Martha MacCallum doesn’t need Mother’s Day to feel the love.
“I feel like anytime my family is together is Mother’s Day,” says the mom of three twentysomethings — Elizabeth, 25; Edward, 22 and Harry, 20. “And that’s how my mother was. Anytime we’re together is good.”Read More
“Moms do a heck of a lot that never gets seen or understood, but most moms aren’t really looking for the pat on the back,” she believes. “They just want their families to be happy and healthy and just to know they are loved.”
MacCallum’s mother, Betty MacCallum, who lost her battle with breast cancer eight years ago, set the bar high.
“She was a good mom and a good wife and a good friend. She just set an example by the way she lived her life,” says MacCallum, who remembers fondly a mom that was always there for her friends, family and really anyone in need. “Do the right things and don’t make a big deal out of it,” is the “strongest message” she left for her daughter and it’s the one MacCallum wants most for her own kids to imbibe.
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MacCallum attributes her mom’s “always positive attitude” for sustaining her through the cancer diagnosis at age 65 and the thirteen years she lived beyond. “She was always more likely to ask how you were doing; how are the kids doing; then get into the details of how she was doing.”
The Family’s Cancer Journey
While MacCallum, her two sisters and their mom relied mostly on friends and family — “of course everybody knows someone who has been through it”— to get them through their cancer journey, she acknowledges that support groups and outside channels can be “a source of strength” for many.
“At that point all of our kids were growing up. It was a busy time in everyone’s life. We leaned on each other more than outside groups,” she says.
Her mother also “leaned” into her faith. “My mother would always have something inspirational next to her bed that she was reading. Prayer and her faith sustained her in the biggest way absolutely,” says MacCallum, 57.
From the day of her diagnosis, MacCallum credits her mother’s doctor, New York’s Weill Cornell Breast Center’s Dr. Anne Moore, for providing them with a manageable road map.
“Having a doctor involved who [shows you] there are tools in the toolbox and there’s a plan is very reassuring,” she realizes. “The cancer didn’t keep her down. It gave her an even more renewed glow to life and she embraced it. She loved to travel; she loved to play golf with my dad; she loved her eight grandchildren. She would just be so positive and encouraging with them all the time.”
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Her zest for life didn’t mean MacCallum’s mother wasn’t realistic.
On the contrary, she made sure that her daughters, along with herself, were “persistent” and extra “vigilant” when it came to their health. While genetic testing was negative, regular early screenings detected breast cancer in MacCallum’s sister Jane right before she turned 40.
“My sister is like my mom, a very strong woman,” says MacCallum. “Everyone deals with that diagnosis in their own way. Some people like to talk about it a lot. My sister had young children at home and she had a husband who was working a lot. She soldiered through. One of her ways of coping was to distract herself as much as possible and to dive into being a mom. It was not easy and we were all so surprised because she was so young. That was shocking for all of us.”
While Jane, now in her early ’60s is doing well, MacCallum knows that like “so many families across the country” they can’t let their guard down.
“I do three checkups a year between the gynecologist, the mammogram and the MRI,” she says. “I just feel fortunate that there’s so much that we know now about breast cancer. I see so many people who recover and go on to live happy active lives. I am encouraged by all of it.”
Nevertheless she still gets nervous before the check ups. “You always wonder: Is this day when they find something? It hangs over you, it does. I don’t talk about it that much either, but the truth is that it’s hard to do these things. You have to push yourself and you have to get past that test; that check up. Every year, I do that for my own children because if there is something I want them to catch it early, and I want survive it like every other woman in the world.”
How Cancer Changed Her
In addition to their heightened awareness of their cancer risk, MacCallum recognizes that cancer in the family has had other lasting impacts on their lives. “For one thing it made us all more empathetic to other families who were going through what we were going through. [My mom] became involved in CancerCare in Connecticut and then we all started doing the Susan G. Komen [Greater NYC Race for the Cure] every year in September. Those were good unifying moments for us. It’s a very moving experience to be with others who are dealing with family members and who have people’s names of family members on the little placards on their back in memory of or in support of people going through it.
Cancer also made them acutely “aware of how short life can be” so they followed their mother’s lead and dived back into living life to the fullest. “She was enthusiastic about our futures. To be honest, we didn’t all talk about it a lot,” says MacCallum. “We wanted to focus on the day in front of us and living our lives. She was doing so well for such a long time so we were all really encouraged by that. She did really well for close to 13 years. It went to the back burner. In the final year when she really got sick, she was very dignified, optimistic and very grateful.”
For her kids it was hard times two, as their other grandmother, Cecilia, also died in 2013, of complications from a digestive cancer. Their deaths just a month apart was devastating to them. “They were wonderful wonderful grandmothers. They both played the piano; they both sang in their church choirs; they were wonderful cooks; they adored their grandchildren. My children miss them very much,” says MacCallum. “That was a really tough year for all of us.”
Diving into a book project, based on letters written from her mother’s cousin, Harry — who went off to WWII and died in the Pacific at Iwo Jima — to her mom, engaged MacCallum and her children to Betty’s life before them.
“Writing the book [Unknown Valor: A Story of Family, Courage, and Sacrifice from Pearl Harbor to Iwo Jima] gave me a great opportunity to go back and have them learn a little bit about her whole life,” says MacCallum. “It was the greatest professional experience I’ve ever had and I’ve had a lot of great professional experiences. That was the most rewarding of all because it was so personal for us.”
MacCallum is sad her mother didn’t get to see the book published. “I just pray somewhere in heaven she sees it because it’s a real love story to her and her family’s WWII experience. My children through that, I think they understand my mom’s heart and her family and her integrity and her intellect.”
Reflecting on Mother’s Day
What does MacCallum appreciate most on Mother’s Day?
“My children write beautiful notes in the cards they give me and that means more to me than any little gift,” she says. Often, those cards are accompanied by a tree; a hydrangea or something plant-able in the spring.
This Mother’s Day, MacCallum and husband Daniel Gregory, who make their primary home in New Jersey will be in Cape Cod where they are rebuilding a house they own there. “I may expect to see my son Harry who is at Providence College for a little celebration, but my daughter is at work and my other son is graduating college [Notre Dame] in another few weeks so we will be with him then,” she says.
No matter where she is, MacCallum, of course, will be remembering her own mom. “Her life was an example for all of us. We miss her so much. She was only 78 when we lost her and the older I get, the younger that seems to me. It’s hard. I think about her all the time. Anyone who lost their mom can relate to that.”