with her. When we lived in Bloemfontein, the region which she serviced stretched from Upington in the Northern Cape to Harrismith in the Free State. This means that we spent hours in each other’s company in the car and at night we shared a room in a guest house. During the day I went to the office with her, taking my school books along so as not to fall behind with my studies. On occasion, we traveled to Cape Town or Durban where she attended conferences.
When my mother was transferred to Johannesburg, the travels came to an end. I had two more school years to complete and my mother wanted me to attend school on a regular basis. After careful consideration, she finally chose a school and we rented an apartment within walking distance thereof. We spent the following months getting settled, my mother in her new post and I in my new school. I even made one or two friends, but mostly I spent my time after school with my mother. At the time, my father and two older brothers were living in Cape Town and life continued peacefully for the two of us over the next few months.
Early in September, my mother picked me up after school one afternoon, which was strange, because she was never home from work that early. We had coffee at the nearby shopping center and she told me that she had been at the clinic for her annual medical check-up that morning. Also, that our family doctor has referred her to a surgeon at the same clinic for more tests, later that afternoon. There was no need to ask for further information; I have always known the reason behind these regular checkups.
While I sat in the waiting room, I heard my mother uttering out a smothered yelp. She later told me that the surgeon performed a needle biopsy, which was really painful. Then we waited anxiously for the call from the lab. Three days later the surgeon himself called to say the test results were negative, but he still felt uneasy about the outcome. He convinced my mother to undergo a wedge biopsy the next week. However, I believed that the results would be in order, as they always turned out to be in the past, and was not overly stressed about the second biopsy.
We knew that after this procedure my mother would not be able to drive her car for a while and my elder brother arrived from Cape Town to lend a hand. Early in the morning the day before my birthday, he picked up my Tweetie cake from the bakery. When I came home from school and walked in the kitchen door, I could see on his face that something was wrong. My mother went with me to my room and sat beside me on the bed to tell me that this time the results of the biopsy were positive. I did not want to believe it and started crying. However, there was no time for tears as we had to make arrangements for my mother to be re-admitted to the hospital and I had to prepare for a test at school.
The day I wrote the test, my mother was in the hospital undergoing a mastectomy procedure. This was also the day on which we were supposed to attend her graduation ceremony at Unisa; her gown was hanging in her closet and we had been so excited about this before, but now we had to abandon those plans. Halfway through the test paper the next day, I was too upset to continue writing; I got up and left the class to call my brother to come and get me. The only available phone was in the school office, where the deputy head found me and asked what was wrong. I told her and her response was: “Karen, from now on you must learn to stand on your own feet, because if your mother dies, you must be able to look after yourself.” I was both stunned and angry because I expected a little sympathy, not this unwanted advice.
My mother was in the hospital for three days and I visited her only once. I think in my subconscious mind I blamed her for the bad turn that my life has suddenly taken. She came home with drainage pipes dangling from the wound and too ill to manage the household as she usually did. I helped her to bathe and brush her hair as she could move her right arm with difficulty only. Fortunately, we were smart enough to buy a toothbrush that worked with batteries, for my mother has always been a bit clumsy with her left hand. She did not seem interested in anything and slept most of the time, or otherwise just watched television.
My grandmother, already in her eighties at that time, came to stay with us for a while. My brother and I had to help with cooking, dishwashing and grocery shopping. The first time we were in the store with Grandma’s shopping list, we did not even know where to start looking for everything we needed. Previously, we just dawdled along when my mother went shopping. Later, we learned to order the groceries online to be delivered at home. We now hardly ever left the apartment and were actually just sitting around waiting for the chemotherapy treatment to begin.
It was at this time that we started building the puzzle which we afterwards came to think of as the first step in the healing process, but there were still more difficult days ahead.
We did manage to convince my mother to have photos taken of her wearing the gown before sending it back to the rental company, although it was a pity that after all that hard work she had to miss out on her graduation ceremony. However, she promised to be in the audience on my graduation day. She kept her word and was in the audience when I received my degree certificate (also from Unisa) a few years later and afterwards we both celebrated our achievement in great style.