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.