Jason Davis: For me, Mother’s Day should be Sister’s Day

May. 12, 2014 @ 08:19 AM

Mother’s Day is always an awkward holiday for me. 

On Feb. 19, 1981, my mother succumbed to a long battle with cancer, just two weeks before my third birthday.

My father was 38 at the time, and my sister was 14.

My memories of my mother are almost non-existent, but when I think of her, I think mostly of her smile. The smile wore she in pictures — which is, truthfully, the source of all of my “memories” of her.

There’s the smile she’s wearing in a wedding photo from the early 1950s, as a young flower girl. There’s the smile on her face from the “Best All Around” superlative in her senior yearbook — interestingly, an award she shared with my father. Then there’s her smile in her nursing uniform, as she graduated from the University of Tennessee’s School of Nursing. Finally, there are the photos of the two of us. 

There aren’t many in that last category — she was already ill when I was born — and she was undergoing aggressive treatment throughout my early life. 

But still, she was smiling in all of them.

Despite the fact that she was dying, she always looked happy. 

As a child I always wondered how she could be so happy while essentially serving out a death sentence.

As an adult, with a child of my own, I can understand.

My mother and father, you see, had quite a difficult time bringing me, their second child, into this world.

They had been trying for over a decade after the birth of my older sister, Lori, but had no success. 

A visit to the doctor confirmed my mother had ovarian cysts that might have impacted her fertility. 

She was told that once they were removed, there was a chance she’d be able to conceive, even though her ovaries would be damaged from the surgery.

Miraculously, just months after the procedure, I was on my way.

My mother, my father always told me, was ecstatic.

They had both come from large families, and wanted more children.

The pregnancy went smoothly, except for an odd development between the fourth and fifth month.

Mom found a lump in her breast.

Back in those days things were different. The doctor was passive about the mass. It could be hormonal changes, after all, maybe a milk gland.

It wasn’t.

During her six-week checkup after my birth, Mom asked again about the lump. An appointment was set up to do some further testing.

At that test, things didn’t look good. Mom was sent for a needle biopsy.

The worst fears were confirmed. 

With a 4-month-old baby boy at home, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Following a radical, invasive masectomy that removed her left breast and the lymph nodes under her left arm — a much more primitive version of the procedure than is performed now — Mom underwent several series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

After a year or so of treatments, she was deemed in remission.

I’m told we had about one good year before a follow-up revealed the cancer had returned, worse than ever. By 1980 it had made its way into her liver, lungs and likely, into her bones.

We had a final family vacation that August to Florida. For the first time, Mom sat out the trip to Disney World. 

The familywide Christmas celebration in 1980 was celebrated at our house, a family first. Mom didn’t have the strength to leave home.

Two months later, in February 1981, she died at age 38.

Fortunately for me, I had an older sister.

Though she was only 14 at the time, Lori took on the great responsibility of being a mother-figure the way only she could. While my father worked long hours at the factory, she provided care.

Sure, I had a babysitter while she was attending school, but after classes she was back at home taking care of me.

It was difficult, I’m sure, for teenager to assume those responsibilities. I remember often being dragged along on outings with she and her friends, and even on the occasional date. The boy my sister later married, and is still married to today nearly 30 years later, had many, many evenings out with an elementary-aged kid in tow. He was always a good sport about it, and that’s probably part of the reason he’s among my best friends today.

My sister, in essence, became my mother.

Today, some 33 years after my mother’s death, when I’ve had a tough day or just need someone to talk to, she’s the person I call.

Lori has three children of her own today — my beautiful neices — as well as a sweet little 1-year-old granddaughter. 

So Happy Mother’s Day, Sis. I hope you have a wonderful day. You deserve it.