J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Sunday, May 14, 2006

A long walk with Mom 

As they've done throughout their lives, mother and son face another challenge the only way they know: together.


By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star


NEW YORK - The first thing Mom did when we got to Times Square last Saturday morning was pick up her "Survivor" hat. It was light blue, pretty next to her green eyes, and fit on top of her wig perfectly. This made her happy.

 

Mom wanted me to take lots of pictures. Seventh Avenue had been blocked off for the event, and thousands of people were already gathered in between the skyscrapers.

 

It didn't take long for Mom to pull out her first tissue. A motivational speaker wearing giant red boxing gloves was performing a skit about what it's like to fight women's cancers. I couldn't help crying either.

 

Mom was diagnosed with a severe form of uterine cancer in August. She hasn't felt very brave this year. How can you be brave, she has often said, when you feel so scared all the time?

 

When she was diagnosed, Mom wanted her fight to be an inspiration. She'd watched Samantha's character in HBO's "Sex and the City," the way she paraded around Manhattan with a hot-pink wig while going through treatment. Cancer wasn't going to stop Kathy Bruns either. Nothing else had in her 53 years.

 

But by October, Mom was so sick she rarely left her chair in the living room. To her, cancer was winning, and she was losing. To me, she had never been braver, and that wasn't for lack of courage before.

 

A single mother working tireless hours as a pianist, Mom had somehow been at every event that mattered and most of the ones that didn't as I grew up in Shreveport, La.

 

She threw a slumber party for me on my eighth birthday, even though she felt awkward entertaining my private-school friends in our modest, one-story home.

 

I didn't know it at the time, but that night, she didn't sleep. Instead, she patrolled the den, where we slept in sleeping bags. Mom had somehow gotten the feeling that my buddies were going to douse me with shaving cream. Of course, their plans were foiled. They knew not to mess with Brady's mom.

 

That's why I had to be there last Saturday in Times Square. She was going to walk in the annual Revlon Run/Walk for Women, which benefits the fight against women's cancers. This time, she needed my help.

 

"I just don't want to finish last," Mom joked as we approached Times Square by subway.

 

At 9:15, the red and white confetti sprayed on Seventh Avenue, and the runners at the front line sped off.

 

Mom interlocked her right arm with my left as our walk began. The song "Lean on Me" played over the loudspeaker.

 

***

 

The last 23 years, really, have been nothing more than a long walk with Mom. Of course, for the first 18, she pretty much told me exactly where to go.

 

After she and Dad divorced when I was 6, we moved from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Shreveport, where she grew up. My grandparents still lived in the same red brick house on Richard Avenue.

 

Mom went back to Shreveport because she couldn't support us on a musician's salary. Granddaddy was the CEO of the electric utility company in town and was willing to help us get on our feet. She also wanted his male influence in my life.

 

Looking back in recent years, I have realized how hard it must have been for Mom, being a single mother.

 

The first time she went on a date - with a guy named Russell who played the violin - I told her I didn't like Russell because he was a Cleveland Browns fan. Sadly enough, I don't remember her dating for a long time after that.

 

Life in Shreveport was a series of phases for Mom. First, there was the tennis phase. She'd play all the time with her friend Gayle. Mom had never been the greatest athlete, but she loved Steffi Graf and Wimbledon.

 

Then, in fifth grade, Mom got hired at Centenary College as a staff accompanist in the music department. The hippie phase began in earnest. Hanging around all these college guys all day, Mom had to change her fashion taste from flowery Southern traditional to trendy, patterned and colorful. She still remembers the first time I saw her new bellbottomed pants and Birkenstocks. "Mom," I said, "why are you trying to be something you're not?"

 

Clearly, Mom was trying to feel young and vibrant again, not like the single mother of an 11-year old. Living a mile from Granny and Granddaddy, it probably felt something like teenage rebellion.

 

The last phase is ongoing. Mom met Jeremy Bruns in 1996, during my freshman year of high school. Mom was 44 years old, and Jeremy was 24, the interim organist at our church. You can imagine the scandal in old-fashioned Shreveport. My friends made fun of me, and Mom felt like everyone in the congregation was talking about her in between hymns.

 

Jeremy proposed to Mom during the spring of 1998. The bellbottoms must have worked. She wanted to say yes, but she had to ask me first. I was halfway through high school, but this was a no-brainer. Mom was so happy with Jeremy, and if it meant moving to Buffalo, N.Y., for her to have a life of her own, then fine.

 

From there, we seemed to walk even faster. I finished high school in Buffalo, went to school at the University of Michigan and ended up in Kansas City.

 

Mom and Jeremy moved to Boston, where Mom played for singers at Boston University. They lived there for three years before moving to Manhattan, where Jeremy became the associate organist at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue.

 

Mom would have to pinch herself as she looked out the window of her new Midtown apartment, a block from Central Park. Little Kathy Stall had come a long way from Shreveport.

 

***

 

I was driving home from a Royals game on Aug. 9 when Mom called. She found out I was driving and immediately sounded weird. She said she would call back. Turns out, she didn't want me to wreck my car when she told me the news.

 

"I have cancer, Brady," she finally told me. Mom and I cried tears of disbelief together that night.

 

She had endometrial cancer, which is cancer of the endometrial lining in the uterus. Mom quickly told me that it had one of the best survival rates out there. So, that was the plan. We would stay positive.

 

But on Sept. 2, that would become much harder to do. Results from her hysterectomy came back, and the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She had Stage IIIC cancer out of four stages, four being the worst. Mom was in the hospital, still recovering from the surgery, but Jeremy informed me through e-mail.

 

"Brady," he began, "you need to be preparing yourself." But I wasn't the least bit prepared for what was to come. He told me that Stage III cases come with a 30 percent five-year survival rate. That is, three out of 10 patients survive longer than five years after treatment.

 

For the first time, my fear poured out of me. I was tired of holding it in, and I cried so hard it hurt my throat. Then, I did the worst possible thing. I began to imagine the rest of my life without her.

 

"She still has so much more to give," I wrote Jeremy that night, "and so much more to receive. That is what just kills me."

 

Just months before, on one of my visits, Mom and I went down to Greenwich Village and partied into the late hours. She wore a low-cut top and called herself "Hot Momma."

 

But during a visit in late October, Mom wasn't feeling very hot. She didn't take off her nightgown or bother to put on makeup for the entire weekend. We watched hour upon hour of college football as she sat uncomfortably in her chair with her eyes closed half the time.

 

Mom had begun radiation treatment and chemotherapy. She was constantly dizzy and couldn't keep down her food. The doctors couldn't even explain why her body was reacting so poorly to the hysterectomy and treatment.

 

One morning, it was my job to walk Mom to radiation. She gripped my arm with as much strength as she could muster. She was so wobbly on our way to the train that if I had let go, she would have fallen down the stairs.

 

As we walked, Mom never took her eyes off her feet. In 23 years, I had never seen her so unsure of where she was going.

 

***

 

Over the years, Mom has probably spent upwards of $100,000 on haircuts. I have no idea where the money comes from, but surely there is a credit card earmarked specifically for such expenditures. The tryout for being Mom's stylist when she moves to a new city is probably something like trying to make the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team.

 

So, Mom's bravest moment this year had to be when she let Jeremy mow down her hair with a pair of clippers. She was going to lose it anyway, so why not get it over with?

 

"I wish I had lost my neuroses along with my hair," she has said.

 

Yes, Mom still worried about the little things, despite her hope that such a big thing as cancer would make her stop. She stressed for weeks in December over where we would eat meals in the city when the family visited for Christmas. I told her that nobody cares, but realized that Mom simply needed to preoccupy her tired mind with something.

 

As Feb. 20 and her first post-treatment scan approached, Mom was as scared as she'd ever been. Treatment was so debilitating mentally and physically. There was no way she could do it again so soon.

 

Mom called the day of her scan, and I braced myself.

 

"Brady," she said, "I have good news. The scan came back, and I'm totally clean! I don't have to come back for another scan for six months!"

 

Thank you, God.

 

Mom said her clean bill of health hadn't set in at all. She had six months to live a normal life. But, then again, what was normal?

 

***

 

Well, surely she'd feel normal in England. Mom had earned herself a relaxing trip overseas. She discovered a group from Houston that did a mystery-book tour of England every August. She'd get to meet her favorite mystery writers in the same places the books were set.

 

She came to Kansas City in late March, finally taking the flight she booked back in August. It was the first time she had left Manhattan since she was diagnosed. I introduced her to the steak au poivre at Le Fou Frog, and we watched some schmaltzy romantic comedy. It was like old times.

 

Soon, she would hear about the Revlon Run/Walk for Women. And soon, we'd be walking once again. In the weeks before the 5K walk, Mom listened to walking tapes, which allowed her to practice walking the three miles in her apartment. She was invigorated by the challenge. After October, she'd never take walking for granted again.

 

May 6 finally arrived. It was a beautiful morning for a walk. We weaved through the west side of Central Park, which was just coming into full bloom. Mom was doing great. She probably could have left me and Jeremy in the dust if she wanted.

 

At each mile marker, she stopped and made a goofy pose for the camera. And after 1 hour, 18 minutes, we saw the finish line. Mom lifted her hands high in the air. She called that her "Rocky pose."

 

Once everyone had finished - Mom didn't finish last - it was time for the survivor photo. Women of all ages, wearing their matching light-blue hats, marched toward the stage. Each woman gave us a snapshot of her story. One woman said she had been cancer-free for seven years, but she had a relapse. It was time to fight again.

 

Tears swimming down my face, I realized Mom's battle had only begun.

 

When it was Mom's turn to talk, I could tell that she was fighting off a waterfall.

 

"Kathy, endometrial cancer, two months survivor," she choked out. "Thank you, Brady."

 

She didn't need to thank me. When it was over, we hugged. I closed my eyes and didn't want to let go.

 

"You know," she said, "I think that if I have to go through treatment again, I'll be able to fight it."

 

We walked away from the park that day, our eyes fixed straight ahead, ready to face whatever was to come.

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