By Aimee Thorne-Thomsen
“Roll Tide,” said the young man standing next to me on the corner of North Capitol and F Streets. He’d been looking at me sideways for a couple of minutes, but I didn’t know why, nor did I care. I was on my way to help my colleagues set up for our annual youth conference, the Urban Retreat, dressed in jeans, sneakers and my Alabama sweatshirt. Not the costume I usually wear to work, but one I am much more comfortable in. We had crossed North Capitol alongside each other and were waiting for the light to change when he uttered the famous rally chant. He must have been gauging whether I really was a fan of the Alabama football team before he said it, though I am not sure how he measured that by looking at me sideways as we crossed the street. After my own delayed reaction, I replied, “Roll Tide,” with a smile.
I’m a lifelong sports fan, going to Yankees games as a child and jumping for joy when the Knicks drafted Patrick Ewing. Baseball, basketball, football, tennis, cycling, volleyball, swimming, track and field, etc we watched all of them when I was growing up. I can survive on a steady diet of ESPN and little else. Despite this, I was still surprised at how differently the college football universe is, especially if you cheer for Alabama. I mean when I walk around the streets of New York, I don’t acknowledge every Yankee fan I encounter. (Part of that is because as New Yorker, you don’t really acknowledge anyone, and the other part is there are so damn many Yankee fans that I would never have time to breathe if I acknowledged each and every one I encountered.) I know what you’re thinking: How does a girl from the Bronx become a fan of ‘Bama? I have no relationship to the University of Alabama, my family has no roots in Alabama, hell, I’ve never even been to Alabama. What gives? How I came to yell “Roll Tide!” is a story of accidental communities.
In the fall of 2008, my mother was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. I shook from fear and grief as my mother shared the news with me. Not only was I completely unprepared for it, but I was also still mourning the unexpected death of my best friend’s mother a few days earlier. She died from an aggressive form of breast cancer. I felt like I had been caught in a thunderstorm with no rain coat, no umbrella and no idea of how to get out from the rain.
From one moment to the next, cancer took center stage in my life. I reached out to the LIVESTRONG Foundation for support, and they provided me with tools and resources that would help me support my mom through this fight. And just like that, I became a member of the cancer community. The folks at LIVESTRONG had been through what my family was going through, what my best friend was still going through in caring for her father, who was in the end stages of his own fight with cancer. We spoke a common language, laced with fear, rage, and resistance to this disease that threatened us and our loved ones. More than that, these strangers who were suddenly connected to me through cancer, offered strategies for how to cope with cancer, how to be a caregiver, and how to hold on to hope in the darkest hours. I had never imagined that I would be a member of this community and share in its grief and rejoice in its resilience.
On December 23rd my mom began chemotherapy. She would undergo three rounds before surgery and then three more after surgery. While she may have been scared, Mami didn’t let that dampen her holiday spirits one bit. In fact, she carried on, as vivacious as ever. One of my favorite pictures that holiday is of my mom dancing salsa with my cousin Danny while wearing the pouch that pumped her chemotherapy drugs into her body.
That spring Mami underwent surgery to remove her stomach and the cancer that had invaded it. Spending that day in the hospital with my brother, my mother’s partner (my other Mother), and my cousins was one of the most difficult and scary moments of my life, but it couldn’t compare to what was waiting for us. A routine six-hour procedure became an unusual eight-hour ordeal. If there is one thing someone doesn’t want to hear when their mom is in surgery, it’s that their mom is unusual. Turns out that Mami’s stomach was on the opposite side of where it was supposed to be. And her liver lay underneath her stomach instead of alongside of it. I’m convinced that somewhere out there is a medical journal article about my “unusual” mother. She finally emerged from the operating room at almost nine o’clock that night, almost eleven hours after I had kissed her goodbye and wished her good luck.
Once she recovered from this major surgery, the plan was to begin another three rounds of chemotherapy. She went back to New York Presbyterian Hospital for the first round, and it went well, or so we thought. My mom’s body wasn’t ready for the chemical onslaught, and she developed a massive infection. I remember the phone call so clearly still. It was Memorial Day weekend, and I was getting ready for a family friend’s wedding. When I spoke to my mom that Saturday morning, she described what she was feeling, which only alarmed me. I told her to go to the hospital right away. I tried to act as if this were a little complication, but when it’s your mom fighting for her life against cancer, there is no such thing as a little complication. I told my husband that I had to go home, home to New York, home to my mother, and make sure that she was all right. So instead of celebrating the wedding of our family friends in Upstate New York, I was on the Metro-North train heading to the Bronx, to the emergency room. That’s where I found my mom and my other Mother.
Then all hell broke loose. From that Memorial Day weekend through the beginning of August my Mami spent more than 80 days in hospitals and then a rehab center, recovering from complications from the surgery that removed the cancer and saved her life. The infection triggered electrolyte imbalances, malnutrition, erratic heart rates, high anxiety, and God knows what else. It was a long 80-plus days, spending countless hours by her bedside, getting to know her healthcare providers, and advocating for her care. It was exhausting. And it was terrifying. I even had to make “the call”–the call to my brother, other Mother and family members telling them that they had to come to the hospital right away because I didn’t know if Mami would make it through the night. She pulled through, and eventually came home to heal and begin her post-cancer life.
When my mom came home, she still needed a lot of care and attention. My aunts, thank God, took charge and organized us into shifts so that my mother was never alone. She was still too fragile to care for herself. The long hospitalization had been traumatic and taken its toll on all of us. We were all still healing from what my mother now calls “the lost summer.” Titi Nery and Titi Myrna took turns staying with Mami during the week, with other family members visiting during the day. My other Mother and I traded weekends, so we could each have time to recover from caregiving on top of our full-time jobs. On those weekends when I was on duty, I ran errands, cooked, cleaned, helped Mami bathe, and did whatever else she needed to feel comfortable and safe in her home. Inevitably, Mami would run out of energy and take a nap. During those naps, I tried to keep myself occupied, but not so occupied that I couldn’t immediately jump to her side if she needed me. That usually meant sitting on the couch to watch television. If you aren’t a sports fan, you might not know (or care) that at that point in the sports calendar, you can either watch baseball or you can watch football. And Saturdays are all about college football.
I didn’t have a particular college team to cheer on. I went to Yale, and much as I love my Bulldogs, they are nothing to brag about. New York isn’t known as a college football powerhouse, either. So I began to follow the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the conference my nephew followed. He is a diehard Florida Gators fan. So to bust his chops, I would cheer for anyone playing against Florida, and that’s how I began to cheer for Alabama. We sent trash-talking messages to each other via text and Facebook. He would post pictures of Tebow on my page, and I would respond with an obnoxious “Roll Tide!” Cheering for Alabama connected me to community that just weeks earlier I didn’t even know existed. For a few hours a week I could get lost in the euphoria of cheering for Julio Jones, Mark Ingram and Dont’a Hightower. And for a few hours every week, I could forget that my Mami was fighting cancer.
As the season progressed, Mami grew stronger and Alabama kept winning. We celebrated her first cancer anniversary, and Thanksgiving was especially poignant that year. When Alabama beat Florida that December, I danced around Mami’s living room and screamed till I was hoarse. She didn’t understand why it meant so much to me. She hadn’t seen the lifeline that college football had thrown me that fall. We hadn’t just survived that fall; we had thrived. We had beaten cancer. And next year, Mami celebrates her 5th cancer anniversary!
I know that some people turn to religion for strength and a sense of community during hard times. Not me, I turned to LIVESTRONG and Alabama. Each provided me support during some of the most difficult moments of my life. They gave me hope when I had none and reminded me that there could be life after cancer. So the next time you me rocking my Alabama sweatshirt, don’t be afraid to smile at me and say, “Roll Tide!”