As An Empty Nester (With a Brain Tumor)I Feared More Than Being Alone

Last summer, my daughter walked into our family room one evening and sat beside me.

“Mom, we need to talk about who will drive me to college because I don’t think you’re up to it.” She seemed to read my expression of upset protest and went on, “I don’t want to have to worry about taking care of you when I’m going through one of the biggest transitions of my life.”

I sighed. Where had this adult woman sitting in front of me come from? And yet I knew. She’d had to face my brain tumor diagnosis and three brain surgeries starting when she was two.

Then her father and I divorced when she was seven, and she was shuttled between houses with different rules. During her teen years, she’d witnessed the deterioration of my health and had to face the possibility of losing me. 

Kc visiting clark college
Ever since my brain tumor, I have struggled with a loss of identity. (Photo courtesy of KC Thompson)

Ever since the brain tumor, motherhood became my purpose

Ever since the brain tumor, I’d wrestled with losing my identity. Motherhood became my anchor, my purpose. And yet, I knew it would be temporary if I did my job right. This realization hit when my daughter was nine years old and told me she didn’t ever want to leave home to go to college. I felt a clock start ticking inside me; in t-minus ten years, I would be completely alone. I imagined a cliff waiting for me out in the distance, and the thought of jumping off filled me with panic.

My daughter often knew my limitations better than I did, so I considered her words carefully. Hot weather, exertion, and emotional stress triggered a health crisis. I called a friend who was also a single mom and would be dropping her daughter off the week before. She made herself available to drive us or rescue me if needed. Over the next three months, I did my best to improve my physical conditioning, wanting to earn the right to journey with just the two of us.  

I was able to help my daughter move into her college dorm

On the morning we pulled out of our driveway, my daughter played her “road trip playlist,” and the song “Dela” by Johnny Clegg and Savuka came on. Dela means “content” in Zulu and was my favorite song when I studied abroad in South Africa, and she knew that. Tears filled my eyes as I felt time collapse across itself, listening to music I had loved when I was only a year older than she was now.

I looked at her in amazement that she’d thought this moment through. She smiled back at me with open-hearted love and squeezed my hand. 

The five-hour drive across the mountains to Eastern Washington went smoothly, and we spent the night at an Airbnb. We arrived on campus the following day at 9 am, surrounded by green grass, ornate brick buildings, and a stream fully equipped with its duck population. We arrived early to take advantage of 80-degree weather before it reached 105. 

We each carried two Ikea bags at a time from the parking lot up the stairs to her dorm room, but after a few trips, my cheeks were flushed, and my pulse was elevated, a sure sign I was in trouble. I was just about to tell her I needed to rest when I spotted two young men with dollies.

Move-in was physically demanding and exhausting

I cornered one of them with the desperation of someone looking for water in the desert. He told me where I could find two more dollies, and an hour later, we had everything unloaded. 

Sleeping in the Airbnb alone while she was less than a mile away felt strange. I took her out for Sunday breakfast the following day, soaking up every minute with her. Afterward, we returned to her dorm to hang decorations until it was time to say goodbye.

I sat in a chair, drinking water, knowing I was on the edge. Her room was beautiful. It had been worth the extra cost to turn it into a sanctuary because it was all she would have of me while she was here. She took photos to post online, and I felt relieved to have made it to the “after” photos in such a normal way. 

Walking away from my daughter was hard

She walked me out to my car and tearfully hugged me, “I don’t think I can do it, Mom.”

“Oh, okay, sweetheart, it’s okay. Let’s sit in the car to get out of the heat.” I looked at her with all the love in my heart. She was facing her cliff, and this was the moment I’d wanted to be here for. 

“Look at where we are, on this beautiful campus. You made this happen.”

She looked at me with doubt, and I reached for her hand:

Let me share a piece of wisdom someone once gave me. The bill has to be paid now or later and it only gets harder the longer you wait. Learning how to live on your own now, in the dorms, is a lot easier than doing it alone in an apartment later on. Besides, I will only be a phone call, text, or a short drive away if you need me.

K.C. Thompson

I enveloped her as she cried softly. I repeated what always helped me when my mom said, “It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay. You can do this. I know you can.” 

Her eyes shifted between mine, looking for signs of doubt. There were none. She sighed shakily and reached for my hand. I gave her a big hug, trying to fill her up with all the belief I had in her. 

Once I got home, I was fragile and exhausted but also relieved not to have to hide my physical struggles from anyone. After a few weeks, the relief receded, and I found myself sleepwalking at night, looking for my daughter. I felt like Demeter scouring the earth to find Persephone, only I was scouring the inside of my house. When I woke up and realized I was alone, it felt wrong in the mornings. When I told my mom what was happening, she said it sounded like grief.

I signed up with a therapist and a masseuse

In preparation, I’d signed up for regular appointments with a therapist and a masseuse. I’d also enrolled in a yearlong writing class. Writing a book has been my dream since I attended the Young Author’s Conference in sixth grade.

In the first few weeks, I just went through the motions, and none helped other than keeping me occupied. Towards the end of September, a sudden panic emerged while I watched TV. By mid-October, loneliness stalked me like a cold and hungry wolf. It seeped into my bones and wouldn’t leave.

I quietly concluded I couldn’t keep going this way. In those moments, I talked to myself in that soft reassuring voice I’d previously reserved for my daughter, “It’s okay; you’re doing just fine, one foot in front of the other.” It helped. 

I picked her up at the airport for Thanksgiving Break, and I could finally breathe. For those first few days, I memorized her facial expressions and things she’d say. At one point, she told me something was “banana crackers crazy,” and I laughed so hard I choked on water.

We shopped and cooked together for Thanksgiving, splitting up the work, but it left me exhausted. We made our annual trek to the Christmas tree farm on Friday to pick out a freshly cut tree, and I was dragging. I was starting to see the upside to her being away at college because daily life with another person in the house took a toll. 

Most of the panic went away while she was home and didn’t return once she left. By then, I was fully engaged in my writing class and got feedback from the teacher and other students during a workshop that my story needed to be told.

I threw myself into my writing, and that gave me purpose

I felt witnessed. It was a turning point for me. I threw myself into writing, giving me a sense of purpose I’d thought the brain tumor had taken away. That was when I realized that the cliff I’d been facing wasn’t just a fear of being alone; it was a fear that once I jumped off, I would cease to exist. If I wasn’t a mother, who was I? And with no one around to witness my existence, did I even have one? By writing, I was learning to serve as my witness. I’d found a bridge off the edge of the cliff.

At the end of February, she called to tell me she’d been awarded a two-year Chemistry research assistantship, including both summers. My immediate reaction was joy, similar to how I felt when she first came home from preschool, all excited. Then, as she talked, I walked over to my calendar and counted eight to twelve weeks at home each year. After we hung up, I sobbed.

When she came home for Spring Break, grief had transformed into a shaky ground of acceptance beneath my feet. More and more, I saw how many days I needed all the time I had for myself. On the days when my health relegated me to the couch, I was relieved she was off living her life. I fell into a rhythm with myself, our dog, and our two cats. I’d never lived alone before, so I hadn’t known the house wouldn’t be empty because I was still there. In the stillness, the feelings of loneliness and panic were beginning to be replaced by a sense of peace.

In mid-May, I drove over the mountains by myself to help her move from her dorm into an apartment with a friend. She still needed a pep talk when I left, but it was more like a celebration. I was so proud of us. Over the past year, we’d sprouted tiny wings, and this time when we said goodbye, the cliff felt like a chance to watch each other fly. 

More Great Reading:

College Move-In Day: 12 Things That Will Save Your Life!

About KC Thompson

KC Thompson received her MAT as a high school Social Studies teacher in 1999. She was a collegeboard consultant and helped to train teachers to teach the AP Human Geography course. She went on to receive her Ph.D. in Cognitive Studies in Education from the University of Pittsburgh in 2003 and won the AERA/Spencer pre-dissertation research fellowship and the Dissertation of the Year award from the National Council for Geographic Education.

In March, 2004 she found out she had a Craniopharyngioma brain tumor. Over the next two years she temporarily lost her ability to form new long term memories and had three brain surgeries.

When her daughter was a junior in high school, she joined the Grown & Flown College Admissions membership and received an amazing amount of helpful information and support. Once her daughter graduated in 2020, she went on to get her certificate in College Counseling from UCLA and is now a full time independent college counselor in the Seattle area helping students and their families make the transition from high school to college. She's a member of IECA, PNACAC & SACCFind her on her facebook page for her company, LinkedIn, website.

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