When Mom Got Cancer: Rafael’s Story
At first glance, you wouldn’t guess that Rafael Zimmerman’s masculine hands could so beautifully fashion the intricate Origami creations he expertly produces, a craft he learned from a book, and an activity which has served him well over the years as a way to keep busy and relieve stress. Rafael recently taught the technique of making paper cranes as part of our Family Connection group at the Cancer Support Community. We appreciate him sharing his time and talents with us, as well as allowing us to convey his cancer story…
“I remember that day,” said Rafael, a young man with a contagious smile and easy going nature. “It was really nice outside, and I was attending classes at Northampton Community College’s culinary school. But what began as a great day turned out horrible.” It was that evening in the fall of 2010, when his mother, Barbara, told him she had ovarian cancer.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was 18, and I guess I didn’t think it would affect me. I thought she’d get better, and, you know, they have stuff for that.”
But when surgery followed the diagnosis, that’s when it got real for Rafael. “She was in a lot of pain, and her medication wasn’t working.” Barbara eventually decided not to continue treatment.
Rafael and his sister were adopted together as babies from Peru, a path that took many months for the Zimmermans. They traveled a great deal as a family, and after Barbara’s diagnosis, they took trips around the country so she could see the people she loved one more time. “It’s difficult knowing that she worked so hard to adopt us, and then it ended with cancer,” he says. “I’ve pondered, how do you live, knowing you’ll die?”
With a tearful voice, Rafael recalled the last night with his mother. “It was the holidays, just a little more than a year since she was diagnosed. We didn’t have a tree because of her hospital bed in the living room. I went out for a little while to visit friends and see their tree. When I got home later, there was something different about the house – an unusual quietness. I sat next to her on the bed, and said, ‘You can go now, Mom.’”
Barbara had been a participant at the Cancer Support Community, and Rafael says she really enjoyed attending programs. “She loved coming here, especially taking the Qigong classes. It was relaxing for her, and made her happy. Now I wish I had gone with her. We did a lot of things together, but I could have spent more time. I think it would have helped in my grieving.” Brushing his hand over his dark curly locks, he added, “and I should’ve shaved my head.”
With his father and sister, Rafael continued to travel, spreading Barbara’s ashes in special places he knows she would have enjoyed. “We had been to Greece, and there was a beautiful stone pathway going up a hill to a church my mom had visited before that I knew she loved.”
Today, Rafael is a chef in Bethlehem. “I like to make cakes,” he chuckles. “My dad is a vegan, so I have to get creative.” Rafael is also developing a Website blog to highlight stories from anyone who wants to share their cancer experiences. “I like helping people, and I hope this will encourage people to talk about their feelings and help them to find support. It’s something I need to do.”
Rafael admits that even though it’s been three years, he’s still coping. “We miss her, but you can’t let it eat you up inside.” He wants others to know that there are people and places out there to help, like the Cancer Support Community. And you can always make a couple of cranes.