A cruel life full of joy and beauty
It is hard to imagine growing up like Michelle Barreras and Carolyn Amey did, raised by a single mother who was diagnosed with mucoepidermoid carcinoma of the mouth and jaw when she was only 23 years of age. Judy Anderson (in the above photo on the left) was a young bride with 10-month-old Carolyn when she received the devastating news. Hers was a similar kind of cancer that felled Lucy Grealy, whose story was chronicled in Ann Patchett’s best-selling memoir Truth & Beauty: A Friendship (Harper Perennial, 2005).
From the beginning, Anderson beat the odds. She beat the initial prognosis and the multiple surgeries and attempts to reconstruct her jaw that followed. She beat still more surgeries, radiation, painful skin grafts, pneumonia, infections, septic, and more. She beat the impossibility of eating solid foods, managing to survive for decades on a liquid diet after part of her lower jaw and tongue were removed. She even navigated the enormous difficulty of speaking in spite of the fact that her ability to do so was compromised.
Anderson was a remarkable woman—a brave, determined mother who wrote that she lived only for her daughters. Life was cruel to her, but she still managed to create moments of happiness and beauty. When her long battle finally ended in 2005, Judy was 65 years old, surpassing everyone’s thoughts about her life expectancy, including her own. Here is a look back at Judy’s life from the perspective of her daughters, Carolyn, 53, and Michelle, 47, both of whom are now married with children of their own.
Q: One thing that strikes me right away about your story is that you never knew your mother as anything but sick.
Amey: From the time I could speak, I became my mother’s voice and her advocate. I was five years old and tasked with calling the gas station about an oil change. I went to all her doctor appointments, made all the phone calls. I was her constant protector. It was a lot of pressure.
Barreras: It’s amazing that my mother was able to give birth to me, given her condition. She and Carolyn took good care of me, but it was still very hard knowing that my mom wasn’t like other moms.
Q: Your mom had a remarkable will to live. Where did that come from?
Barreras: Her own mother died of cancer when she was eight. Nothing in her life was ever easy. It was really hard for her after her mom died, and I know that her dad remarried, and she was not close to her stepmother or stepsisters.
I still remember her telling me that she refused to leave my sister motherless. She was determined to stay alive for my sister and then me. She was unbelievably strong.
Amey: Mom tried to always maintain an upbeat presence. I honestly don’t remember her coming undone. She was very soulful and very much alive in spite of her illness. This gave her a fighting spirit.
Q: What about your father?
Barreras: I was about four years old when my dad left our family. It wasn’t pretty, and my dad went on to marry a few more times. We were never close, but Carolyn and I did see him on weekends, and when I was in third grade, during one of Mom’s surgeries to reconstruct her jaw, we spent time living with him and my paternal grandparents. A few years later, my grandparents took us to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where they purchased land. My mom fell in love with it and decided that we should make a fresh start there, so that’s what we did . . . moved to Arizona to begin again. We stayed there until I was 16, when we had to move back to Iowa because my mom needed more care.
Amey: I didn’t have the best relationship with my dad growing up. My mom had full custody, but I’m sure it wasn’t easy on our dad that she moved us to Arizona when we were little. My feelings have changed over years; today I realize that he was the best dad he could be.
Q: What were the hardest moments?
Amey: Everywhere we went, people stared at her. I’d stare back with daggers in my eyes, especially at the kids at church who would turn around to gawk at her from the first pew. I felt so responsible for my mom that I was afraid to show emotion and let my guard down. I really didn’t have time to be a child.
Barreras: It was awful the way people stared. People treated her like a pariah. Mom didn’t think anyone could love her physically because of her cancer and the way it made her look. Even simple things like going out to dinner as a family weren’t possible.
Q: So her diet was pure liquid?
Barreras: Yes, she resisted a feeding tube, so everything went into the blender, including pizza. Later, her ability to eat became more compromised, and she needed a sifter to strain all the fine particles from her food that might cause her to choke.
Amey: Mom was a very healthy eater; she ate fruits and vegetables five times a day. Every so often she’d treat us to Jack in the Box for french fries and McDonald’s for hamburgers, but only the drive-through, never inside.
Q: Your mother was fiercely independent and creative. Tell us more about how these skills helped her cope.
Barreras: She put a lot of positive energy into her sewing, embroidery, cooking, and gardening. She also loved collecting holiday figurines, straw goats, and wood horses, things that connected her to her Swedish heritage. Mom was incredibly handy, too. She fixed pretty much everything in our house.
Amey: She was also a beautiful writer. My son Taylor was her first grandchild, something she never dreamed she’d live to see. From the time I was pregnant, Mom wrote a journal for Taylor that I later made into an online hardcover book. She did the same with Michelle’s children . . . page after page of affection, everyday observations, and real-life wisdom. These journals are like gold to us.
Q: And she published a cookbook?
Barreras: Yes. It was called The Smooth Foods Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Blending.
Amey: She really wanted to help other people with eating challenges.
Q: How did your mother’s illness affect your career choices?
Barreras: I’m a kindergarten teacher. I love what I do, and there’s no doubt in my mind that my mom’s love for books and knowledge influenced me.
Amey: I became a nurse and caregiver. I’m searching for a different path now, but I’ll probably always be driven to caring for others.
Q: Any wisdom you can share with other daughters who might be caring for or mourning their moms at this time of year?
Barreras: Don’t be defined by your story or your loss. Believe that you will get through it and make it to the other side.
Amey: I will always treasure knowing that my mom was all about the beauty inside people. That’s something to hold on to forever.
Judy Anderson’s last words were prophetic. She wrote:
“I had the fortunate opportunity to live and raise two beautiful daughters and discover their love for me. I had appreciation for what I had and could become. I had an opportunity to discover peace within through acceptance of my challenges. The degree of peace within depends on how well we accept, adjust, and love one another.”
What grace and dignity. What lessons a dying woman and her daughters teach us. This is true: some of us are more fortunate in the book of life and that’s just the way it is. You can’t rationalize an illness like Judy Anderson’s. Hers was an awful burden but so, too, is the suffering of any mother (or person).
No matter how hard the journey feels, no matter how deep the pain of loss, there is love. And love, it turns out, is the best remedy for healing. Love boldly this Mother’s Day in honor of your mother and mothers come and gone.
Nancy Sharp is an author, a keynote speaker, and a storyteller who frequently speaks publicly about loss, transformation, and bold living. The author of the award-winning memoir, Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, she lives in Denver with her second husband, her twins, and her two stepsons. You can find her on Twitter at @BoldLivingNow and Facebook at Nancy Sharp.
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