Lessons in Breast Cancer Awareness: Aunt Sylvia

Every year, for the month of October we break out our pink attire and pay homage to those individuals who have either succumb to breast cancer, have overcome it, or are still fighting. We buy our pink t-shirts, socks, hats, bracelets and whatever else we can find and wear it proudly. Yet, one very true reality is that this disease affects so many of us personally. If we haven’t fought against it, we personally know someone who has fought and won, or fought and passed away.

Every October, I think about my Aunt Sylvia. In 2004, her battle with breast cancer came to an end. Fortunately, I can say that I got to spend a significant amount of time with her before she passed. No one had told me she had breast cancer until I came home to St. Louis that summer. It was like I was thrown into the situation. I enjoyed spending time with her anyway, so her desire to see me even more didn’t bother me. I went with her to chemotherapy treatments and went on medicine runs with my cousins. Money was tighter because she wasn’t working anymore. I helped her make sure her wig was straight when she decided to go out, and that her bra was properly packed on the right side because she’d had a mastectomy. But, the most memorable moments were those that we spent together, alone, late at night. She didn’t want to sleep by herself, so I slept in the bed next to her. She would drift off for a couple of hours, and then wake up and begin talking about whatever was on her mind. The subjects would vary; from her growing up in St. Louis to memories she had of me when I was a little girl (I was her only niece). But the conversations that stick with me the most are the ones surrounding my father. It was no secret that he wasn’t the best parent. And with her cancer battle, I suppose she was tired of pretending (like everyone else) that he was doing a great job of being a dad. I remember one night as we were watching a movie, she turned to me and said, “You’re gonna have to forgive him.” I looked at her strangely and said, “Huh?” I had no clue what she meant. “Your father,” she continued. “You’re going to have to forgive him.” I just looked at her. I had no idea where that bit of advice was coming from. In addition, I didn’t know how to swallow it. Forgive him? How could I? He hadn’t done a thing for me since I came into this world. She should know, because she had been one of the people who was picking up the slack. “I know that he hasn’t been the best father,” she said as though she could hear my thoughts. “But he is your father.”

“He surely doesn’t act like it,” I finally said.

“I know that he doesn’t and he should. And I’m not making excuses for him. But even if you don’t forgive him for his sake, do it because it will give you peace. You don’t need to harbor bad feelings about your dad. It will tear you apart.” I nodded and replied “Yes ma’am.” Before I knew it, she was lightly snoring.

Even 8 years later, I still replay those words in my head. Initially, I listened but I didn’t fully process them. The cancer had become more aggressive. She passed away in November, so that event was in the forefront of my mind. But, as the relationship with my father worsened, her words resonated. Those pivotal teenage years (I’m talking 14 to 18) are extremely important for a girl. That’s when she feels as though she falls in love for the first time (and probably gets her heart broken), when she goes to prom, when she’s coming into her womanhood. Those are the moments when the love of a father comes in handy. Having to go through those moments were inevitable for me, but there was never a guidebook created to tell me how to do it. All I had was a mother who loved me enough for two parents, and supported me every step of the way. But, how does one address that heartache? How do you truly soothe the pain of an absentee father who has no justifiable reason to be missing in your life? That’s where my Aunt Sylvia’s words came in handy. She had begun easing a wound that I would have to deal with later on in life. It’s as though she knew that as I got older, I would have to confront those frustrations head on. I would have completely understood if she wanted to be selfish in her last moments and only be concerned about herself. But instead, she redirected her energy to make sure that I would learn to heal myself emotional from the issues with my father. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Not only was she selflessly helping me, but she also taught me a lesson in valuing life. She still clung to the pieces of her life that made her who she was. She still wore the fabulous wigs and nice clothes. She still did her make-up to a “T” and put on her fabulous jewelry. She still would laugh about her favorite memories and give me affection anytime the moment struck her. I was watching her life end, and she did everything in her power to continue on as though she’d be on this earth forever. I admired her.

Still, there are times when those moments of admiration clash with the pain of remembering her last days. I can’t shake those last days I saw her, laying in bed with a morphine drip in her arm. There were no more wigs and bra padding: just her and the medicine, trying to ease the pain when there was nothing left to do. Somehow, knowing that she dedicated a portion of her last moments to help me cope with my struggles made me feel as though I had an obligation to truly learn to forgive my father. It hasn’t been an easy battle, but I’ve actively put forth the effort and I haven’t allowed resentment to hold me back from accomplishing my goals and dreams. I hope that my Aunt Sylvia is watching me from heaven and I hope that I’m at least on the right track to becoming the woman she desired me to be.