Whenever I see a young mom with children in tow, no matter what tragedies occur in the news, I feel all is right with the world.
One particular example is my neighbor. I’ve long admired her grace and her children – how they hold hands at Mass; their gentle quietude, obedience and loving respect. Tasha’s four babies distracted neither her slender figure, her poise nor her engaging smile.
One day we agreed to meet at our local café and my friend disclosed to me that she had breast cancer. My soul shuddered. Breathless, I could barely respond. She shared that some months after her annual mammogram, where she was examined, palpated and then released by her radiologist, she felt a lump. A sonogram was scheduled, which exposed a tumor of 6 to 7 centimeters. She was facing stage-three cancer.
What Tasha experienced next disheveled my illusions of a beautiful world, altered my checks on reality and unsettled my faith. Her husband, Mike, regularly phoned me throughout her double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and subsequent hysterectomy. Tasha became weak and ashen, and lost her flowing brunette hair and appetite. She could barely remain on her feet for more than an hour. Her metamorphosis appeared to me as a shadow.
As painful as it was for me to comprehend how a young, steadfast, meticulous mother who nursed her children could fall victim to this misery, I relented. Tasha fought back. She accepted each day as it unfolded. She seemed to glow from her resilience and not once dislocated her engaging, life-affirming smile.
Twelve months passed and we met again for coffee, where she recapped her arduous journey. Confessing to me how her doctor discovered she carried the BRCA gene, I listened as if I were a fragile child. I grappled with how to remain steady sitting across from this triumphant and beautiful survivor. There was so much I learned from Tasha, not just about breast cancer and its frequency in women of Western New York, but about the will to live. I recognized in her that no stone goes unturned when it comes to vigilance and healthy choices for her family.
I used to tease Tasha when we visited after her surgeries that she looked like a rock star with her hairless head and gaunt complexion. “There are heavy metal music groupies that aspire to your look,” I joked. In retrospect, I feel my comments were just an attempt to comfort myself. Looking at her, I felt my heart convulse and my knees melt from grief and disbelief. But I managed to focus on her smile and selfless courage.
Each morning, when I opened my mind to God before the mundane tasks of the day, I formed words to help define the reason for my friendship with Tasha. In my observation, she was the central figure in a classic watercolor, depicting a mother’s love. She embraced precious attentiveness in a steely, unruly world. Somehow she summoned the strength to lift off the suffering as if it didn’t apply.
Several days ago, we spoke casually about our closely guarded family recipes. We’re both of Polish descent, so there’s a lot to compare, discuss and disagree.
“Every Saturday,” she said, “I make potato pancakes for the kids. They love them with applesauce.”
“How do you prepare your batter?” I queried.
Tasha seemed reluctant, and for the first time oddly private. “There’s nothing like homemade” was her spare reply.