How my mom's surprise (and sudden) cancer death changed me

My mom was my best friend. As far back as I can remember we had a special connection.

She got a real kick out of me when I decided to go into television. I was a business major in college and soon after graduation I decided I had no interest in working on Wall Street. At the dinner table where we often sat, I told my mom my dream of producing television. Her response? “Wow that’s great you want to be a producer, but Villanova cost your dad and me a ton of money, and we won’t financially support you anymore. But emotionally, we sure will. Forever and always.”

Thanks mom.  You certainly did. In my 23 years in as a television producer, she became part mentor, part shrink. She always gave very real, practical and blunt advice.

I always operated on adrenalin. A 24-7 work ethic. Succeed at all costs. Work work work. My shows I worked on were successful too.  I pushed my team and they in turn pushed me. I missed birthdays because of work. I missed weddings because of work. I missed dinners because of work. I even missed part of my honeymoon… because of work. YES. I did.

As my three boys grew, so did my overwhelming stress. Bath-time, which should be synonymous with fun-time, I would yell at the boys: and for what? For splashing and laughing and playing. Yelling at them for being boys. Every night my 7 year old would say to me “you’re stressed dad, you’re stressed.”

When my first son was born 10 years ago, little by little, I missed a lot of his life.  Then came son number two. And son number three.  I even got an urgent work call as we brought my second born son home from the hospital. Two days after he was born. I got 12 calls in fact. And sadly this felt good to me. Cause I was so needed. I was tethered to my work and in my brain, missing events did not matter, because work was so important. My success mattered. My huge, expensive house mattered.  My Rolex mattered. Looking back now, I missed a lot of my sons’ life because I had work to do. Breaking news happened. Urgent meetings took place. Everything was urgent.  My mother repeatedly would tell me how unfair this was to my boys and to my wife, but instead of listening to her words of wisdom, I was thinking about work. Thinking about how I mattered there and not here.

As my three boys grew, so did my overwhelming stress. Bath-time, which should be synonymous with fun-time, I would yell at the boys: and for what? For splashing and laughing and playing. Yelling at them for being boys. Every night my 7 year old would say to me “you’re stressed dad, you’re stressed.”

Yes you read that correctly; he was 7 and noticing what I did not notice.

I would complain to my wife and my mom about work.  But those were just words. I did nothing to change. I still went to work, and my stress grew. It became a weight I could not shake off or escape.

I would think – well, there will always be tomorrow. You can take care of yourself, tomorrow. You can eat better, tomorrow. You can play with your kids, tomorrow.

I ignored the blunt and honest advice my mom would implore me to listen to. She said time and time again, “Son, you don’t smile anymore. You are not focused. You are not happy. I’m worried about you.”

Again.  I did not listen.

Last summer I was so stressed my mom said to me, “It’s killing me to see you like this. I can’t take it anymore. It’s going to kill me.”

One night at dinner my mom was making salad with my oldest boy laughing. She was only 72, so full of life. Teaching my boy how to make the best salad dressing. My wife even snapped a picture of it. But I missed it all. I was in another room, texting and emailing on my phone about work. I was not living in the moment.

The next day, I get a phone call. My dad on the other line, “Something is wrong with mom.”

We rushed her to the ER. She couldn’t move. Doctors put a neck brace on her. Confused as to what was happening, doctors did all sorts of tests. 3 days later, on Valentine’s Day, a doctor comes over and says “Your mom’s neck is broken. She has cancer in her bones, she has tumors in her neck, cancer in her lungs, her liver, her pelvis, every single organ of her body. Cancer in her brain too. The cancer is exploded, the tumors are so bad, and they broke through her neck. She is very, very, very sick. We are not sure how doctors never saw this. But it is everywhere.  She will die very soon. Your mom has an incredible pain tolerance.”

Everything stopped. Wait, what? Cancer in every organ and bone of her body? Huh?

For 5 of the most painful and heart wrenching weeks, my mom lay dying in a hospital bed. The cancer so bad she had to go into isolation. We were unable to even hold her hand or touch her. The morphine was so strong she was in and out of consciousness.

But wasn’t she just making salad in the kitchen with my son and laughing?

What would I know?  I was in the other room. Working.

I wasn’t living in the present. I was too busy doing my incredibly important work.

What happened over the 5 “death weeks” was transforming. As I roamed the halls like a zombie, I took stock in my life. I realized we have no control. My boys, my wife, my family, my friends are all that matter.

But I still was afraid to change my life.

Until 3 days before mom died, she mustered up the strength to give me the following advice:

“Son, please promise me you will change your life. You are not happy anymore. My boy, you don’t smile anymore. I used to love your smile. I need you to be happy again. I need my boy back. Your family needs you. I know in my heart how special you are, and I know you don’t see that anymore. Promise me you will change your life. Look at me here in the hospital bed, this will soon be you unless you change.”

I was finally listening. Tuned in. “Mom, I can’t do this without you, I can’t change.”

“I will always be there for you. I will help.” She died three days later.

The day after mom’s funeral, out of nowhere, I get an unsolicited email from a former colleague forwarding a note about a job. It was from a nonprofit president looking for a new communications director. It was signed Robin.

My mom’s name was Robin.

Thanks, mom. I took the job. It’s been the best year of my life.