“Alison’s mom might be dying.” I first heard this statement early into my daughter’s 7'th grade year. Alison and Gwyn quickly became friends in junior high once they bonded over their theatre geekdome.
I met Alison’s mom, Sharon, briefly last summer when she was well enough to attend a feature of Bye-Bye Birdie in which Gwyn played Ursula, the giddy best friend to the main character.
Sharon’s peppery grey hair wisped around her face just barely grown back from her last round of chemo. A light sleeveless blouse complemented her olive complexion, revealing the amputation site where her left arm and a good deal of her shoulder complex was removed when doctors cut out tumors.
If you didn’t know Sharon seeing her perceived disfigured body may have felt a little shocking. Cancer doesn’t leave room for clean, pretty incisions with perfect sutures to ensure minimal scarring. Cosmetics aside, the goal is to cut away the bad stuff and all the margins around it as to prevent further growth.
There is nothing clean or pretty about it.
I knew Sharon’s story.
Seeing her that day, all I could focus on was her impeccable laugh and the Hollywood-quality smile that grew across her face as she chatted up friends and family. I didn’t see her exhaustion or edema from the steroids she was constantly on.
I saw her joy—so much of it I thought the theatre windows would burst.
What seemed like a regular day for any of us was a perfect day for her. Maybe on that day we felt rushed or overwhelmed. Show runs in theatre is a stressful time for families. You practically live there, darting home if your kid forgot her tights or you didn’t pack enough water or forgot to bring your baked goods for the snack bar.
You spend so much time making it all come together: sewing a missing button, adding velcro to a torn seam, gluing broken props, and powdering shiny noses. You chew your nails down the the bone every second before the lights dim and the curtains open.
But for Sharon the day was a good day. It was one of the last days she would feel well enough to venture out and it was an honor to have her at Gwyn’s show.
I can’t recall how many times in the past two school years Gwyn slid into the seat next to me in the parking lot to say, “Alison’s mom is dying. She wasn't in school again.”
Too many to count.
Somehow, by the good graces of the universe, she always pulled through.
Last weekend Gwyn’s production of The Sound Of Music from Thursday through Saturday. I attended the Thursday show with a friend. Alison and her older sister volunteered as ushers and then sat in the back row during the show.
They cheered and hollered, having an incredible time watching their friends and classmates perform.
On Friday night while curling Gwyn’s hair she whispered to me, “Alison’s mom died.”
“Oh, sweetie. I’m so sorry. Was this today?” I leaned in to hug her.
“No, it was earlier in the week. That’s why she was absent.”
My mind jumped to the previous night when I saw the sisters. They were as carefree as ever, going on about life as teen girls do—living exactly how Sharon taught them to live.
Alison never really knew a mother without cancer. Sharon was diagnosed with breast cancer when Alison was very young. By age 13 she had come to accept that her mother’s body would soon fail and be placed into the earth.
She learned to live life as normal, knowing she wouldn’t always have a mother to hold.
A mother with cancer was normal.
A family burdened with hospital bills, unsure how rent would get paid, or whether their car would run a little longer without an oil change was all normal.
To the outsider it feels tragic. You want to kick and scream and shout at the world how unfair it is for these beautiful girls to not have a mother.
But it is their normal.
And above anything else, we should appreciate their normal with grace and humility.
We all have our personal normal.
It’s ours to own. It tells our unique story and answers the ‘whys’ of who we are. Without our normal we wouldn’t be the incredible humans we are today.
Your normal may feel burdensome or unfair. It may make you feel guilty or undeserving of it.
But that can only happen when you compare your normal to someone else’s normal.
If you learn to go through life without judgment, you will see the beauty that is your normal.
Regardless of what happens to you, what past you lived through, what your present looks like, it happens with purpose. It is meant to be.
It is the whole of who you are.
I saw that with Alison and her sister Thursday at The Sound of Music. I saw their laughter and how they smiled Hollywood smiles like Sharon. I saw them lacing in and out of isles as they ushered attendees to their seats. I saw them stand taller than the crowd at the end of the show so their friends could see how proud they were of the performance. And after the show they pushed through strangers to embrace each friend with a warm hug.
They were living for that moment.
And they will for the next.
As we all should be. Because you are perfectly normal. Your very own normal that is unique to your canvas. It tells your story and it’s a beautiful story.