Recently, I celebrated my 47th birthday. I’ve been known to make a big deal about acknowledging my special day each year because it’s so easy to take our lives for granted. There is so much that I want to say, so forgive me if I ramble as my feelings are expressed here.
At 47, I feel I have so much to still accomplish while occupying this body. I achieved a few goals this year while seeing my first born child graduate from high school. I even added some goals to the list, things I never thought I’d ever do, like ride a motorcycle. That’s still a work in progress, but I will master it before summer 2012 passes me by. I find it amazing that I’m still compiling my list of things to do, yet my mother’s life ended at 47. Many of you know her story because you are family or close enough to me to have known her personally. But for those that did not meet her, here is the short version.
Mom was stricken with breast cancer for the first time in 1976. This is before all the awareness campaigns and cute symbols to show support. It was during a time that many people couldn’t say “the C word”. As she dealt with this diagnosis, 10 year old Sharon watched closely and helped her through. Our family handled it well because of the example and strength which she demonstrated. She never considered cancer to be a death sentence, but a chance to look at life and family history so that we could overcome this horrible experience. She made sure I had a birthday celebration that year, right before her surgeries began. I never knew until years later how much she was physically dealing with as we celebrated life.
Let’s fast forward to spring/summer 1986. My brother was preparing to graduate from West Point. This was an important time for our family as Richard would be the first military officer in our family history. Mom was once again diagnosed with breast cancer after 10 years in remission. I came home to help her as she recovered and we all prepared to attend Richard’s ceremony. We celebrated as a family with aunts, uncles, and cousins in attendance. What a wonderful time. This particular year, my birthday was spent at Fort Bragg as I completed training to be commissioned just like my brother.
In 1987, Mom received another cancer diagnosis, lung cancer. She did not smoke or drink, but somehow this is what the doctor came back with. If you haven’t already figured it out, Maggie was a fighter. She didn’t take news like this and fret, or worry, and I never heard her complain. She accepted it and continued to live and celebrate life. But little did I know how much the next 12 months would change our lives completely. The year went on along with treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, pokes and prods. Her faith did not waver, but she also wanted us to be prepared for whatever happened in the months to come. As treatments became less effective, and her body showed fewer signs of improvement, she asked me to come home to help her. I misunderstood what it all meant, or perhaps I put my own meaning to her request.
Summer 1988, our last few months together were not easy. Mom wanted family and friends to come and see her before it was too late. She honestly felt it was senseless to someone to attend her funeral if she had not seen them in 10, 20, 30 years. My aunts recognized my misinterpretation of her requesting my return home from school, so they explained to me that she needed my help in her final months. I thought I came home to help her recover like times past. I became angry with her sisters. How dare they tell me something like this. Mom stood at the kitchen sink listening to what was being expressed, and not wanting to look at me. Tears flowed as I tried to eat my cereal and receive what her sisters were telling me. My mom was so full of life and faith. How could she be leaving me? She was too young. I still need to finish school, and graduate, and get married, and have her grandchildren. She beat so many illnesses through the years. I did not want to believe any of this.
Acceptance was a tough pill to swallow, but I finally realized what she needed from me. I had to take on her strength as her body weakened. I administered medications orally and otherwise, because she needed me. I switched places with Dad and slept in the same bed with her. He took my room so he could sleep through the night and go to work each day. He needed to keep busy so he would not worry. In June, she mustered up enough energy to celebrate their wedding anniversary, but by July, our birth month, she was hospitalized. She turned 47 in a hospital bed, unable to walk because illness had affected her nervous system. Six days later, I spent my 23rd birthday in her hospital room waiting and wondering. I was still in denial a bit, though I knew she was terminally ill. As visitors came to see her and pray with her, I noticed that her faith in God never weakened the way her physical body did. She could not control the physical, but her spirit was full. I thank God that her mind also was not affected by this whole ordeal because it allowed me to learn some things which would only make sense later into adulthood.
Because I was in the National Guard, I had to leave Mom’s bedside. My commander gave me no other options, so I would leave to attend annual training in Florida. Lord knows I tried to get out of this requirement or at least reschedule it because I didn’t want to leave her. But she insisted that I attend, saying, “Go get it out of the way so you won’t have to deal with it later.” I told her not to go anywhere while I was gone. In her efforts to make me smile, she said, “I’m not going anywhere. Remember? I can’t walk.” She smiled, and I smiled back, through the pain I might add because I knew it’s what she needed at that moment. While I was in the field, a Red Cross message came for me. “Lieutenant Bradford, I regret to inform you that your mother passed away this morning.” I don’t know if he said anything else because I crumbled, literally, as my First Sergeant rushed over to pick me up. He asked what was going on as he helped me up from the ground. The “messenger” said that he thought I was expecting this. My response, “expecting and accepting are two different things.” I will forever remember August 4, 1988. My mom’s life ended at 47, yet, as I reach this age in my life, I feel there is so much to do, and that I am just beginning.
Though I feel so much was taken from our dear sweet Magnolia (that’s mom) at what I now realize is a young age, I know her purpose was fulfilled. She gave life to me and Richard. She was an amazing wife and helpmate to Luther Bradford Jr. When she was experiencing illness at various points in her life, she asked God to let her see children grow up, and He granted her that request. She knew I would be in good hands finishing college without her because the godmother she chose at my birth made sure of this. She encouraged us throughout the many stages of our lives, and truly believed in us. I learned from her example to ask God for what I need and thank Him for what I have, regardless. Take the good with the bad, and always remember as Mom would say, “Keep the Faith.” So, now I know what 47 feels like. Though Mom’s life stopped here, I see so much ahead because of the things she taught me. My special day was yesterday, but I will continue to celebrate. Thank you Lord. No, really! Thank you!
Minister Sharon Finney