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Illustration by Rachel Wada

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

When the doctor in the ER looked at me, and I looked at her, there was a moment. It was only a second, but I understood. I understood because there is a universal pact between mothers, a shared understanding of grief, and of the love we feel for our children. I didn’t need the test results or the sit-down talk in a clinical office. My child had cancer. I saw it in her ER doc’s eyes. She already knew what the test results would show.

Last October was typical in that with the fall colours came seasonal colds. My daughter, an energetic and sassy 14 year old, felt the first grips of a sore throat. It only slowed her down slightly, as she gobbled throat drops and dramatically demanded Tim Hortons ice caps. She plowed through school and dance classes, determined not to miss anything, and we both brushed it off. Weeks went by, and as the pain increased, my mom-radar went off. I trotted her off to get meds for what I believed was a strep infection. She hated doctors, but she pouted her way through it, with promises of a visit to Starbucks afterward. Now on antibiotics, life continued, and her penchant for the melodrama of her sore throat blended into our daily life stresses of school, work and home life.

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A week after the antibiotics she is still complaining about swallowing. My once exuberant child is also napping on the couch, and falling asleep in short car rides. Her dry wit and bubbly personality are dimmed. She is tired halfway through her dance classes. Immediately my thoughts go to mono, and off we go to the ER again, she barely puts up a fight this time.

In the ER, the doctor reaches to feel my daughter’s throat, and I see the flicker, the moment she realizes that the tumour is clearly not mono or strep or anything treatable with a pill and chicken soup. I can see her eyes dart to me, and then quickly away. The way someone avoids eye contact when they have a secret. But it’s too late, and I suddenly see it as clearly as she could. I could feel my heart drop. I’m questioning myself even as the doctor starts listing tests we need to do. When did her throat get so swollen? Where did that lump come from? How did I not notice the size before?

Right away, the doctor’s speech commences. Don’t jump to conclusions. The chances are very rare. It’s usually just a cyst. A bump. Nothing to worry about. A year later, and we have heard that speech more times than I can remember. No one tells you that with cancer, the sentence you are told the most is: “Don’t worry about it.” Don’t worry about the ultrasound, that lump could be anything. Don’t worry about the biopsy results, we just need to investigate. Don’t worry about the surgery, it’s just a small amount of cancer. Don’t worry about the pathology, it’s never two forms of cancer.

We are still in limbo. Right now we hear “Don’t worry about the lesions in her lungs, it’s probably just a cyst.” “We don’t know why she is having a hard time breathing, but it’s likely unrelated.” But we have been down this road before. It’s never just a bump.

Through it all, my daughter has changed before my eyes. She has been forced to grow up fast. She is exhausted all the time, I see the effort she exudes to just be present and she refuses to acknowledge how hard it is. I see her demanding, almost willing us, to pretend life is normal. She has to work so hard to maintain the façade. She refuses to be the “kid with cancer.” Yet here we are, as I hold her tight while she breaks down on her 15th birthday, when it sinks in that this isn’t just “something that happened to her once” and that we are never getting off this train.

I’m not allowed to be sad, or angry. It’s my job not to falter. It’s our unspoken pact. In a race neither of us wanted to be in, I’m expected to outpace her in my resolve, my strength, my sheer will. I’m not allowed to cry unless I know she is not around. When we talk about appointments, medications, bloodwork and results, my job is to remain neutral, clinical, in control. People tell me how strong I am. How impressed they are I’m so collected and calm. I nod my head politely in thanks, even though I am screaming inside. I am not strong. I am not calm.

The truth is, she is the one leading the pack here.

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My daughter has pressed a cloth against her freshly stitched neck as she vomited the remainder of the anesthesia from her eight-hour surgery, while I just stood there holding her hair back. She has spent weeks on end living like a science experiment, as blood is drawn from her wired and pin-cushioned body, as I just held her hand. She insisted, demanded to dance in a performance just three days after leaving the hospital, complete with PICC lines and medications, as I just watched from the wings.

I am not the one who is strong, yet she holds me to that role. I almost cried once, when we were having a particularly difficult day. She was in so much pain. I could see her starting to collapse, and I could feel myself giving in to the despair. I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. I was starting to break down, and she squeezed my hand in anger, because I wasn’t fighting, and that was unacceptable. It was only a second, but what she was telling me was clear. She looked me in the eyes and willed me to see. Then I understood. I understood because there is a universal truth between daughters and mothers. It is my job to take in all that fear she was feeling, the anger, the despair and the pain so that she can fight her way through this. I saw it in her eyes.

Annastacia Smith lives in Belleville, Ont.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

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