Nobody Said Motherhood Would Be So Painful - And Beautiful

I never thought I’d be a mom. My parents emphasized career over motherhood, and I wasn't one of those kids who experienced touching and special moments with my mom growing up.

My mom didn't fit the mold of moms you see on Mother's Day commercials. She came to the U.S. in the 1960s. She was newly married, and soon became a new mom in a new world. She was young, figuring out how to make friends, be accepted and learn a new language. She also struggled with mental illness which was most pronounced when I was young. We didn’t have much of a relationship until much later, when I was presented with the greatest challenge of my life.

 Naya with her horse, Jack,  weeks after her diagnosis and first brain surgery.

Naya with her horse, Jack,  weeks after her diagnosis and first brain surgery.

Fast forward a few decades, I had my own children and built a strong career. I finally had the opportunity to create bonds with my children that I didn’t experience when I was a child. I showed my love through meaningful gifts, daily kisses and nightly tuck ins. I put great pressure on myself to be a great mom, volunteering at school functions, attending games, and working hard to be perfect.

My idea of being a great mom changed in 2013 when my daughter Naya was diagnosed with cancer. I remember sitting with my husband in the hospital cafeteria after Naya’s brain surgery. We were just hoping Naya would live; we didn’t care about the Stanford dream anymore. None of the superficial stuff mattered. We were focused on saving Naya’s life, doing what was best for her, and keeping our family together.

Throughout Naya’s journey, we faced horrifying decisions. Should Naya go through treatment? Should Naya withstand highly-toxic, deadly treatments given how widely her cancer had spread? Was it okay to try and save her life – with no guarantees - and leave her with severe lifelong side effects? Did it matter that her growth would be stunted, she would never write in a straight line or worse yet, she could suffer from another deadly cancer later in life? Yes, but we had no choice. We had to save her life.

Naya had brain and spine radiation combined with toxic chemotherapy. She was strong and determined during her treatments. She swallowed medicine while her throat was raw from radiation, she ate even though she wasn’t hungry, and kept up her studies and love for horseback riding even while her body was battered from treatments. Why? Naya loved life and wanted to live. We wanted her to live. At first, she had good odds of surviving – around 60%. It was later we learned her tumor type had almost a 0% survival rate. If we had known, I am not sure we would have put Naya through treatment.

When Naya relapsed and her cancer returned, there were no treatment options. We faced another big decision. Should we extract stem cells from her little body in the remote case a new treatment was discovered? It was a gamble, but we took it. Naya wasn’t giving up and neither were we. Huge tubes were connected to her neck for days and a loud machine extracted stem cells.

 Our last vacation together, 3 months before Naya died.

Our last vacation together, 3 months before Naya died.

The discovery didn’t come, the stem cells were never used, and Naya’s cancer spread. One night, Naya was up all night with leg pains. I stayed up that night trying to make her comfortable, massaging her legs and tirelessly adjusting heating pads. She told me how lucky she was to have me as her mom and how much she loved me. That night was tough for both of us, but one of many special moments with Naya that I will hold on to for the rest of my life.

 The week before Naya died, after she woke up

The week before Naya died, after she woke up

Two weeks later, the day after our wedding anniversary, Naya suddenly became incoherent. We took her to the hospital, where she soon became unconscious and went into a deep sleep. We had no idea if she would wake up. Tests told us that her brain was full of cancer, and she was having seizures that we couldn’t see. The doctors said there were no more treatments or trials. She was dying.

The question became what to do next. Doctors have many tools to keep kids breathing. Steroids, narcotics, potassium, sodium and who knows what else. We had to decide if we wanted to continue giving Naya medicines.

Here’s the thing, Naya probably didn’t know that she was dying. That’s when it hit us. If we threw meds at her, we were doing it for us, not Naya. At her expense, we would have been buying one more conversation, laugh, hug or kiss. But for Naya, it would have meant more suffering.  She could have been made aware of the scary truth that she would never grow up or see us again. We couldn’t let Naya suffer anymore. We were her parents, and we had to protect her.

In her last days, Naya woke up on her own for brief periods. We brought her home, and got precious time to kiss her, hold her, and sleep next to her. She died in our arms - her dad, brother and mom holding her until her last breath. She was in peace.

I live with the grief and pain of losing Naya every day, and at times, every minute. But Naya is not grieving and is not in pain. Every parent I know would give their life for their child, but sometimes we don’t get that choice. To me, being a “perfect” mom means being there for your kids, loving them, and making them feel safe during the scariest times of their life. It means letting your child go if that’s best for them, even if you can’t fathom the loss.

I had an amazing relationship with Naya and she and I shared a deep and beautiful mother-daughter bond. I wish all mothers who have lost their child a happy Mother’s Day. I know our kids are wishing us a great day, and I know they think we are the best moms on the planet.