Writing my way through my cancer trip, I’ve let pretty much everything hang out – from lady bits to emotional fits. But ever since I was diagnosed last October with indolent marginal-zone lymphoma, the one thing I’ve steered clear of is talking about my children.
Almost anything can be made more palatable with humour. I’m not sure I’d make it through Lymphomaland with my sanity intact if, say, I couldn’t imagine Fred Flintstone, one foot on my back, using a corkscrew to extract bone marrow. But my kids – well, that’s just not funny.
In fact, for the longest time it felt unbearably unfunny – raising the subject of cancer with them, talking through their fears, controlling my own, failing to ask for their help, figuring out what they need. It remained the only box I left closed to the public. In my head, however, it’s always been open – wide open.
But I know that too many of us struggle with managing kids while we manage cancer. And besides, it helps me just to write it through – to lay out my experience of what works, and what flops.
It’s the truth that everything changes when you have kids – you’re no longer the centre of your own life. And so it goes with cancer. Now, two things compete for attention: I used to be terrified of getting the disease; now I’m afraid of its effect on the kids. How it might ruin their lives. How I’m going to spoil everything.
So first, I waited out suspicions, frustrations, appointments, examinations, biopsies, reports, and confirmation, until I had enough information about my cancer, and the prognosis (they will treat it, it will go away; when it comes back in a bunch of years, they will treat it again). Then, I told my two sons, on the couch in the living room, just the three of us. I waited until I felt strong, wouldn’t crumple and leave them devastated and confused. A moment I could be fully mom.
In Lymphomaland, I’m still a child – a kid with kids, on a wacky family trip with no GPS, no seat belts, lots of video games, and only minimal discussion about where we’re going. Time with my mature, adult self has not always been easy to find, but the situation demanded her attendance. The conversation went okay. I was calm, so they were calm. Like me, they focused on the excellent prognosis. Aside from a layer of anxiety I know is there, their days don’t look much different from before – exuberance, ass-dragging, obliviousness, rudeness, self-absorption, laughter and love. Their fears take a range of forms across a continuum from sweet and caring to pissed off and cranky.
“You’re going to be all right, right mom? It’s going well?” my 14-year-old asks – offering me the only answer he wants to hear. Now and again he reaches over, pats my hand and smiles, to reassure me he is there for me – and that I am there.
My 10-year-old now likes to sleep with me, not every night, but once or twice a week. He’d never done that before. In the darkness, he often processes his worries. Mostly, they have little to do with me. But occasionally he cries and tells me he doesn’t think he can live in this world without me. I remind myself he’s the dramatic one, who used to love watching himself cry in the mirror and monitor the dramatic impact.
One day, in the dead of winter, the 14-year-old was heading to school in running shoes.
“Put on your boots.”
“It’s ridiculous; those shoes are mesh. You may as well be wearing flip-flops.”
“Germs.” I yell. “I’m sick. After chemo, my white-blood-cell count drops. If you get sick, I get sick. Do you want to make me sick?”
Did I really just play the cancer card on my kid? He walks out, and I slam the door behind him. He doesn’t care.
Why is he doing this to me? But of course, he’s not doing anything to me. He’s simply doing what 14-year-olds do.
For months I didn’t consult others for guidance on this. But when I began to wonder whose needs I was trying to meet, and if imposing chores was somehow an expectation that they should take care of me, I started seeking advice.