If there were a Mother of the Year award, Holly Combs would win everything.
I decided this standing at her kitchen counter last week while she worked a coffee machine like a Starbucks barista. Holly rarely enjoys coffee herself these days but still loves that machine, a gift from her husband, Brian, two years ago.
Before cancer, before surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation ate an entire year of her family’s life.
“Do you want sugar or agave in your latte?”
I declined both. She started up another conversation and laughed through it all. I remember her being this cheerful in high school. We sat by each other in our math classes.
“Yeah, I miss numbers,” Holly said, frothing milk. She buzzed around her kitchen looking nothing like a person undergoing chemotherapy for stage four pancreatic cancer that recently spread to her liver. “They were so... constant.”
Holly’s Kansas City home looked like an O Magazine spread on suburban nature sanctuaries. Woodpeckers and hummingbirds flew to feeders at every window, cactus and orchids perched on various tables, rabbits roamed the basement. Dashes of purple, Holly’s power color, were everywhere, to include the purple headscarf that covered her thinning hair and the hand-made prayer shawl around her shoulders. Purple represents pancreatic cancer awareness.
“Hold on. Chemo brain. I better stop talking before I mess this up.”
Holly had a busy morning: she took her girls, Anna, 7 and Elsie, 6, to school, then ran to Target to tackle a big list. She finished her speech for the Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Walk, for which she was the keynote speaker on Saturday. Then, she welcomed me into her home with a hug and coffeehouse beverage options before finally settling into her couch with a sigh and an attentive cat on her lap.
“It’s OK, it’s all OK.” This is a phrase that Holly used often that day. “I wanted to get things done today instead of acting like a sick person. What worries me right now is not being able to say exactly what I want to say because I’m so tired.”
In case her brain failed her, she was ready. She slid two documents across the coffee table: the first was Saturday’s speech, the second an essay on motherhood she wrote for a local Mothers of Preschoolers group.
She didn’t need them.
“People say cancer makes you so much more aware of your life, and teaches you not to take those moments for granted. I never took them for granted anyway. Even when my kids were little, I never got upset when they woke in the middle of the night. I loved every minute of it, feeding them, holding them, looking out and seeing the moon and being thankful for that moment because they were not going to be there forever.”
Holly stopped, then looked back at me, face serious.
“So I can’t figure out how cancer has changed me, or made me stronger. If anything, it has kept the important things the same, the little moments.”
Life stopped for the whole family last year when Holly was away for weeks at the Mayo Clinic for treatment. She was so sick she missed holidays and school programs.
“To know the girls had to go through that and watch me go through that, to watch me suffer or to not understand what’s going on.”
Her younger daughter complimented her mother’s thinning hair. Her older daughter didn’t acknowledge cancer at all, until a school writing project provided a safe place for Anna to write about it in a book called, “When Mommy Got Cansr.”
“Anna never verbalized anything, but I could tell in her eyes what was going on. When she finally came home with that book, I thought, amazing to see how strong your kids are.”
This time around, Holly does not have to travel for her chemotherapy treatments, so she is around for mom duties. When she’s not well, her neighbors pitch in with dinners and carpools.
“It’s heartbreaking and perfect at the same time. Sometimes I am so sick, the kids come to bed with me to do their homework. Happiness is in those little moments. That’s what I would say to moms having a hard time is to find those smallest moments and to be grateful for them.”
Her words have been ringing in my ears ever since.
On Friday, Holly had a CT scan on her liver to see if the chemotherapy is reaching the cancer cells. She said she was worried, but the conversation never extended beyond that. “I know I’m going to be OK.”
On Saturday, Holly bravely acknowledged that while she had planned to be a cancer-free advocate for this year’s PurpleStride Awareness Walk for Pancreatic Cancer, that is her goal for next year. The crowd, including people from Presbyterian Church of Stanley in Overland Park, Holly’s church family, cheered for this brave warrior-mom who has always lived in the moment and never needed a wake-up call to love her life and her family with more ferocity than she does today.
The crowd listened carefully to her words that day, inspired, because what comes naturally for Holly, even in the face of grave illness, does not come as easily for others.
Hard times reveal us, and while Holly fights for her life, full of grace and hope, the rest of us see what happens when a mother wants love to win.