The radiation technician executed her duties with the same bored detachment as an express lane cashier; I was yet another item to scan. A box of Fruit Loops. A head of lettuce. A side of bacon.
“JESUS CHRIST!!!” I snapped.
With every scrap of strength I could muster, I swiped the oil and pudgy thumb away from my forehead. The unforgiving IV that was lodged in arm sent a sharp, searing pinch up my right side to remind me that movement was for the privileged. I winced in pain, opened my eyes, and glared at the priest.
It’s Giving Tuesday folks; time to use the plastic to make a meaningful impact in the world. By clicking this link: https://donate.kesem.org/mit19 and donating to Camp Kesem@ MIT you will be supporting a child through and beyond their parent’s cancer.
Less than two Turkey Days ago, my daughters and I stuffed ourselves into my hospital bed. To do so, they hopscotched around an intricate web of intravenous tubes and monitoring devices to snuggle next to me, one on each side, the perfect mama sandwich.
At the time, I was chewing on the reality of my own mortality. Who would love my children in my absence? A series of medical scans revealed a pronounced lesion near my spine. Its origin and identity were unknown as the sophistication of medical imaging often surpasses our medical knowledge. The lesion could be more cancer. It could be Aortitis (whatever that is). It could be an allergic reaction to the 18 weeks of chemotherapy that I endured. But no one knew. No one.
Yet I knew this: my daughters needed something else.
Although I deeply believe that my children will always be unconditionally loved by my family and friends, something was missing. Something loud and messy. Someone else who also understands what it is like when the cancer tsunami hits your home. Someplace that is led by bright, compassionate leaders who have been marinated in integrity and seared with joy. They needed Camp Kesem.
Driven by passionate college leaders, CK provides free, innovative, fun-filled programs to children impacted by a parent’s cancer. It is a diverse, sustainable community where every child feels loved, accepted and empowered. Watch the magic of Camp Kesem@MIT unfold here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqK1q2M_4TI
Your donation of any amount will help make CK 2019 happen. For example:
$10.00 Snacks. Snacks. Plenty of snacks.
$20.00 Evening fun: S’mores by the campfire. Glow sticks for the dance hall. Snacks.
$50.00 Messy wars: chalk, paint, shaving cream, Slip ‘N Slide Extreme, clean t-shirts. Repeat.
$75.00 Big ticket fun: rock climbing wall, petting zoo, inflatable gladiator joust.
$100.00 Sponsor a kid @ CK for a day.
With your help, we can spin cancer around on its bald, ugly head and create something good.
What if we used cancer to foster grit, resilience and community in our children? This is the magic of Camp Kesem. Please donate today.
As the thunder of victory cheer echoed throughout New England, I wanted to stick my arms through our flat screen and hug Galynn Brady. She did it. Mrs. Brady intercepted her cancer treatment plan to support her son as he led the Patriots to the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.
Equally as daunting, Mrs. Brady wrapped her head in a bandanna and marched into NGR stadium, dodging flying confetti and murmurs of speculation.
Why was Tom Brady’s mother wearing a bandana?
Did she have cancer?
Was she bald, like me?
Man...I thought. That Mrs. Brady has balls. Courage is not running on a field, body surfing to a melody of praise and applause. Courage is sitting on the sidelines, patiently ignoring the wave of whispers about you. By sporting a bandanna at one of the world’s most prestigious and publicized events, Mrs. Brady proved that cancer can happen to anyone, regardless of access to health care, financial resources or who is gathered around your Thanksgiving table.
I was not surprised. Mrs. Brady, whose uterus should be dipped in gold and displayed at the Smithsonian, would have tackled Julio Jones and a 5’11” Brazilian supermodel to be at Super Bowl LI. Her Tommy had a rough year and needed his mother. I deeply understood her feelings. See we are both mothers, Mrs. Brady and I. And we both endured the humiliating side effects of chemotherapy.
My strategy was to melt into obscurity; I just wanted to be an ordinary mother watching her daughter play softball. I needed to arrive at my children’s sporting events looking as close to my pre-cancer self as possible. On one hand, it was a play to avoid the Cancer Conversation:
I was SHOCKED to hear your news. How devastating for your family.
When my college roommate had cancer, her husband left. How are you and Marc doing?
Do you have the BRCA gene?
On the other hand, it was a strategy to defend my daughters. What if other children teased my little girls because of their bald headed mother? Then I would have to hunt down the little bastards and light them on fire.
So when my Oncologist offered to write me a prescription for a wig I said, “Yes, please.” She told me that a good wig will run between $600-$1500 but my insurance company should cover part or most of the cost.
Should being the operative word.
The kicker of cancer treatment is that chemotherapy induced alopecia is considered a side effect of treatment. Therefore, health plans are not mandated to cover the cost of a wig or the use of cooling cap systems as they are not medically necessary.
Since the time when we can grow enough hair to bundle a pigtail, little girls learn that our hair makes us pretty. We curl it, straighten it, braid it, layer it, tease it, color it and wrap it in a bow like a beloved Christmas present.
Then 1 out of every 8 of us will develop breast cancer. Most of us are told that we will die from this disease unless we undergo chemotherapy. It’s an unfair call. With our backs to the wall, we grudgingly accept that our heads will be stripped and left naked. We brace ourselves for a very long and visible walk of shame. Baldness is the Scarlet Letter of a cancer diagnosis as it publicly brands us as sick, weak citizens that are diseased.
Please God….if I can only keep my hair, I prayed.
Heading into the fight for my life, I needed to sport a ponytail. I gather my strength and courage when I gather my hair, pull it off my face and snap the elastic. The ritual is my call to battle before a game, before laboring children, and before I feel that first pinch of the infusion needle. Without my ponytail, I did not feel like myself. Instead, I felt like a cancer patient.
Why are women so polite about chemotherapy induced hair loss? Do the sideline murmurs of vanity and guilt eclipse the truth?
Its ONLY hair
It will most likely grow back
Beauty comes from within
Parading around as egghead is a deeply traumatic and humiliating experience. Yes, there are strong, beautiful women who can rock the bald look:
Britney Spears (Not so much)
However, these women choose to shave their heads as an expression of style. Therefore it is a conscientious decision, not a traumatic loss.
Here’s the exciting news: we now have technology that will enable cancer patients to keep their hair during treatment. The FDA recently approved the DigniCap and Paxman scalp cooling systems, automated devices that prevent chemotherapy induced alopecia in patients with solid tumor cancers. The systems, which have been used extensively outside the United States, have proven successful in helping cancer patients keep at least half of their hair during treatment.
But FDA approval does not translate into coverage by health plans. A session with a cooling device will run between $300-$500. Meaning the rich girls will get to keep their hair. But the poor girls will not.
Women do not play that way. Intuitively, we bond with our sisters to protect our tribe. Though our entrance into the arena may not be intimidating, our strength and power lie in our ability to connect and communicate with each other. Let’s spread the word, ladies.
Cancer will not take our hair anymore.
Patients need to know that they now have a option to save their hair during cancer treatment. We need to demand the use of cooling cap systems at infusion centers and mandate health plans to cover the cost. Ask your oncologist when the Dignicap or Paxman Scalp Cooling System will be available in your area. Email your politicians to push legislation that provides equal access to the softer side of medical of care. Call your insurance company and inform them that caring for mind and spirit is a foundational part of health care. Let’s end the era of the bald headed cancer patient.
"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.” -Holden Caufield
The Catcher in the Rye
On the mornings when I worked from home, I was awoken by the repugnant smell of his breath. It was a thick, steamy stench like the smell of a rotten potato that had been abandoned in the dark corners of a kitchen cupboard. He would drag his rough tongue across my face, thick with spit, ambition and intention: he wanted me awake. It did not matter to him if it Christmas morning or if I just polished off a bottle of wine. What mattered was that it was 5:30am and it was time to run.
We shared a love for running. I was born into a lineage of athletes and started jogging at the age 14 to condition for sports. Like all habits, what began as a discipline evolved into a regiment that melted into me. I ran through college, through the city of Prague, around the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska and along the Charles River in Boston. Wherever I landed, I would lace up my sneakers and go. I didn’t run in preparation for a race or to lose weight; I ran because I had to.
Buster is a Labrador/Great Pyrenees mix meaning he is smart, protective and sheds quicker than I can vacuum. His face encompasses the all enduring features of a Lab while his blonde coat makes him rare and unique. We met at the Exit 2 Park and Ride off I-89 in Concord, NH where an oversized, unmarked van opened its doors to reveal rows of puppies stacked in crates. The Southern rescue dogs had a endured long, dark journey North and proclaimed their arrival with a cacophony of yelping when the morning light cut gloriously into the van.
Except for Buster. While the other puppies were burning their energy with aimless abandon, this scraggly little dog was steadfast in his efforts to chew through the bars of his cage. He was busting out and had a plan. Immediately, I recognized my own feelings. For if I was trapped in a cage, I too could only focus on reclaiming my freedom. This is how I knew Buster was the dog for me. Despite our physical and intellectual variances, we shared a sameness of spirit. And it is a nice feeling to have another creature in this world appreciates what you value. Even if they lack opposable thumbs.
Together, Buster and I would run through the hiking trails near my home. Southern New Hampshire is host to an intricate web of trails that provide endless hours of enjoyment for those who appreciate the great outdoors. Lake Massabesic is perched middle, majestically reflecting sunshine and collecting rainwater. She provides drinking water for the bordering city of Manchester so swimming, jet skiing and motorboats are not allowed on the lake. As a result, the trails are peaceful and secluded from the rush and noise of the industrialized world. Although the area is renowned for its safety, the isolated nature of the trails present sketchy circumstances for a woman to run alone. But a woman with the right dog is certainly safe.
Buster takes his role of protector very seriously. While other dogs stop to sniff a fisherman and his catch or chase a chipmunk scurrying back to his chamber, Buster runs dutifully by my side, his ears and my ponytail flapping in the wind. Occasionally, someone will try to pat Buster despite my explicit instructions: “Don’t pat the dog."
When their good intentions were met with deep, barbaric growl and a pearly flash of fangs they would bark, “Ya Dawgs a Frickin' Killa!” inadvertently confirming my suspicion: Masshole. Tourist living semi permanently in NH are usually from Massachusetts and readily disclose their authentic heritage as soon as they open their mouths. They are famous for dropping their Rs when speaking and all consideration when driving and thus have earned the derogatory title of “Massholes.” Yielding in traffic or in life is not in their bones. Whateva. Use Ya Blinkah.
Many Massholes have figured out that Southern New Hampshire is the best place on earth to raise a family. Geographically, it is sandwiched between the White Mountains of NH and Boston Ma producing coordinates that land in middle of nowhere and hour from everywhere. Beaches, lakes, ski resorts, Fenway Park, and Logan International airport are all within a reasonable drive. As is Boston’s financial district, where the gladiators of the daily commute willingly battle traffic on 93 South so they can earn a top notch salary while benefiting from NH’s affordable housing market. Wicked Smaht.
But for many NH natives, leaving the perimeter of the Granite State is perceived as unnecessary and most likely unsafe. Especially when everything you need can be found at the local truck stop: milk, bread, beer, live bait and a lottery ticket. Anything below the 495 belt might as well be the below the Mason-Dixon line, even if it is home to the most prestigious medical facilities in the world.
I did not subscribe to this belief. The moment my cancer diagnosis was delivered, I packed up my medical case and moved it down to Boston. Massachusetts General Hospital provides a cornucopia of cutting edge research, technology and medical procedures that are not offered at NH hospitals. For example, MGH provides immediate breast reconstruction during the same operation as the mastectomy, thus reducing the number of surgeries and increasing optimal cosmetic results. It’s the convenience of Super Walmart coupled with the efficiency of Jiffy Lube.
Oddly, Buster stopped waking me to run after my surgery. Instead, he sat at the top of the 2nd floor stairs waiting to shadow me around the house. This drove me crazy. He hovered behind me as I loaded the washing machine or unloaded the dishwasher. He pushed the bathroom door open when I needed privacy. So I locked it. Undeterred, he scratched at the door then barked until I let him in. I’ll never understand how Buster learned that I acquired a potentially fatal disease as I never emailed him. But undoubtedly, he knew.
A month after my cancer treatment was complete, Buster woke me with his foul, stinky breath. It was time to run again. But things were different for me; months of injecting and ingesting powerful chemicals had left me with a weak, floppy frame. A series of surgeries had reconfigured my body, replacing my soft, flexible tissue with hard silicone implants that made my chest feel like a pinball machine. My bouncy ponytail was gone, replaced by butch haircut that sparked questions about my sexual orientation.
So what was left of me?
I gambled away anatomical parts for the hope of a longer life, an exchange that was not guaranteed. I stripped my body of all fast growing cells then bombarded it with radioactive waves. How could I possibly run again with such a fragile foundation? Was I still an athlete, despite the torture that I inflicted on my body? What if running was yet another love I had to sacrifice to the cancer machine?
Buster would not stand for any of my apathy or self deprecation. He would relentlessly nudge me out of bed and whimper until my feet hit the floor. If I did not get up, he would sit on me. Once I was standing, he would bark incessantly until I grabbed his harness and the leash. This went on. And on. And on. Until ultimately, I started running again so Buster would shut up and leave me alone.
When we first returned to the trails, I had to shamefully surrender to walking. Walking, when on a run, is for the weak or maimed. Having earned a membership to both of these clubs, I believed I was entitled to walk. After all, walking is good for you...right? Maybe from now on, I could be a walker. I’d be an excellent walker. Nothing wrong with that.
Buster had zero tolerance for this change of pace. When I walked, he adamantly pulled on his harness, uncoiling his powerful hind legs as if I was a stagnant, heavy sled that needed to be moved.
“Keep it up and I will ship your lily white ass right back to Alabama.” I shouted at him. I pulled hard on the leash but my efforts were in vain; he was stronger and had four legs while I had only two. We engaged in a futile tug of war until I realized that it was easier to just run than to fight him. Ants passed me, but I was still moving.
It was ugly. First of all, I couldn’t catch my breath. Like, from the start. I’ve been winded before but if was AFTER a race. Or a game. Or a marathon. But this was different...I couldn’t even breathe from the START. It felt as if was drowning in air. No wonder so many people hate running. It can really suck. Then there were casualties. My balance was off so I would frequently trip over random objects. Like a tree branch. Or my sneaker. Or my own feet. Each step was a painful reminder that I was a fraction of the person that I used to be.
Buster didn’t seem to notice or care about my suffering. I began to resent his perseverance and craved some sort of validation. At least I was trying to get back in the game. At least I was not home, curled up on the couch feeling sorry for myself. But he was not impressed. We were running, something we had always done and something we would always need to do.
Then after one nasty spill, I lost it. We were headed downhill and I leaped over a thick, black tree root. Then it moved as it was actually a snake. Startled, I hit a tree and was catapulted into the air like a human tick tack. I was bruised and bloody before I even hit the ground. Buster sauntered over to me to assess the damage. He sniffed at my head and nudged me with his nose. Once he was completely satisfied with his investigation, he got down on all fours, wagged his tail and barked at me. Buster was ready to move on.
“Fuck off!” I shouted at him.
I unfolded from the ground and wiped off the blood that was oozing from my knee. Buster misinterpreted my movement as an invitation to run. He exploded with unbridled enthusiasm circling me while barking and pouncing in the air.
“No.” I told him, shaking a finger at him. “I can’t do this anymore.” He jumped on me with the leash in his mouth. “Stop it!!!” I screamed, pushing him away “Just stop it!!” I let my frustration get the best of me and impulsively kicked him in the butt. Buster yelped and stared at me in disbelief. I melted back to the ground, immediately enveloped in shame and regret.
“Oh my God Buster. I’m so sorry. I’m so very, very sorry. “ I reached out and wrapped my arms around his thick, muscular neck. “I’m sorry...I’m just not me.” I told him through my tears. “I’m not me.”
I’m just not me.
Buster curled up along my side and offered his head as a tissue. I dumped my face into the soft fur between his ears and cried. He licked my tears as they streamed down my face until I laughed. Once I was calm, I got up, picked up the leash and obediently followed Buster down the trail.
Then one day, it happened. I caught my breath. The agony of training finally transitioned to euphoria. My legs felt powerful, cutting the wind with purpose and promise. I was a warrior, gliding effortlessly through the brush, my feet pounding the rocks that once scraped my knees. I was part of the world again instead just fighting to survive in it. I looked over at Buster and knew that he felt it too:
The girl who loves to run was with me the whole time. She was buried deep beneath 18 weeks of chemotherapy, 30 sessions of radiation, and 5 surgeries, just waiting for something strong and determined to pull her out. I missed her so much.
Buster glanced over at me as his ears flapped victoriously in the wind. His tongue hung out the side of his mouth that held a wide smile of satisfaction.
“Told you so.” said his expression. I told you so.
Who rescued whom?
The little voice from the backseat sent a big message.
“No offense but...why am I the one going to therapy if YOU are the one who’s bald?”
My daughter’s comment echoed through the car, loud and awkward, like a loose piece of luggage in the trunk. As a parent, I had made it clear that the phrase “No offense but...” is not a license to then say anything. Feelings will still be hurt. Tempers will still be ignited. Hearts will still be broken.
“No offense but your haircut is ugly.”
“No offense but that’s a stupid answer.”
“No offense but we can’t afford to pay you during cancer treatment.”
Delete the conditional phrase preceding the transition word and there’s the actual message:
Your haircut is ugly.
That’s a stupid answer.
You will not be paid during cancer treatment.
But there was that language hanging in the car...a dependent clause stemming from an honest desire not to hurt someone’s feelings. Followed by an independent clause that functions as an insult in disguise. I let the comment go. After all, she made a good point.
The 6-year-old piped up from her booster seat. “Can we get an ice cream when Julia goes to the doctor?” Before I had a chance to respond, before I even had a chance to breathe, the 9-year-old retaliated.
“THAT’S NOT FAIR!!! WHY DOES SHE GET TO HAVE ICE CREAM WHILE I HAVE TO GO TO A THERAPIST!!!!” In a flagrant demonstration of sibling rivalry, Sienna flashed a mischievous smile then stuck her tongue out at her sister.
“MOM SIENNA STUCK HER OUT AT ME!!! Julia reported, as if I was unaware of the shenanigans percolating in the back seat. Which would make sense because I was driving.
“No one’s getting ice cream with this behavior.” I said calmly. “Besides, we don’t need to be blowing money on ice cream before dinner.” As soon as I spoke the words, I could feel Julia chewing on this thought, folding it into a larger context.
“Does it cost money to talk to a therapist?” She asked.
“Yes.” I stated. “We have to make a what is called a copay. A copayment is a fixed amount of money that is paid when...”
“Then I definitely should not go.” Interrupted Julia. “You lost your job and so we should not spend any money on me talking to someone that I don’t even know.” She punctuated her claim and supportive evidence by poking a demonstrative index finger in the air.
“First of all, I did not lose my job.” I said, defensively. “I was put on unpaid medical leave. Second, the fact that you are 9 worrying about insurance copays warrants a therapeutic intervention.”
“I’m not worried about that.” She reflected, leaning back in her car seat. “I just think that I should not have to go. I don't see why I can’t just talk to you.”
“Because you need someone to talk to about me. A sounding board. A trusted, well educated adult that will listen to your thoughts and frustrations. At some point, you might feel angry with me because I have to go through cancer treatment.“
“Which is why we should get ice cream.” she pointed out.
“Please!!! PLEASE!!! Can we PLEASE get ice cream??” chimed in her sister. They chanted in perfect unison:
“ICE CREAM!! ICE CREAM!!! ” WE WANT ICE CREAM!! I whipped off my wig and chucked it towards the backseat, causing giggles to fill the car.
“So you have a job but you just don’t work or get paid money while you have cancer.” Concluded Julia, now wearing my wig. It was the red one that I would bust out on days that I felt sassy. We named her Roxy.
“Something like that.” I said.
“But how are we going to pay for the house if you don’t make any money?” she asked.
I gasped. Damn her precocious nature. Always connecting the dots. Always gluing together bits and pieces of adult conversations to build her own conclusions. Which were usually spot-on. But years beyond what her age should be worried about. My cancer was sure to screw her up, possibly for a lifetime. Good thing I found her a decent therapist.
“No worries.” I said swatting the air as if such details were flys. “Dad and I have it all figured out.”
“Are we going to have to move?” she asked. The car was silent. I shot her a look through the rear view mirror.
“I don’t want to move!!” cried Sienna. “I love my room. I love Mrs. Mercier’s room (her teacher). Would I have to go to a new school Mommy if we moved? I love my friends.”
“I don’t really need the ice cream.” commented Julia.
“Nobody's going anywhere.” I said, pulling into a parking space. “Expect for Julia.” I opened the backdoor and escorted her out of the car. I wrapped her little hands around my waist then bent down so I could hold her beautiful face in my eyes.
“Listen to me.” I whispered, pressing my bald head gently against Roxy, which sat lopsided on her head. This nice lady is going to give us sound, research based advice on how to cope with our challenges. We are going to figure out how we can become stronger, kinder and more compassionate human beings because of this cancer experience. We just need a little guidance. I took Roxy off her head and popped the wig back on mine. “Now off you go.” I said, tapping her on the bottom. “Take one for the team." I gave her a wink from an eye that was missing its lashes.
“Then can we get ice cream?” she asked.
“Absolutely. “ I said. As I am not above bribing my children in the spirit of progress.
“With sprinkles.” added the voice from the back of the car.
“Yes, “ I said. “with sprinkles.”
Crescentia Healy-True founded On-Belay, an adventure based program that fosters resilience, friendship and connection for children who have a loved one touched by cancer. After researching programs she determined that none were the right fit for her animated, active and adventurous girls. So she created On-Belay. Check it out: https://www.on-belay.org/
She seemed so mature at the time, confidently navigating her way around the breakfast buffet. My precocious little hummingbird was swiftly glided in and out of the cumbersome adults that stood in her way of the pancake batter, butter, and maple syrup. This was our thing…we would sneak out of the ski lodge early while her dad and sister were still sleeping to grab breakfast before carving first tracks. The snow would be fresh, fluffy and pure. We would be the first to etch a trail for others to follow. Trailblazers, my daughter and I. We loved the crispness of winter mornings and quietness of the ski slopes before they became littered with people.
Julia caught my eye right before pouring the batter onto the hot waffle iron. She knew I would be watching at this juncture of danger, ready to pounce. In one swift move, she poured the batter on the sizzling waffle iron and flipped the handle, catapulting the timer into ticking. Two minutes later, the timer went off, yielding a golden brown waffle, perfectly defined by clear edges and asymmetrical squares. She smiled victoriously and shot me a thumbs up. I acknowledged her accomplishment, though my role was clearly that of a spectator. She was proud of herself, appreciated my validation, but my presence did not matter. Thus, another affirmation of her growing independence from me; something else she could do for herself. Another step away needing from me.
It was then I decided I would tell her. Now. At breakfast.
I had been harboring the news for more than a month, anticipating the perfect opportunity to strike a match to its insidious flame. But the timing was never right. Cancer is not a topic for a dinnertime conversation. Or before homework. Nor was my prognosis was something to whisper into a child’s ear before tucking her into bed. This inner dialogue of procrastination melted days into weeks; I was running out of time. My calendar was soiled with surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation appointments. Soon, my treatment plan would commence with or without our conversation. Without time for me to hold her as she cried. So I would tell her now, after this moment of achievement and before a glorious morning on the ski trails. It was the perfect opportunity to sandwich bad news. We would be ok.
She placed her award-worthy waffled on the table and plopped down in the chair across from me.“Aunt Jemima would be envious.” I stated.
“Who’s that?” She asked rhetorically, recognizing my reference as dated and irrelevant, but not really caring. Her fingers were busy, slapping waffle squares with butter and drowning them in maple syrup. I could feel her mind racing as she plotted our morning attack.
“Only black diamonds.” she declared, pointing an accusatory index finger at me. I stared at her in awe. Quite possibly, she was the most beautiful thing in my world. Her chocolate eyes were quick and bright. I loved the way they would snap across the page of a novel, picking up words and ideas with the confidence of a tax collector on April 14th. She chewed up books, and as a result, built up an arsenal of language that she could deploy in impeccable context. The glass of milk placed on the edge of the kitchen table was precarious. Her socks were saturated with water. She was not a picky eater, just reluctant to try new foods. Did she know the word cancer? And all it implies?
“I have breast cancer."
I spat the words out like toothpaste; direct and purposefully. She stared at me blankly as they hung heavy and ominous in the air. I could feel the language grow powerful as it stretched into existence, declaring its retched space in our world. Now that I spoke the words, it was real.
I have breast cancer.
Tears puddled around the rims of her eyes as her cheeks became brushed with red streaks. Her tiny frame trembled as it absorbed the density of my announcement. Clearly, she understood the word cancer. And all it implies.
She dropped her fork. Then her eyes. Her award-winning waffle was soon transformed into a tissue as tears cannonballed down her face and plopped into the pools of maple syrup. With one swift swipe of her Under Armor sleeve, she wiped her face, replacing the spring-fresh scented fabric softener with a sticky blend of tears and snot.
“We are going to be fine." I told her. “We caught it early and we will have a lot of support." I tried to catch her eyes but she would not look at me. I desperately needed her to understand that she would be alright. That I would take care of everything, including the cancer. But everything I said sounded shallow and hollow. What are the right words to say to a child when parent has been diagnosed with cancer?
"I'll be home more." I pointed out.
"Because you'll be sick." She spat. Her eyes were now wrapped around mine, fierce and determined. Her gentle tears became absorbed by an incredulous declaration of anger.
"I'm not going to be sick." I said defensively.
"You have cancer!" She spat. "And I'm nine." I gasped. There it was; the Truth. It was sharp, indignant, and ugly. The truth is, I did not know that I would be alright. I also could not promise her that she would be alright either. I just desperately wanted both to be true. I needed both to be true. I could feel her thinking, loading her next question. I tried to anticipate what she would say next: Why did this happen? What will happen? Will I get cancer too? Finally, she took aimed and fired:
“Why did you have to tell me today? She demanded. “Why didn’t you tell me on some plain, stupid morning when we had nothing to do?” Her edgy tone was edgy. Her anger palatable. What could I say to make this this alright? Because I didn’t know when to tell you. Because I didn’t know how to tell you. Because I’m scared that I might die and miss you growing up.
"Because it's no big deal," popped out. "I'm going to have surgery. I'm going to have chemotherapy, which will make me sick and bald. Then my hair will grow back and we will be back to normal." I took a gulp of cold coffee. She stared at me blankly. Somewhere during our conversation, we switched roles: I was the child, drunk in a sedating cocktail of denial and optimism. She was the adult, alert, perceptive, needing to plan and prepare.
“We are going turn this around and make this a great day,” I declared. "Just look outside." I said, pointing to the window. "Fresh snow. Blue skies...optimal conditions!” I flashed a faked a smile. She pushed her once beloved waffle away in disgust, then rose from the table.
“Whoa...” I put up a hand up in an attempt to reclaim my authority. “Where are you going?”
“Nowhere.” She said. “I want to be alone.” Then, clarified, “Don’t follow me.” She glared directly into my eyes and left me.
I knew no greater pain. The powerful, little creature that I created wanted nothing to do with me. She was dynamite with all her fury, so enraged and indignant. How could my body, that once produced this glorious being, betray me so violently? Why did it fail me now, when other people needed me the most?
I watched as she cut through the morning sun that beamed through the hotel lobby and out the door. Once outside, she covered her face and exploded into tears. I watched as Mother Nature swaddled her in a shimmering glow of sunlight. She was all the joy that I had ever hoped for; her future bright and more promising than rain.
Every child deserves a mother. Breast cancer shatters this unconditional promise, ripping mothers from children and children from mothers. The timing of when, where of how to disclose a cancer diagnosis just does not matter. It’s just easier to contemplate process of dropping a verbal atomic bomb than digest the devastation caused by its explosion. Regardless of delivery, casualties will result. Hearts will be broken. Children will be abandoned. As mothers, we pray to God, Allah or Mother Nature that we have already stuffed our babies with enough unconditional love to sustain impact and grow. For we still need them to bloom into the beautiful beings they were created to be. Even if we can’t be there to witness the glory of our creation.