PORT NECHES — CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to reflect accurate information about the time and details of McReynolds' diagnosis.
Margaret McReynolds is cooking dinner in the kitchen of her Port Neches home when her two youngest children, Taylor Garrington and Samuel McReynolds, return from the school day. Samuel has a surprise in store for his mom for Mother’s Day, although he is remaining tight lipped.
“You’ll see tomorrow,” Samuel, 11, tells his mother.
This scene of stability is slowly becoming the norm again in McReynolds’ household, though it is a far cry from her life a year ago — when she was uninsured and scared after a mammogram from the Julie Rogers Gift of Life program revealed she had stage 3 aggressive ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer.
The diagnosis came shortly before McReynolds’ nephew, Dustin Creekmore, died from injuries sustained during an explosion at ExxonMobil in Beaumont, where he worked.
“There was no ‘happy’ in my Mother’s Day last year,” McReynolds said.
Her job as a rural carrier for the United States Postal Service didn’t provide her with sufficient insurance for cancer treatment, and she was at a loss.
“I thought that was it,” McReynolds said, her voice breaking.
Her first thought was of her children — Samuel; Taylor, 16; and their older sister, Cyndi Garrington, 18.
“I thought, ‘My kids are going to be split up,’” McReynolds said. “’My little boy is going to grow up without his sisters.’”
McReynolds had learned of the Gift of Life program by sheer coincidence — she received newsletters at her old house in Groves, left over from the home’s prior occupant. When she found a lump in December 2012, a friend reminded her about the nonprofit organization that provides Southeast Texans with both education about various forms of cancer and free screenings.
After McReynolds’ diagnosis, volunteers with Gift of Life set her up to receive Medicaid, which enabled her to begin chemotherapy at M.D. Anderson in Houston that April.
“They knew everything I needed before I even knew I needed it,” McReynolds said.
She completed chemotherapy in October and promptly began six weeks of daily radiation therapy at the Cancer Center of Southeast Texas in Port Arthur, where she had 28 lymph nodes on her right side removed to keep the gene from growing.
Even when the treatments lapped up the last dregs of her energy, McReynolds never did forgo an opportunity to play volleyball with her kids. She wanted their lives to remain as normal as possible, she said.
“My mom is strong,” Taylor said, beaming up at McReynolds. “I can tell you that for sure.”
McReynolds completed radiation therapy in January. She is currently awaiting reconstructive surgery, which will likely take place in August or September. Her eyelashes still fall out, but she has returned to work and is now regularly cooking meals for her family again — a long way from the days of relying on her daughters for the simplest routines, such as bathing.
“I love every minute of it,” McReynolds said. “I said, ‘I’ll never complain again.’”
McReynolds attends “Pink Power” support group meetings, and has made it her personal mission to educate every woman she can reach about the, literally, life-saving services provided by Gift of Life.
“I can’t believe how many women didn’t know they did screenings,” McReynolds said. “From day one, they were there for me. They told me who to talk to. They saved my life.”
This Mother’s Day, McReynolds will finally receive the surprise that her son has expertly kept under wraps. She may play games with her children, or they may sit outside in their backyard and bask in each other’s company — it makes no difference to her.
“I’m just thankful to be here,” McReynolds said. “I know that without Gift of Life, I would probably not be celebrating this Mother’s Day.”
However, McReynolds is determined to do one thing, and that is to celebrate a Mother’s Day as far removed from last year’s as possible.
“We don’t want any more Mother’s Days like that one,” McReynolds said, laughing as she and Taylor hug Samuel.