10 Cents and a Map: My Trajectory Towards Post Traumatic Growth

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My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35, at a time when treatment choices were limited. You were offered three things: a radical mastectomy, radiation and one kind of tortuous chemotherapy. When cancer came, she checked off the boxes, took what was offered to her and fought back. At that time there were few clinical trials and what did exist we could not afford. We were a middle-class family; my mom was a divorced school psychologist working in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

We always had what we needed and did not always have what we wanted. My mom wanted a clinical trial.

What we could afford was a trial in Tijuana, Mexico. It was no Mayo Clinic, that’s for sure, but it was driving distance and cheap. It was the best we could do. So, in the late Spring of 1985 she moved into a hotel room in Tijuana with my grandma Mary. My cousin Sharon stayed with me in Los Angeles. I was almost 16 and finishing the 10th grade.

At the time I felt abandoned. How could she leave me? She didn’t know how much time she had left, and she was choosing (in my self-centered teenage brain) to be away from ME.

The days passed slowly and painfully for me.   I lived for the weekends, when I would practice driving and I could see my mother and feel her presence.

May 12, 1985 was Mother’s Day in Mexico.

I desperately wanted alone time with my mom.  We got into bed together. She laid behind me with her arms around me; a feeling of safety virtually impossible to replicate.

The sunlight peered through the heavy drapes of this typical drab hotel room. I could see dust shimmering in the air in a way that seemed rather angelic.

My mom was 41; tall, blond and beautiful, even after cancer had robbed her of a certain vibrancy. Her chest was tattooed with failed reconstruction efforts that she owned as battle scars, with grace and courage. Her hands were exquisite in their wisdom, with strong natural nails that women pay for today. We breathed together as if my birth had not happened and as if death was not coming for a visit.

Warm life flowed from her hands onto my shoulders and, for a moment, I thought hope was in the doorway and everything would be OK.

We were together.

We were good.

Life was going to be fine.

But then fear was sitting restlessly on the edge of the bed and she spoke.

“The shut of valve for the gas is in the back room.”

“Don’t forget to separate whites from colors.”

There was a quiet angst that followed.

Her words were soft but strong.

“You will need two things to make it in the world: 10 cents to make a phone call when you get lost and a map to find your way when the phone call is not enough.”

The conversation ended.

That would be our last Mother’s Day.

The last time I felt my mom’s breath on the back of my neck and her arms surrounding me in safety.

Like some strange proverb, 10 cents and a map lived misunderstood until it could be heard through the lens of transformation and growth.

 All you will need is 10 cents and a map

            The ability to know when to reach out.

            The patience to navigate uncertain terrain.

            The willingness to find your way through the dark.

            The trust to connect with others when you are in need.

            Always have one special friend.

            Know when to seek guidance.

            Learn how to receive.

            Never give it all away.

            Know your path will change, so pay attention.

            Know whose hand to hold on the different roads you

find yourself on.

            Know who to let go of.

            Look both ways before you cross.

            Always be prepared for the unexpected turns.

            Pay attention to the beauty around you,

but look forward.

            Sing in the car.

            Dance in your living room.

            Find your way to the ocean – you will feel me there.

Watch each sunset over the ocean that you are granted.

            Recognize the women in your life who have something

to teach you and let them go when their job is

complete.

            Hold on to those who become your sisters – they are

keepers.

           

Through the despair of that quiet Mother’s Day in Mexico, my mom had the foresight to impart wisdom that would span a life time and reveal itself, when I was ready to see. As a mother now, I can only imagine the desperate pain of the moment, deciding what needed to be said to the daughter she would not know as an adult.

I have taken her wisdom and molded it to serve as important, yet tenuous, scaffolding in my personal and professional life. It was that loss that sent me on the trajectory that landed me right here; creating sacred space for others to share their losses and believing in the capacity for us to find hope on the other side of tragedy and despair. To celebrate in the extraordinary nature of life that emerges from the ashes of trauma.

10 cents and a map, such a simple directive with eternal impact.

If you would like to spend a day learning about post traumatic growth, and have the opportunity to share your own journey please consider attending my CEU class on February 8, 2019 . Click below for more information.

Elissa Berman