It hit me like a punch to the throat. I was left painfully breathless.

I realised that I forgot my mom’s birthday.

I stood there in my towel, still dripping from the shower I had just taken. It was August in Amsterdam and the air was warm; but like an ice sculpture, I was chilled to my very core.

I had forgotten my mother’s birthday. And she had advanced breast cancer.

It was two days after I’d arrived in Amsterdam and it had slipped my mind in the midst of all the chaos of settling into life in a new city.

Just before heading to Amsterdam in 2009 on a 6 months exchange programme as part of my Masters, my mom was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy almost immediately.

She subsequently also found out it had spread to her lymph nodes.

I told her I won’t go. But she said I had to. Her wanderlust had always inspired me to travel and explore new places and spaces – and I knew when she said I should go, she meant it.

I have never before or since cried with such deep, painful breathlessness than I did that morning, standing in a towel. It hit me all at once. From the disbelief you feel when you first hear the news of the diagnosis, then the state of emotional numbness that follows, to the guilt I felt for leaving, and the realisation that my mother – the one who is always on my side, even when the two of us are fighting – might die. And in a horribly painful way.

It then truly dawned on me, how much she means. To me that is.

She embodies what it is to be selfless. And in that moment I felt so incredibly selfish.

But I realised that being selfless is the greatest thing she has ever taught me, even though it (often confused with self-sacrificing) is commonly perceived as a weakness.

Yet it’s not about offering up your own needs for others to set yourself last; it’s about loving unconditionally. Love without expectations and returns on investment.

And the thought of losing that love, was heartbreaking.

After getting my breath back, I called her to give my tearful apology. She lovingly understood, of course.

And after that call I felt more peaceful knowing that if I did lose her during this time, I would always be left with that absolute feeling of unconditional acceptance she gave me when she so lovingly understood.

She made a full recovery and continues to live every day like the boss she is.