When I was diagnosed with cancer, my focus in life changed drastically. It was no longer a “take life day by day, just get through” kind of mentality, but a setting of my sights on the bigger picture. Always the bigger picture now. Especially as far as parenting. My kids, now 3 and 5, were barely 1 and almost 3 at the time of my diagnosis. This is all they know. And the parts of parenting that had seemed to me before merely mundane suddenly seemed weighty and important. The ever-stressful bedtimes of before were now a time to cuddle, read, laugh, tell jokes, talk. Make memories. Suddenly I had this overwhelming need to show my kids who I really am. Let them see Jesus in me. And give them something to remember me by.
I just need them to remember me. God? Do you hear me?
Sometimes the loneliness of cancer is overwhelming. It seems like no one understands and it’s easy to feel alone in the crowd. But what’s even worse is the sickening realization that I’m not the only one who has it. I’m not the only one whose story has changed. I’m not the only one affected. My friends have it. My family has is. My church has it. My husband has it. And my kids, they have it too.
I try to create this fake bubble where this only affects me and if I just slap on a smile everything will be fine. Everyone will be fine. But it’s just an illusion. I can’t shelter everyone from this. This thing eating away at me is affecting others too.
Even if they don’t quite realize it yet.
There is a special kind of guilt that comes with watching your kids deal with your cancer. I’m not sure guilt is the perfect word, but it’s the best I’ve got at this moment. I would think they are too young to deal with this, but I didn’t get to decide that, did I? They have no choice. So while I can soften the blows as they come, each is absorbed into their little minds, forever changing them.
When I’m laid up in bed, our 3 year old daughter will constantly come in and check on me, bringing me kisses on the forehead, “this won’t make you better” she will say knowingly, far too wise for her age. She will give me her treasured stuffed animals to keep me company and before she’s ushered out she’ll ask, “Are you going to the special doctor now?”
And our 5 year old son, well he just understands so much. Too much. He puts too many of the pieces together for his own good. I walked into the bathroom the other day to find him crying, tears streaming down his face, sobbing into his little hands. I try to assure him it was just an accident and that I will clean it up. I promise him that he’s not in trouble. “No! It’s not that!” he wails, “I think I have cancer!”
My heart stops for a moment and the tears cannot be held back. As I try to find the breath that has escaped me, all I can do is scoop his little body up and rock him back and forth, assuring him that he doesn’t have cancer. I kiss his head as he cries. He asks me if he ever will. And I tell him no. Secretly I hate myself for lying to him, but I know how he worries so I have to tell him that. I mean he’s 5, I have to tell him that, right??
Just a couple days later, a few of his little friends come over to play. “My mom has cancer.” He says matter-of-factly to the little girl in front of him. My first instinct is to diffuse the situation and pull him aside and tell him gently that he doesn’t need to be talking about that. But I don’t. Because this is his story too. This is his life and my cancer, whether I like it or not, will have some influence on him. On my daughter. On my husband. On everyone who we love and loves us.
It’s a sad truth that my kids don’t remember a time when mommy wasn’t sick. It’s normal for them, but they know it’s not normal. Evan asks so many questions, as you would expect from a 5 year old. Some of them are funny, “who is going to live longer, you or Bucky?” Umm, I better live longer than the dang dog! But when he speaks of heaven, he speaks with such certainty, and wonder, and hope that I always am reminded why I want to end up there. “Will you wait for me at the gate until I get there?” Yes, of course, but don’t rush. That’s always my answer.
It may sound odd that my kids have even pondered my death, but this is a part of our story. They need to know that death doesn’t have to be scary and my passing won’t be the end of their wonderful adventures in this life. I would have never chosen the cancer life, but it obviously chose me, so we just try to make the best of it.
And in a way, parenting with the thought in the back of my head that I’m wanting to make memories has made me a better parent. I wish I would have done this before, but of course I didn’t know. My family has cancer but we will get through this together, stronger and better – and hopefully with some special memories between us.