Searching for Stability Amidst Sickness
For years, my aunt told my mom and me that the two of us needed to watch the show Gilmore Girls together. But between her long work hours and my need to over-pack my schedule, we never found the time to sit down and watch the show. In June of 2020, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and weekly episodes of Gilmore Girls found their way into our routine as part of our search for a sense of stability.
My mom and I created a ritual after her chemotherapy appointments. She would come home from the hospital, exhausted and defeated. She would then lament about a nurse not being able to find her vein or about the cold cap, meant to protect her hair, not fitting tightly enough around her head. After a grilled chicken breast dinner—it was always grilled chicken breast—we would retreat to my family’s bulky, off-white sofa to hide away for the rest of the night. Each episode of Gilmore Girls we watched was followed by a “one more?” until one of us could no longer keep their eyes open.
During our Gilmore Girls nights, I could sense that she was in pain. When she first received her diagnosis, we were told that the cancer was not aggressive, and she would never need any chemo or radiation treatments. After a failed lumpectomy and mastectomy, it became clear that this was not the case. She spent long days in the hospital being poked and prodded; the chemo nauseated her, the cold cap gave her migraines, and her arms were bruised with the remnants of missed needles. But, despite all of this, we never broke our routine. It was sacred.
At times, the show felt repetitive. After four or five sequential episodes, it was easy to feel sick of the quaint and quirky charm of suburban Connecticut. But during the worst of the pandemic, Stars Hollow, the idyllic, suburban setting of the show, felt like a second home. New York City, my hometown, saw some of the highest COVID numbers in the nation—hospitals saw cases and deaths like never before. The sirens of ambulances could be heard at all times of night, and there was even a makeshift COVID treatment center constructed in the middle of Central Park. In the midst of the insanity of the world around us, Stars Hollow was simple, unchanging, and provided the exact sense of stability we were searching for.
I was terrified of bringing this disease into my home, as my mom’s immune system was extremely fragile from her treatments. As a result, we rarely left our apartment over the course of the next several months. During the summer of 2020, while cases in New York began to decrease and the city started to ease its restrictions, my family and I remained shut down. Instead of reuniting with our friends and extended family, my mom and I had Lorelai and Rory to keep us company.
One afternoon, my mom came back in tears from a walk with an old friend. She was reaching the end of her first round of chemo at the time and had been holding on tight to what little hair she had left. During this walk, her friend had been making snide comments about her thinning hair, telling her to “just cut it off.” For my mom, who is typically a composed figure, this distress felt out of character—in the grand scheme of what she had lost in the past few months, her hair felt the most trivial. But her friend’s comments hurt her, and she decided it was time to let go. Later that day, we bought a pair of scissors and cried together as I cut off what little hair remained on her head.
That day was the first time I ever saw her cry. I knew she was embarrassed to be displaying this emotion in front of me. At that moment, I was reminded of an episode of Gilmore Girls we had watched the night before. In season four, Lorelai falls into a significant amount of debt and has to ask a friend to loan her the money. Feeling like a failure, she breaks down into tears. My mom could not be more different than Lorelai Gilmore; while Lorelai is messy and obnoxious, my mom is organized and kind. Despite their differences, they are both deeply afraid of relying on others and feeling vulnerable. Beyond the daily Gilmore Girls episodes, my mom letting herself rely on me is what truly brought us closer together.
The morning of my mom’s first chemo appointment, I woke up with a sore throat. Fearing the worst, I ran four blocks to my nearest Urgent Care, in tears, for a COVID test. After three days of anxious self-isolation, my test came back negative. Confused, I attributed this sudden onset of sickness to a cold or hypochondria, but when I woke up with a similarly-painful sore throat the morning of her second, third, and fourth appointments, I knew the cause of my symptoms went beyond just that.
My body has always been prone to stress—come finals season, I always find myself fighting off a cold or a fever. Usually, a few days of rest can alleviate my symptoms, but the piling up of stressors during that time began to take a more serious toll on my body and overall well-being. During my sick days, I found it hard to do even simple tasks like getting out of bed and eating. These days led me to miss days of school, and eventually fall behind in most of my classes.
The worst part of these sick days was the guilt. Seeing how much pain my mom was in made me feel selfish and attention-seeking for feeling unwell. Despite the physical and academic discomfort I experienced, it all felt so trivial in comparison to what she was going through. When she was first diagnosed, I promised myself that I would be a stable and reliable figure for her in such a turbulent and chaotic time in her life—how could I be anything less than strong for the person who has dedicated their life to me? My mind was practically begging me to be strong, but my body could not follow suit.
On a Friday morning in December, I found myself on the verge of missing a fifth consecutive day of school due to illness. Receiving multiple texts from concerned friends, I recognized that I could not continue to do this alone. I realized that, in my attempts to be strong for those around me, I was actually hurting them more. Allowing myself to be vulnerable with my friends after choking down my anxieties and fears for months was what really saved me during this whole ordeal. There were so many people in my life who wanted to be there for me and to support me; I just had to let them.
At the same time, I learned that it was possible to be strong for my mom while also investing in my mental health. Attending therapy twice a week allowed me to work through the anxiety I was feeling in a healthy and productive way. In the end, it was more comforting for my mom to know that I was getting help rather than suffering in silence.
A friend of mine recently told me that my love for my mom was one of my most defining personality traits. I was initially taken aback by that statement because I feel it’s usually reserved for people who tell their parents a little too much about their lives. But, upon reflection, I think it’s true. During my first few months at Tufts, I felt incredibly homesick—it was the first time I had spent the Jewish High Holidays away from my family, and Medford just felt so small in comparison to New York. These waves of sadness and nostalgia often led to distressed phone calls home with my concerned mother on the other end of the line. During one particularly teary phone call, my mom suggested I watch an episode of Gilmore Girls. We had not seen an episode of the show since she had completed her last round of chemo. I did not know if I could get the same effect from watching it alone, nor did I care to be reminded of the negative circumstances around my watching of the show. Despite my reservations, I heeded her advice, I turned off the lights in my dorm, and started the show from Season One, Episode One. I immediately felt at home; something about the beautiful simplicity of Stars Hollow and its residents felt familiar, and I felt connected to my home, despite being hundreds of miles away. Now, when I’m in search for a little bit of stability, Gilmore Girls offers comfort. Despite the painful context around my viewing of the show, it reminds me of all of the people in my life who were there for me when I needed them—especially my mom.