I never expected my mother to see my 21st birthday.
I was 16 years old and about to begin my freshman year of college when Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 1980. She was just 47 at the time and had spent more than half her life helping others deal with such catastrophic news, first as a nurse’s aide and then a licensed practical nurse at Community Hospital of Schoharie County (now Cobleskill Regional Hospital).
To this day, I carry vivid — and excruciatingly painful — memories of her fighting with every ounce of physical and emotional strength she could muster to prove wrong the doctors who initially gave her just six months. I stood by helplessly as she went through two mastectomies, as radiation treatment cost her her hair and as chemotherapy left her so weak and nauseated that she once asked — only half-jokingly — if I could find her some marijuana.
I saw her call upon strength I didn’t think she had to do post-operative exercises with a passion and determination I only hoped to be able to emulate. I saw her continue to get up every day — no matter how badly she felt — and go to work, because she loved her job and she loved her co-workers, but, most importantly, because she loved helping others.
At the same time, she was keenly aware of the reality of her fight. She planned out her funeral well in advance, right down to the last-minute detail, so my two sisters and I would not have to deal with such difficult decisions. She also stepped back from her role in our lives, allowing us more leeway to make our own choices — and, inevitably, our own mistakes — so we would be prepared for life without her.
I watched as six months became a year, one year became two and two years became four. Eventually, though, she could only delay the inevitable, and she was hospitalized in late October 1984 for what we all expected to be the last time. I had just started my senior year of college and was just a couple weeks shy of turning 21 when I got the call at school and rushed home to be with my mother at the end.
Somebody forgot to tell her that, however. Instead of fading off into the oblivion of terminal cancer, she rallied. Just days before a birthday I could not have even imagined celebrating under any circumstances, her doctors let her come home and she somehow prepared a small birthday dinner for me and the rest of the family.
Two days later, she was back in the hospital. Four days after that, on Nov. 11, 1984, she was gone. She had beaten the doctors’ prognosis by three years and nine months.
For all the bitterness of burying my mother when I was barely an adult myself, for all the images of her suffering that tear my heart out to this day, for the moment at her funeral when I saw my father and two sisters holding each other as they broke down (even though my parents had been divorced for more than 15 years), the one thing that will always stand out in my heart is that one final night in our apartment in Cobleskill, sitting at the kitchen table as we did so routinely for so many years.
On Tuesday, it will have been 30 years since Lorraine Robarge left this world, leaving behind her ex-husband, three children, a granddaughter, three sisters, two brothers and countless people whose lives she touched (she would often joke that she helped deliver every child born in Schoharie County over a span of many years).
I have now lived more of my life without her than I did with her, and our open, frank (and sometimes even a little embarrassing) conversations have been replaced by all-too-infrequent visits to her grave, where she waits for my now-84-year-old father to join her in a plot they chose to share even after they split — he still wears his wedding ring to this day.
I tell the story of that final dinner quite often, even after all these years, because to me it is an amazingly inspiring example of the sheer power of the human spirit. Despite so many times when we all would have understood if she decided to give up and accept her fate — the same fate as her mother before her and one of her three sisters after — she basically flipped the bird to cancer right to the very end.
It is that spirit that eventually will lead to a cure for this disease that has left so many of us — too many of us — without a parent, sibling, spouse or child.
I am as frustrated as anyone that we seem to be no closer to a cure after three decades.
But the fact that there are so many people who remain so dedicated to beating this disease — from the millions who participate in or donate to events like the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, to the thousands who have made it their life’s work to find that key to unlocking cancer’s deadly secrets, or to help those hit by it to fight back with the passion Mom did — makes me believe with all my heart that a successful treatment is simply a matter of time.
And when there finally is a cure, I hope I’m around to go to my mother’s grave and tell her — just as I did on my mortarboard when I graduated from college six months after she died — “Ma, we did it!”
Mark Robarge is a copy editor with The Gazette.