In light of Mother’s Day celebrated in May, well-known personality, Sam Cowen, writes a beautiful memoir of her mother, who lost the fight against breast cancer.
The distance from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand is about 7,5km. The water is extremely cold; on my first swim, the temperature was just under 10 degrees when I finished, and on the second just over 14 degrees. People ask me about it. They don’t ask me about the cold though, they ask me about sharks. “Aren’t you afraid of being eaten by a shark?” I tell them that I would rather have my kids say, “My mom was eaten by a shark,” than “My mom was eaten from the inside out by her own body.” Because that is what happened to my mom.
My mother was a brave, bright, beautiful woman and she taught all three of us – myself and my younger brothers – to notice life. She hated cleaning and loved gardening and birds. She once stood in a Highveld storm, rain pouring down on her, using a very expensive pair of stockings to tie up a Bottlebrush shrub, which had split during the storm. The Bottlebrush lived. It is probably still alive. She is not.
My mother got breast cancer at 53. It was a particularly nasty strain and doctors moved fast. Within a week of diagnosis, she was in hospital for a mastectomy and so followed six months of chemotherapy. It was hell. Chemotherapy was her nightmare, she didn’t like the smell and she would shiver from the cold. But she never forgot to thank the staff at the oncology unit. She would tell me how kind they were and how they kept checking on her. She took presents at Christmas years afterwards. Many cancer sufferers say, the worst of chemotherapy is the side effects. My mother agreed with that. She hated the indignity of it more than the pain.
Mommy would dress and do her hair for dinner every night. When it fell out, she cried for weeks. But never, did she roll over. She put on make-up every day. Even when there were no eyelashes and eyebrows, she would diligently paint them in. She refused to give in. I bought her an artwork by Hannah Lurie called I’m too Sexy for My Hair. It was a plaster head, with bright make-up and a headscarf. It could have been created for my mother. She lived it. She was it.
When she got the all-clear, she wanted a breast reconstruction. The oncologist tried to talk her out of it. He asked her if, at her age, she really needed a new breast? She asked him if he, at his age, would really need a new…member if he had lost his own to cancer. He gave her a list of surgeons to contact.
Mommy loved travel, here and abroad. She loved the bush and the sea. She loved Paris and Madrid. She wrote postcards from wherever she went and sent them as little paper windows for all of us to see in. She adored her grandchildren and slipped them sweets when she thought I wouldn’t notice.
Cancer is a terrible thing. My mother’s came back three times. She fought it every time. She lost her hair, again and again. She still dressed up, put on make-up and high heels, even on the days when the vomiting was so bad she could barely stand. The third time took her.
She left a void that will never be filled. But she also left a legacy. Because of her, I can be brave. Because of her, I can dismiss the odd bit of dust. Because of her, I love history and art. She drew like a dream. Because of her, I pause for the little things we tend to forget, things like birds’ nests, sunsets and sandcastles. She could have lived to 100 and I would have thought her gone too soon. When I grow up I want to be exactly like her.