Turns out Mum still has a lot to teach us

Sue Smith, the host of CBC Montreal's Homerun, recently returned to work after an extended absence to deal with the sudden illness of her mother. This is the first in a short series of personal essays about her experience.

'Cancer does not discriminate...It is a terrifying diagnosis — not just for Mum,' says Homerun host Sue Smith

Sue Smith, left, host of CBC Montreal's Homerun, says she still has many life lessons to learn from her mother, Caroline Cooper, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. (Sue Smith/CBC)

Sue Smith, the host of CBC Montreal's Homerun, recently returned to work after an extended absence to deal with the sudden illness of her mother.

This is the first in a short series of personal essays about her experience.

Turns out my Mum still has a lot to teach me. About gratitude. About finding joy in small things and in everyone around her. About facing the future with grace and courage. About keeping one's dignity intact even when in a hospital gown. And mostly about listening — really listening.

I think I am a good listener. It is, after all, a big part of my job as an interviewer.

I listen, yes, but while I am listening I am also thinking of what I am going to say next. Is there a something that needs challenging, a follow-up question?

My Mum on the other hand gives herself fully over to listening. Does not look at the clock or around the room. Does not interrupt. Does not judge. Just listens.

That's what everyone who calls or comes to visit gets to experience, and probably why she has so many loyal and wonderful friends — including many new ones she met while in hospital. They would salute her as she navigated her walker through the corridors of the Montreal Neurological Institute, the world famous Neuro.

"'Oh Mrs. Cooper, look at you!"

"Caroline, you are looking good!"

"Bonjour Madame Cooper!"

Caroline Cooper, Sue Smith's mother, navigates through the corridors of the Montreal Neurological Institute using her walker. She chats every day with with many of the employees and other patients. (Sue Smith/CBC)

She would nod back regally, but would not stop walking as she turned to tell me, "He came here from Sudan," or, "She was in a motorcycle accident," or "He is a marathon runner."

She talks to everyone, learns about their lives. Listens.

As she would listen to me every weekday, my most loyal fan. Although she could sometimes be critical.

"Too many other people on your show," she would regularly tell me, "Not enough of you."

I was, in fact, on the air hosting Homerun when I got the message.

I was stretching my legs during the 4 p.m. newscast and walked to my desk to check my phone. A text from my sister: "911. 911. Mum is having seizures. Call me."

'A shocking diagnosis'

My Mum is 78 and up until a few weeks ago was in pretty good shape; going to the gym and then out for coffee with the girls, driving her numerous grandchildren around, taking care of her 90-year-old husband, talking to me every day.

The seizures came out of the blue — a recurrence of the breast cancer she had battled 15 years ago. That old cancer has metastasized into her brain, her lungs, her adrenal gland and her bones.

What does it mean to be a survivor if cancer can come back after 15 years?- Sue Smith, Homerun host

A shocking diagnosis for someone so healthy.

"Can you believe it?" she tells everybody. "Me! Miss Aerobics!"

Of course cancer does not discriminate. And it is a terrifying diagnosis. Not just for Mum, and for us, but for her friends, many of whom are also "survivors."

Caroline Cooper battled breast cancer 15 years ago. A few weeks ago, she suddenly started to get seizures. (Sue Smith/CBC)

What does it mean to be a survivor if cancer can come back after 15 years? Who is immune?

My Mum had a mammogram in June. It was clear. The cancer is not there. It's just everywhere else.

So you just have to accept it.

The question we most want the answer to is the hardest to determine: how much time does she have left? Two months? Two years? I sympathize with the doctors who squirm and look away at the word "prognosis." Could be more. Could be less. One day at a time.

Kindness from perfect strangers

But Mum seems to be taking it all in stride. In a strange way, she has even blossomed.

For all of us this has been the strange, wonderful and unexpected side of this diagnosis; how much beauty and kindness there is out there.

The kindness of her friends, yes. But what is humbling is how perfect strangers have made this entire journey so much more bearable.

The neurosurgeon who comes by the bedside at midnight after an eight-hour surgery just to see if we have any questions. ("Actually Doctor, I have a list.")

It's too bad it has taken stupid cancer to make everyone say … nice things.- Caroline Cooper, Sue Smith's mother

The nurse who patiently and gently tries to find a new place to put the IV. He used to work at the Children's, he tells Mum — in the prenatal unit.

"Don't worry," he says, "It won't hurt." And it doesn't.

The physiotherapist who only works one day a week so has literally a line-up of patients waiting to see her.

"Do you think you can go up the stairs?" she asks Mum. "Hold onto me. You've got this."

The orderly who sees how anxious Mum gets when she wakes up alone without a familiar face and goes out of her way to find a room big enough for us to sleep in overnight.

"Isn't she wonderful?" Mum tells me, "She has nine brothers and sisters back in Guyana. And one brother who is a big shot doctor in Toronto."

Mum tells her, "Your hair is beautiful. What a nice smile you have. You are an angel."

I expected the people who work in our healthcare system to be competent and professional. It is their humanity that is humbling. I know they are overworked and stressed. That they can still bring such compassion to each patient, to each family, every day is the reason the healthcare system can function at all.

But it is not just health care workers. Taxi drivers, neighbours, the little old lady at the mall who gave Mum tips on how to use the seat on her walker. "Never let go of the handle," she counselled. "Watch me."

Caroline Cooper's grandson, Ronan Van Rooij, helped to shave her head when her hair started falling out after radiation treatment. (Andrea Smith)

The hairdresser at our local plaza. After Mum was discharged she had something called whole brain radiation, which is exactly as it sounds. Two weeks to the day that it finished, her hair started to fall out.

Mum was prosaic — "it's only hair" — but it was traumatic to see it literally coming out by the handful.

We took her to our local plaza to get her head shaved. No appointment. Just dropped in.

The hairdresser refused payment. She got us all to gather round the chair and take a turn with the razor. "It's better if everyone is involved, " she told us. And it was.

Mum has decided to spread the love around. With her bald head she is like some ancient divinity.

"You know I love you" she says to her friends, to all of us. She wants to make sure it gets said. And people respond.

Phone calls from childhood friends, emails from people who have met her throughout her life:

"I always admired your hands," said one.

"Oh Coop, my God how we laughed," said another.

"I treasure our friendship."

"Thank you."

"I love you."

It is trite to say that it takes the threat of death to make you enjoy the sweetness of life. But it is true.

Not just for Mum but for all of us. She tells me, "It's too bad it has taken stupid cancer to make everyone say these nice things to each other."

Perhaps that is why Mum actually seems to be enjoying herself.

Caroline Cooper enjoys eating out and spending her time laughing with friends. (Ginny Russell)

She says she has never before had so much attention. She is grateful to each and every person who reaches out. Every little kindness. She is grateful for every extra day.

And so am I. Because I do not know what the future has in store for — any of us. But I do know that I have the chance to keep learning the lessons my Mum has to teach.

What are your thoughts on this story? Do you have a similar experience you'd like to share? Comment below or join the conversation on our CBC Montreal Facebook page.


Sue Smith is the host of CBC Radio One's Homerun in Montreal.