A daughter’s perspective on life and loss; dying femininity and how beauty truly prevails from within.
In 2006, a month after my father had died from his year-long bout with kidney cancer, my mom was diagnosed with a Stage 4 brain tumor called a glioblastoma.
For the next year and a half, I watched the most attentive, most loving, most quintessential woman in my universe fall victim to the devastating physical and emotional effects of one of the most aggressive cancers.
It was then that I saw my mom’s femininity — which had for so long seemed like a non-priority — be stripped from her in so many ways.
Growing up, I never really thought about the ways my mother championed beauty and femininity. I always thought she was so beautiful, but it hadn’t occurred to me that physical beauty was something she held important despite all the ways she encouraged me and my sisters’ own femininity in traditional ways: she delighted in mother-daughter shopping trips; she gave us (and our brother) all our early haircuts; she sewed our Easter dresses and Halloween costumes from cut patterns and her own designs; she made us appointments for our first eyebrow and bikini waxes; my makeup collection was built from the free samples that came with her Clinique purchases.
To me, her ability to whip up the most intricate French braids and ponytails for picture days at school was akin to the way she could turn a fridge full of leftovers into a three-course dinner. She was Super Mom in every way, so to me, her delicate attention to our physical appearance was simply one of her super powers.
She didn’t ever seem to dedicate as much attention to herself. For most of her life, my mom was a teacher to junior-high students, perhaps a most critical age for both boys and girls to come into their image and develop their perceptions of beauty. It was also a role that didn’t require her to be particularly made up at any given time. Her own beauty routine was simple – some face powder, blush, a swipe of mascara. Her regular self-care practices included getting her grays dyed dark and a very rare manicure. I may have described her outfits back then as frumpy or uncool, “teacher clothes.”
And yet it was she who always made others feel beautiful, both in her classroom and in our home. She promoted inner beauty in a way so sincere that everyone wanted to be more like her. She was beautiful because she was patient and encouraging, an approachable listener, a willing helper, an open shoulder, a dedicated mentor.
She cared about creating beauty within us, making us feel beautiful from the inside out, and shielding us from the ugliness created by focusing too much on any person’s outer appearance.
The steroids she took to offset cancer-fighting medications like chemo and radiation made her bloated and puffy, even when she wasn’t hungry enough to eat. The surgeries to remove pieces of tumor from her brain forced her to don a new salt-and-pepper pixie cut. The extensive time in hospital beds dried her skin to the point of cracking lips and hands.
We took her shopping for clothing that felt comfortable, and she amassed beautiful headscarves from family and friends. We gave her hand and foot massages with lotion and helped her put earrings in on days she felt good enough to leave the house. My mother, who had never been particularly outspoken about physical beauty, had ingrained in us these feminine practices that we then resorted to in helping her cope with the effects of her illness.
I remember feeling foolish for getting angry about her changing appearance and worried she would feel the way I saw her differently, knowing she felt it herself too.
I was home with my mom on the last Halloween she would hand out candy to the neighborhood kids. I was in another room of the house when she wandered back from the front door with a sadness in her eyes nearing tears. She told me a trick-or-treater’s father had said “Thank you, sir” as she smiled and closed the door. I could tell she was devastated.
How F*cking Cancer Changed My Definition of Beauty
I could see the humanness in her in that moment, the crushing idea that being a beautiful woman is tied to our physical beauty, in that case the length of our hair.
I was enraged in defense. I could only muster up that it was ridiculous, that it must have been too dark on the front porch or that the neighbor must have been distracted. That my mother was so beautiful, short grey hair and all, and that she should think nothing of it.
I still walked away and cried privately, perhaps in the way my mom may have felt after learning that someone on the playground had called me chubby or had terrorized my older sister for her overdeveloped figure or had made my brother feel uncomfortable for teenage acne.
When I reflect now, I think about how she held her dignity, grace and beauty until the end because it had always come from within.
Cancer had taken pieces of her perceived femininity and perhaps more importantly her ability to nurture the way she always had, as the female leader of our pack. Cancer forced my siblings and I to take care of her, to make sure she felt beautiful and to protect her from the ugliness of the disease and the judgments of the world. And to me now, there is beauty even in that turn of events.
Upon dying on a hospice bed in our home, some of the elder women in my family washed her lifeless body and changed her into a pretty outfit, even though we knew she would be cremated. Perhaps a practice in tradition, I think it was a way for everyone else to feel comfortable about the beauty inside her leaving our world.
In the end, my mother’s battle with cancer reinforced for me what makes people beautiful in the first place, and what made her beautiful both before and after cancer — selflessness, strength of character and the radiating beauty of her love.
*All photos furnished by the author.