I grew up as the daughter of a single mom. She was my everything - my best friend, confidant, advisor, mom, my entire world, everything. Born and raised in Scotland, Thea McKerrigan was a fiercely independent woman. She left home at 16 and move from London to Greece where she eventually met my god family who convinced her to return with them to San Francisco. She worked odd jobs as a waitress, cleaning lady, and eventually started her own dog walking business after she gave birth to me. Always hustling and always focused on creating a better life for me.
When I think about my mom, I remember her thick Scottish accent telling me: "Remember, Bridey, you need to be your own advocate in life. It's going to be hard but no one will hand you anything. You need to work for it and be confident in yourself." Confidence was huge in our family. And as a woman who stood 5 feet tall and weighed 120 pounds, my mom had a vivacious personality with confidence to match. She would light up every room she walked into, always witty, positive, and cheerful. Many people in my family describe her as a fiery personality who loved her family just as fiercely. Coincidentally, she gave me the name "Bridey" because it means the goddess of fire.
My childhood is a blur of amazing memories with my mom, just her and I. She taught me how to be independent, stand up for myself, and enjoy life. Our house was always full of love (and dogs) and laughter.
In 2007, during my first year of high school, my mom started to get sick. At first, she just said that she felt nauseous but quickly started dropping weight. We went to dozens of doctors appointments to try and figure out what was going on with her health and she was dropping weight by the day. After two years of tests and doctor visits, she was finally diagnosed with Celiac disease, which is a severe allergy to wheat and gluten. Internally, her body was reacting to gluten as poison and as a defense mechanism, destroyed her body's ability to absorb nutrients. She was left with ulcers in her intestines that soon turned cancerous and weighed 95 pounds. She was diagnosed with Lymphoma in 2011.
By the time I was finishing up high school, doctors were discussing plans to put her on a regimen of chemotherapy to combat the Lymphoma. My mom stayed positive through the process, saying that she had an incredible doctor at Kaiser who would enroll her in a clinical study at Stanford for post-chemo treatment. The results of the clinical study were positive and it looked like we had a light at the end of the tunnel. Being away from my mom during that first year of college, and when she was her sickest, was one of the hardest moments of her sickness for me. I wasn't able to show up for her as she did for me for so many years.
Every couple of weeks, I would drive up the coast from UC Santa Barbara to visit her and I could see her losing more weight and energy. When she shaved her head, we bought a variety of funky hats to keep her head warm and I still remember her favorite pink knitted cap with little bobbles on them. It was her signature look and she was still the same mom I knew and love. Always checking in with me, making sure I was focusing on my schoolwork, and being my own advocate.
Chemotherapy is a unique treatment because the effects are not always immediate. Sometime patients will feel fine after treatment, others get sick immediately. My mom had her good days and her bad days but was still losing too much weight. She was 75 pounds when her doctors decided to stop her chemotherapy treatment. They concluded the chemo was killing her faster than the actual cancer and our last hope was the clinical trial. It wasn't long after until she received the news that she wasn't healthy enough to join the trial and would be put into an acute care facility that focused on end of life care.
Seeing my mom go from the strong, independent woman who raised me to a physically exhausted and weak cancer patient was what broke me. But throughout the process, her mind was sharp and she was just as witty and loving. She would crack jokes with nurses caring for her, give me a hard time about the man I was dating (saying I deserved better!), and always said she'll be okay, regardless of what happens. In her final month, she was released into hospice care at home where we were able to take care of her and make her as comfortable as possible. She had exceptional care and when I said goodbye for the last time, I knew she would be with me always.
My advice to people going through this journey, whether the chemotherapy is successful or not, is to remember that we are all on this earth for a short period of time. We must cherish our loved ones and all their quirks and enjoy every day. There's still joy even in the darkest of times, and also sadness during the better days. When I lost my mother in 2012, I thought I lost a part of me. My identity was completely tied to her and I was shattered into a million pieces when she passed away. Not knowing who I was, if I had a family who loved me, or if I could even continue on without her guiding me.
Over time, I have found myself again. My mom's voice has come back to me in everything I do. Guiding me through the good and the bad days. Through the wins and the losses.
One of my favorite quotes is: "It's not the years in one's life that matter, it's the life in one's years." Remember that our parents are just as human as we are. And if there's an option to sit with your mother/father while they go through chemotherapy, try to get to know who they are as a person, not just a parent. What he or she was like as a kid and who they were before they had children. What their goals and aspirations were when they were their most independent self.
I continue to live in my mom's memory. I keep her alive within me and hope that her impact on me has an impact on everyone I interact with. I'm just thankful I got to share my life with her.