Coldplay’s “Fix You” blared from my headphones on my routine L ride home from work. The lyrics, “lights will guide you home and ignite your bones,” suddenly rang true. As we crossed over the River, I burst into tears—the hard core, uncontrollable kind. I couldn’t stop. And the harder I tried, the harder I cried. Concerned passengers asked if I was okay, but they only made it worse. To escape the embarrassment, I prematurely dashed off the train and cabbed it home. I was six months pregnant, and my Mom had died three months earlier.
On my 21st birthday, Mom told me I saved her life. “You know, when you were three years old, you had these booties on, and you kicked my chest so hard that the pain didn’t go away,” she revealed. “I thought you just really bruised my chest.” Weeks later she finally went to the doctor, and at 35 years old, discovered she had stage three breast cancer—the same disease that took her mother and sister well before their time. Mom quickly underwent a double mastectomy, participated in a drug trial, and survived several recurrences over the next 26 years.
When my Dad called to say Mom’s cancer metastasized, I hoped to save her again. It had to mean something that she received this death sentence the same day I discovered I was carrying a life. I figured if I told her I was pregnant, she’d dig deep and live on. She definitely tried.
For two months, I reassured her that she’d live long enough to hold my baby. “You’ve beat this before. You can do it again,” I kept telling her. But as the cancer spread, I knew she’d be gone before I gave birth. I felt selfish for wanting her to fight longer, watch my belly grow, support me in the delivery room, and introduce me to motherhood. Then suddenly all of that meant nothing; I just wanted her out of pain. When my pregnancy hit the three-month mark, I couldn’t wait to tell her, yet I dreaded it. After hearing the news, she looked at me with a sigh of saddened relief and said, “You’ve made it to the safe zone.” We both knew she really was saying, “I have to go now.” She passed away three days later.
The remainder of my pregnancy was mixed with grief for Mom, interrupted by excitement for the baby and vice versa. I attempted to ignore her death as a way of protecting my baby from a stressful environment. But a few episodes of hyperventilating put that theory to rest, and I realized I somehow had to deal with the loss. My husband, family, and friends were beyond supportive, but some were grieving Mom’s loss, too, and others couldn’t possibly treat my heartache.
Chicago became my therapist—a place where I could think through my pain in privacy, but not seclusion. The vibrancy of the city kept me moving, thinking, and avoiding self-pity. Commuting to and from work allowed me to grieve and reminisce about times spent with Mom, as private lives silhouetted in windows created comfort that life carries on. Walks in the Loop during lunch guaranteed distraction by a new store, the detail on a building, or a face experiencing my same joys and tragedies. Our Uptown condo gave me a safe haven, safest of all.
A few weeks after Mom passed, my husband and I were sitting on our couch watching mindless TV, when suddenly my chest became tight and I couldn’t breathe. I jumped up and ran to our family room window gasping for fresh air. My husband hurriedly opened it, but the window was too high and too small to circulate air quickly enough. My instincts forced me out our front door and my legs carried me up five flights of stairs to our building’s rooftop deck. I flung open the entrance as the brisk March air slapped me in the face, widening my eyes to the skyline—so big, so tall, so beautiful. Standing seven stories high, the lighted skyline immediately illuminated my soul. Steadily the panic attack began to subside as I stared in awe at the magnificent buildings guiding me to stand strong and confident and to weather the storm just like they always do.
A few months later, and six months pregnant, the warmth of spring gave us reason to visit our favorite Chicago spot. My husband and I had been to Zanies for numerous shows—all of which provided endless laughs—but I wondered if this time it would be different. If somehow my love for all-out laughter had been suppressed far, far away with Mom’s passing.
The emcee brought about a few smirks, and the opening act got a few giggles. But then the headliner took stage, and joke after joke I laughed harder and harder. Eventually so hard that I felt little bursts of kickback from my growing baby. At first the kicks startled me, throwing me back into the harsh reality of my life. No Mom. Baby on the way. Baby’s outbursts even stirred up a wave of guilt for laughing. After all, Mom couldn’t laugh anymore. But then baby made his point clearer. Every time I laughed, he kicked. When I laughed harder, he kicked harder. When I broke out in a laughing attack, he kicked and kicked and kicked. By the end of the performance, it was like we were laughing in unison. One couldn’t do without the other.
Soon, summer rolled around and all I wanted to do was grab some delicious pizza from our neighborhood fest. I put on my favorite baby blue maternity tank top, stretchy jean capris, and comfy flats, and we ventured off to Armitage Avenue. The smell of hot, fresh food made my stomach grumble, while the booths packed with homemade arts and crafts sparked my interest. Best of all, the live cover band put me in the mood to dance. Before I knew it, friends pulled me by the stage near an open area big enough for me to spin around and around, hands on my belly, feeling freer than ever. “Dancing makes me happy” went through my head. “Mom liked to watch me dance. I’m dancing with my baby. Mom, I’m dancing with my baby!”
My due date fell on the first day of fall. That day I woke up craving my favorite spinach artichoke dip from a bar and grill just a neighborhood away. My husband drove us there and picked it up to go. I devoured the entire order on our ride home. One hour later, contractions began. After laboring at home for seven hours, it finally was time to drive to the hospital. As my husband hurried out of the building to get our car, I waddled my way to the elevator, safely made it out the front door, and into the car. Within minutes we were on Lake Shore Drive, well on our way to the hospital. In between breaths and moans, there it was again, staring me in the face—the breathtaking skyline. That’s when a calmness took over as the lyrics, “lights will guide you home and ignite your bones” played in my head.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer based near Chicago. She writes feature articles, how-tos, and inspiring stories for a wide range of publications and websites. Find her on Twitter: @Cassatastyle.