They missed Halloween and Thanksgiving, but her oldest daughter is coming home to Westland for Christmas and 41-year-old Loretta Cyrus couldn't be happier.
That's because Loretta's a mom and moms tend to like having their kids home for the holidays. But also because for a long time it was just the two of them and not being together would feel very wrong.
Even after Loretta married and had another daughter, it was still, in some ways, just the two of them. Loretta and Alana. Alana and Loretta. They had shared a life to which the others had not been privy, a life that began with a sacrifice — one that some people admired and others thought was downright nuts.
Twenty three years ago, in December 1994, Loretta — barely 18 and known as Loretta Pullins — was pregnant and just diagnosed with cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma. And when doctors suggested she end her pregnancy in order to receive radiation and chemotherapy, treatment that would almost surely save her life but do irreparable harm to her fetus, Loretta refused.
She got sicker; the cancer grew in her neck and chest and spread to her abdomen and under her arms. Toward the end of her pregnancy, when the fetus was more resistant to its effects and Loretta was dancing dangerously close to death, doctors began radiation.
When Alana arrived two months early, in May 1995, she had breathing problems — common in premature infants — which kept her in the hospital for a time. Overall though the baby was healthy and that was a relief.
Loretta started chemo a couple weeks later and lost her hair and her strength and sometimes, on dark days, she lost hope. She worried her gamble might not pay off, that she would die and her daughter would be left alone and then what? Would Loretta's grandmother take Alana, would a friend from high school offer her a home? Would anyone be able to replace or replicate the all-consuming love Loretta felt for her baby?
The more Loretta worried, the more frightened she became — until she was so terrified she had no choice but to pull herself together and move onto the next chemo infusion. And the next. And the next one after that.
Eventually, Loretta beat cancer. It was January 1996. She was 19 years old and on the front page of the Detroit Free Press. Later Loretta would say knowing Alana was waiting kept her alive. She saved Alana's life and Alana saved hers.
And so, this is a story about mothers and daughters and the bonds that unite them. It's about finding the strength to hang on and the courage to let go. It is a story with twists and turns and complications and tears.
Because cancer wouldn't be Loretta's last battle.
It wouldn't be her most difficult either.
Short on funds, long on joy
Being a single mom was tough — Loretta's boyfriend left shortly after learning she was pregnant — but with Alana, she had someone to love, someone to protect, someone to create memories with. And that felt good.
With Alana, Loretta also had someone to love her, which had not always been the case. The relationship Loretta and her mother shared was uncomfortable at best and Loretta hadn't seen her father in ages. But Alana was so sweet and so innocent and she looked at Loretta as if her mother was the center of the universe. Loretta needed Alana as much as Alana needed her. Loretta vowed she would never give her daughter reason to think otherwise. "I don't know if I'm a good mom,'' Loretta said not long ago. "I do what I would have wanted."
From money donated by people who read about her in the Free Press and saw her on TV news programs, Loretta made a down payment on a house, a Cape Cod that was so much roomier than the apartment where she'd been staying with her mother. By the time she baby-proofed, painted clouds onto the sky blue walls of Alana's second-floor nursery and set up a crib, Loretta thought the home was perfect.
Loretta worked hard. She took full-time jobs as a cashier, a bank teller, a sales clerk at Sears, where she earned a nice commission for selling men's work boots. After she earned a degree from Davenport University — the school's president read about her and offered a scholarship — Loretta added substitute teacher to her list of jobs. She signed up for part-time retail work on evenings and weekends. When she didn't have anyone to care for Alana, Loretta took her to work, setting up a play area in a stock room. It was a giggly secret between mother and daughter.
Still, money was tight but Alana never felt poor. Loretta always found a way to get what they needed. She made Alana's Halloween costumes, the holiday was such a big deal to them — the makeup, the decorations. Loretta sewed some of Alana's clothes. She built Alana a playhouse from giant pieces of cardboard she got for free; she made curtains for its windows. And she skimped on her own needs; when the bottom of her favorite brown purse gave way, Loretta repaired it with duct tape and carried it for at least 10 more years.
For vacations, which Loretta longed for as a child but never had, they went the budget route. The two camped in a tent at their favorite park on the shore of Lake Huron. They cooked over a fire. They pretended to hunt unicorns.
"We always did wonderful things that are out of the ordinary," Alana, now 22, said. "We always had such a great time. ... Everything you could do, she made it 10 times better because that's just her personality."
Yes, they argued sometimes, the way mothers and daughters — especially middle school daughters — do: "You're horrible," Alana would yell when Loretta refused to let her spend the night at the home of a friend whose parents Loretta didn't know. "You're too conservative!"
But Alana saved her sharpest jabs for Mike Watkins, a machinist Loretta met through a friend, and married in July 2007. "Even your voice is annoying," Alana said to him once. Another time, while the three of them were together, she looked at Loretta and said: "Why does he have to be here?"
Alana didn't really hate Mike, of course. She was afraid he would take her mother away from her, that she would no longer have a place in her mother's life. And over time, that fear dissipated. Mike won Alana over. (“I feel guilty to this day that I wasn’t very nice to him," Alana said.) She began calling him dad. And she embraced the daughter Mike and Loretta had together.
Once someone asked Alana if she knew about her mother's decision to forego cancer treatment all those years ago. "I just knew my mom was sick. I didn't understand it until I was older,'' Alana said. "I know it was a very hard time. The hard choice of her having cancer while being pregnant with me. I know that must have been difficult, especially her being as young as she was."
Except it hadn't been difficult at all. Outsiders assumed Loretta decided to continue her pregnancy because she opposed abortion. But Loretta was pro-choice.
She chose Alana.
And she always would.
Another life-and-death threat
If there's one thing to know about Loretta, it's that she doesn't like to create drama or cause her kids worry. She underplayed surgery for an ovarian tumor in 1999 and for a bowel obstruction in 2000.
"My mother doesn't like to seem weak, ever, " Alana said. "She likes to pretend that she's fine, even if she's not."
But in April 2012, with Alana 16 going on 17, the severity of her mother's condition was crystal clear. A car had crashed into Loretta's green Ford Escort and she was in intensive care at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit with a punctured lung, compressed heart, broken breastbone, broken collarbone, broken finger, broken feet and an outside chance of ever walking on her own — if she survived.
Day after day, Mike drove Alana to the hospital and then to rehab to see Loretta. Alana tried hard not to cry. Instead, she sat beside the hospital bed and brushed the tangles from her mother's long hair. Loretta loved long hair, it was her thing. Alana often wondered if her mother kept it long to make up for the time she lost it from chemo.
"My mom has always brushed my hair for me my whole life,'' Alana said to herself as she tried to work the brush through the snarls, doing her best not to make her mother cry out in pain. "Now, it's my turn to brush her hair."
When she returned home, Loretta — under the care of home health care workers and still unable to walk — stayed in a hospital bed set up in the kitchen. One afternoon, Alana heard her little sister crying upstairs. She headed toward the stairs to get her sister. But her mother was already there, crawling up the stairs to reach the toddler. "Sometimes you've gotta do what you've gotta do," Loretta quipped.
Alana couldn't believe it.
Within a few months, Loretta was walking.
"My mom’s amazing,'' Alana said. "Sometimes when bad things happen, people kind of fall and she doesn't. When something bad happens, she gets back up and keeps going. I love that about my mom."
Distance, tears and a homecoming
Six months ago, Loretta and Alana hugged goodbye and Loretta and her husband and daughter, KIera, now 7, pulled away from a little house in Beaufort. S.C.
Alana lives there now, in base housing, a newlywed with a Marine husband and a new name: Alana Cyrus-Givhan.
From the car, somewhere on the road back to Michigan, Loretta sent Alana a cell phone photo; the mother and daughter looked shockingly alike when the light was just right, their long, strawberry blond hair and blue eyes their most striking features.
Studying the image on her phone, Alana saw that her mother's eyes were red and puffy from crying. That made Alana tear up. They'd never lived apart and she wasn't sure how she was going to make it without her mom. And the truth is, Loretta wasn't sure how she was going to live without her daughter.
Loretta has difficulty letting go — even with people she believed were bad for her. It wasn't until she was in her 20s and hadn't seen him for eons that she let go of her father and changed her last name from his — Pullins — to Cyrus, her great-grandma's maiden name.
And it took years for her to let go of her mother, 64-year-old Judy Pullins.
The two had lived most of Loretta's childhood with Ida Mabe, Judy's mother. Loretta thinks Judy was't around enough when she was growing up, that her mother left her to be raised by Ida, that Judy never took enough of an interest in her. Judy thinks differently: “I wasn’t around because I had to work, a person has to work to support themself.”
When Loretta moved into the Cape Cod house more than two decades ago, Judy moved with her. They argued about money. They argued about household chores. They argued about lots of things. And finally, Loretta had enough: You can't live here anymore, she told her mother.
When Judy called over the summer, around the time a pregnant west Michigan woman was in the news for refusing cancer treatment to preserve her pregnancy, it marked the first time in three years that Loretta and Judy had spoken.
Are you OK, Judy Pullins asked. I had a dream you were dead.
Still alive, Loretta replied, intent on keeping the conversation a short one. Gotta go. Thanks.
Afterward, Judy said she wanted to “crawl through that line and slap the crap out of" Loretta. "She acted like she was so offended because I called her. If it hadn’t have been for that stupid dream, I wouldn’t have called her. ... I hope she has a good life. Because the doctors told her that when she hits her 40's, (cancer) could come back.”
Loretta called Alana. Most days they talked at least once. "You'll never guess who called," Loretta said as she and her daughter settled in for a long conversation.
Letting go of Alana, who had brought her so much love and joy, was, Loretta decided, the most difficult thing she'd done in her entire life. More difficult than battling cancer, more difficult than coming back from a devastating car crash, more difficult than realizing that her own mother is no good for her.
"It's just very lonely, very different," Loretta said after Alana moved to South Carolina. "It feels like something's missing. When you're looking for something and you just can't find it. I have that feeling all the time."
Loretta and Alana will celebrate Christmas together because as far as Loretta is concerned, that's the point of the holiday: togetherness.
Then Alana will leave. And Loretta will feel, again, as if something is missing. She will probably cry, though she also will work hard not to let anyone see those tears. And she will tell herself that with kids, "they have to have their own lives."
And from the very beginning, that's what she wanted for Alana: a life.
This piece originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press.