LTYM1I wrote recently about having auditioned to participate in Nashville’s first production of Listen To Your Mother, a live staged reading of essays written by real people about motherhood. The event took place on April 26, 2014, and was by all accounts a tremendous success. Similar productions were held in 31 other cities around the same time, and it was a unique and wonderful experience to be part of such a magical, powerful movement … the brainchild of LTYM founder Ann Imig.

I knew I’d be nervous standing alone on a big stage and reading something – especially something really personal – in front of what turned out to be nearly 600 people. And I was. This was no surprise. What was surprising to me, however, was how emotional I became during the reading. Apparently I can talk about cancer all day long, but give me a microphone and ask me to talk about my daughter and it’s a different story. My mouth got dry, my voice got shaky, and I just wasn’t able to pull it together. But I ultimately got through it and was stronger for the experience.

My 12 castmates fared even better (and were able to completely contain their stage fright, if any they had). They were amazing, each and every one of them, and completely exemplified the title of one cast mate’s essay: Girl Balls. You can watch all 13 of the videos here, mine included, and I’d encourage you to take the time when you have it and watch each and every one. These women killed it, and I will forever be proud to have shared a stage with them.

My essay was called “Right On Time”, and I’m including it here in its entirety. Just re-reading it this week was a great reminder to trust the process, even when things get dicey. Especially when things get dicey. Because we’re all right where we’re supposed to be.

I’ve always thought of myself as a late bloomer. I feel like I’ve been late for most everything in my life. (In fact, I’m actually surprised I wasn’t late getting here tonight.)

As a young girl, I was somewhat shy; a wallflower. I got my period and breasts long after most of my peers. I had my first kiss later than my friends, and was one of the last in my group to have a serious boyfriend. And by the time I found my true “match” – and felt like I was finally on the way to becoming my authentic self – I was in my 40s.

Better late than never, right?

Motherhood came relatively late for me too, at age 44. At least the doctors sure behaved as though I was late to the motherhood party. They referred to me as being “high risk” and of “advanced maternal age”, and had me in the obstetrician’s office virtually every week of my pregnancy.

However when it came to actually giving birth, motherhood came early. Maybe one of the first times in my life I’ve been early for anything.

Three weeks before my due date, I started having some pretty severe pain on my left side. Thinking I was in labor, my husband took me to the emergency room at the hospital where I was scheduled to give birth later that month. I was hooked up to a fetal monitor, and they quickly determined … those weren’t contractions I was feeling.

My obstetrician had an ultrasound performed and discovered I was having a placental abruption. The placenta keeping my daughter alive was starting to separate from my uterine wall. She was about to lose her source of nourishment. The doc took one look at the image on the screen and said, “Well, it looks like you’re having a baby today.”

In the blink of an eye, my plans for natural childbirth flew out the window; a spinal block had been administered; and I was strapped to an operating room table for an emergency C-section. Within minutes, the cries of our healthy baby girl filled the OR and we all shed tears of happiness and relief. But as my doctor returned her attention to my open belly, she noticed a softball-sized mass on my left Fallopian tube. This is what had been causing the pain that brought me to the emergency room, not the placental abruption.

My doctor told me she didn’t think it was anything serious; she said it just looked like my Fallopian tube had become twisted. She assumed this is what had been causing the pain that brought me in. She didn’t sound worried, so I didn’t worry either. I had just become a mother … I was on cloud nine!

Five days later, my doctor called us at home. I was holding my newborn baby in my arms, and assumed when I saw my doctor’s name pop up on my phone that she was just calling to check on me. Turns out she wasn’t. She wanted my husband and me to come to her office to meet with her, right then. I instantly knew something was wrong. I called my husband into the room and put the phone on speaker.

“He’s here with me. Just tell us”, I said.

“I’m so sorry”, my doctor responded. “It’s cancer”.

The mass on my Fallopian tube had turned out to be malignant. And when they opened me up a couple weeks later to remove my female organs and poke around, they discovered the cancer was pretty widespread. It was staged at 3C and had been caught just in time. I was given a 50/50 chance of survival.

After I had time to really let all of this sink in, I realized:

That cancerous mass on my Fallopian tube? It actually saved my daughter’s life. Because if the mass hadn’t started causing enough pain to get me into the emergency room, the placenta sustaining her would have separated entirely and she would have starved to death.

And if I’d had my baby through natural childbirth as planned, we wouldn’t have known about the mass.

So my cancer saved my daughter. And my daughter, the baby I thought I’d never have? She saved me.

And it turned out she wasn’t late in coming into my life, or early coming into the world. She was right on time. If motherhood had come any earlier in life for me, the cancer wouldn’t have been detected, as it was a fast growing cancer. And if motherhood had come later, well, it would’ve been too late.

When my daughter – we named her Magnolia – was just two weeks old, I went through major surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible, then immediately began six months of aggressive chemotherapy to try and kill the rest. I had so many people ask how I had the strength to do both – manage a newborn while going through chemo – and I told them, she keeps me going. She keeps me on a schedule, and she is my reason to get up every morning.

Motherhood was my motivation, and it happened right when it was supposed to happen. Talk about a lesson in letting go and trusting the process.

At the end of treatment I was told there was no remaining visible evidence of disease. And I attributed that, in large part, to my daughter. She was my inspiration. She got me through.

That was nearly two and a half years ago. I’m now 46 years old with a happy, healthy almost-two-and-a-half year old who continues to be my inspiration. It seems like just yesterday we brought her home from the hospital, and now she’s this independent little Thomas the Train-loving ballerina with curly red hair and a smile that lights up a room. She gives us all a reason to be our best selves, every single day.

Earlier this year, I learned my cancer had returned. The truth is it probably never left but had just become large enough to be detected. Turns out my cancer is more the chronic kind of recurrent cancer than the kind you beat once and for all and it never comes back. It’s probably something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life or until there’s a cure. And I’m okay with that because I’m here, and I’ll do whatever I have to do to stay here.

That’s what we moms do, right? Whatever it takes to be here for our kids.

So I’m back in chemo and once again, it’s primarily my daughter who is getting me through, keeping me on task, giving me a reason to keep on keepin’ on. I’m determined I will be here to watch her grow up, to guide her and support her and comfort her, because being a girl is hard and being a girl without a mother is even harder.

I’ve never been more motivated to live than I am right here, right now. I’ve never been more grateful for life itself and the world around me. I’ve never been more present. Motherhood did that for me. It saved my life and continues to save my life, day after day.

And it happened exactly when it was supposed to happen. Right on time.


 Photographs by Kerry Woo.

5 Thoughts on “Right On Time

  1. Jo, I’m so surprised to read how nervous you were. You always seem to me to be so calmly confident. I loved you story. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.

  2. Lindsay on July 24, 2014 at 4:44 am said:

    Thank you Joanna. Your courage and fight is inspirational. Your feisty personality helps to

  3. Lindsay on July 24, 2014 at 4:50 am said:

    Thank you Joanna. Your courage and fight is inspirational. Your feisty personality helps to

  4. This is such a beautifully written piece. I love reading all of your blog posts but this one in particular is poignant and poetic. I am sure you absolutely rocked your talk!

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