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Through two women and a common battle, my life was changed. They both struggled against breast cancer, one lost, and died too soon; the other won, and continues to live. Their images have been engraved in my young mind, their lessons and their unquenchable spirits to be remembered forever.

I’ll start with the woman who won, my mother, because that is where this story began. It was March 2001, and they diagnosed my mother with breast cancer for the second time in her life. This time her battle was serious, a mastectomy and round after round of chemotherapy were to follow. This story begins to sound like too many others, but it affected us in ways we could never have foreseen.

She was working on her Bachelor of Education at the time, after having earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts just the year before. All her life she had had little direction. Being strong in science, but weak in math; loving the arts, but not having the will or the equipment to be an artist, she had never pursued something like this before. She wanted to do something good; to give kids an education. She had finally chosen something to do in life, a direction to go in. Then cancer interrupted all that. She got sicker and sicker. She was forced to abandon her garden, which she had carefully tended every year, forced to cut her teaching practicum short, forced to be ashamed of her own body, which had turned against her. Through all this, she remained vigilant, getting some of the highest marks in her class and fitting all sorts of scans and rounds of chemotherapy into her schedule. She was an inspiration.

The second woman was the mother of one of my best friends. The only times I was ever to meet this woman, she was lying in a hospital bed, dying. Her name was Parvaneh, which means butterfly. She too had fought against breast cancer. For six years she fought, slowly being worn away by the abuse of drugs and mutinous cells. By the time I was to meet her, the cancer had spread to her liver, her bones, and her brain. She had bruises all over from rounds of chemotherapy battering her veins. Her body was hurt and broken, and finally, when there was nothing left to break, she was torn away from her family forever. Over the short time I knew her, she was a remarkable woman. Deep down, I think she knew she was dying before even the doctors could tell her. She made one last trip to Iran to see her family. It was from that trip that she came home early, too weak to walk, more sickly than she had ever been. The doctors gave her two weeks to live. It was those two weeks that inspired me. Her daughter and husband stayed by her side constantly, she was never alone. Relatives arrived from Iran to say goodbye one last time. Complete strangers arrived to visit, friends of relatives, all wishing to see her again. Even in her frail state, she had a smile for everyone. She was beautiful. Her daughter could only wish to please her mother, and tried to take care of everyone around her who was falling apart in their grief. Out of sheer love for her mother, she succeeded. I have never seen a woman loved or grieved over as openly, freely, and tremendously as she was. She was an inspiration.

These women came together to break my world down, then build it back up. My mother’s successes tormented me. I hated her. I hated her for being sick, and I hated her for being so perfect, and most of all, I hated her because I loved her too much and couldn’t stand her not being there. She kept her world together when she was being beaten apart. My hate devoured me, and although my mother had lived, I couldn’t stand life anymore, and tried to kill myself. After round after round of counseling, I came to realize that I didn’t hate my mother, I never had. I was simply afraid of not being able to follow her example. If there is such a thing as inspiring someone too much, she has succeeded. In the aftermath of this storm, I was once again forced to look death in the eye as Parvaneh lost hold of her own life. As she lay there, embracing death as those around her rushed to embrace what was left of her life, she exuded confidence. Her battle had been fought, and it was all she could do to comfort those around her as her own fate was sealed. Through a smile, a gesture, and a gentle sigh, she comforted those around her. She was showing me how to die properly. This had not been my year to die; it had been hers.

Through these two women, I have learned more than any teacher could teach me. They have inspired me to love and to live. My mom has inspired me to teach - to give kids the knowledge they need and deserve. She showed me never to give up. I learned from her example that the greatest way to be happy is to do whatever makes you feel satisfied. She showed me the importance of doing something that has an impact on the community around you. Parvaneh showed me the power and comfort of a smile. She showed me that the greatest gift you can leave the world is a remarkable child. She introduced me to death, and his finer intricacies. They have inspired me to live once again.

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