That’s right, I’ve turned 40 years old and three years cancer free. When I was going through all of the bullshit – tests, waiting, doc visits, waiting, scans, waiting, surgery, waiting, chemo, waiting, radiation, waiting, more tests, waiting – for some reason I often thought, “Just let me get to my 40th birthday.” As if turning 40 would somehow miraculously heal me. It seems a lifetime ago, yet it was just a mere three years. The craziest part is that the girls were just three years old themselves when they learned about cancer. Just three. Think of the discussions. The conversations that we had with them, the ones that we never thought we’d ever have to imagine.
- Mommy has a sickness in her boobs and she needs to get them taken off.
- Mommy will have new boobs but they won’t be the same.
- Mommy has cancer and will need to take medicine that will make her sick and then make her better.
- Mommy will be ok.
- You won’t be able to hug mommy.
- You won’t be able to sit on mommy’s lap.
- Mommy can’t give you a bath.
- Mommy can’t pick you up.
- Mommy’s going to lose all of her hair.
- Grandma will come visit.
- Granny will come take care of you this week.
- You’re going to stay the night with Granddaddy.
- We’re having dinner from so-and-so tonight.
- Please don’t disturb mommy.
- Please don’t cough on mommy.
- Please don’t sneeze on mommy.
- Wash your hands, please.
- Use some hand sanitizer, please.
And so much more. I mean, how much can a couple of toddlers take? However, I truly feel that because they were three years young at the time, they were able to handle it as if it were a normal way of life. Very sad to think, but very true. Kids are in fact incredibly resilient. As parents, we are always worrying about how they feel, what they’ll think, how they’ll react to certain news. But then they’ll surprise us at each and every turn.
When we told them that I had CANCER, that I was sick and going to take medicine that made me sicker but then would make me better, they took it with a grain of salt. It was a matter of fact for them. They went right back to eating their chicken wings and broccoli, as if we had just told them something completely ordinary. They later discussed it with their friends. They shared it openly with strangers on the subway. “My mom has CANCER in her boobs and is going to have them cut off.” That simple. When I lost my hair, I was adamant that they be a part of the shearing process. I gelled my loose hair to my scalp to survive an opening night. Wore a baseball cap for an entire day, sealing my hair to my skin, holding it on until I could no longer. That night, I sat on the edge of the tub, and told the girls it was time. And once again, as if it were nothing extraordinary, they gently started pulling my hair out. The freaky thing is they kind of enjoyed it. I had to slow them down as my scalp began to become a bit tender. With the help of my best friends, one with the clipper in hand and the other with a video camera documenting the entire thing, my girls watched as I shaved my head bald. Not completely skinhead bald. More GI Jane bald. And my girls watched every bit of it, even at times using the clippers themselves, again as if it were normal.
Over time, during my treatment, they did in fact need a little of mommy love, that I wasn’t able to give. I couldn’t hug them, hold them, pick them up. And then there were times, in which they got sick, and even though I was warned – really demanded – by my oncologist to stay far away from any and all people who were sick including my kids,… well, how could I as a mother sit and watch one and then both of my children suffer and not hold them in my arms? THAT’s not normal. But then again none of it was actually normal, no matter how easy it seemed the girls took it all in. So I needed to do everything that I could to keep their lives as normal as possible.
My biggest fear throughout all of it, the fear that would make me swell up in tears and still does, was thinking that their first memory ever, their earliest memory, would be of me and my cancer. Fast forward a year and a half. I had been cancer free for more than a year. My hair had grown back. I even had new nipples. The girls were five. We were on vacation, driving, randomly listening to NPR. A female comedian, for some reason I want to say Amy Schumer, was talking about how her first comedy routines were about living through her mother fighting cancer. Out of nowhere, Penelope chimed in, “You know mom? You remember when you went through cancer?” I absentmindedly replied, “yeah?” “Yeah. That was very scary.” I froze. (Thank goodness I wasn’t driving.) I couldn’t protect her after all. We chatted a little bit about it, but once again went back to normal. For Sophia, it came back but more as a moment in time. Every time we talked about something in the past, to her it was always, “Was that before you had cancer or after?” As if my time with cancer were the zero on the number line and everything else was either a positive or a negative.
Now two years later, I feel we take three steps forward, and then another one or two back. They know of my medicine (daily Tamoxifen). They know I still see doctors on a regular basis. And while Penelope has fears swell up, especially recently with the sudden passing of their school principal, and has expressed the fear, “I don’t want you to get cancer again and die,” on more than one occasion. Sophia has taken it, yet again, as if it were normal. “We’re all going to die. That’s a part of the life cycle,” and she moves on. (Even though they are identical, they are incredibly different.).
So now that I’m 40 & 3, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what’s normal anymore. Every time I think we have it figured out, another monkey wrench gets thrown in and knocks it all out of whack. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the twins have it right. They took it all in, and absorbed it. They processed it when they could, simplified as they needed and then moved on with their lives. I know ‘moving on’ (in whatever context fits you) is never that simple. Our own unique situations and circumstances dictate that. But imagine if it were. If our minds and hearts could move on so simply. Instead of over-thinking, creating ‘what ifs,’ and questioning ourselves, we just continued moving on. Because when it comes down to it, there is no ‘normal.’ What we really want is what’s comfortable, safe and convenient, and when anything deters from that it throws us out of balance. But no matter how much we strive to be in control, it’s just not possible. So now at 40, I’ll strive to not over-analyze to create ‘what ifs,’ and I’ll stop pulling out the white strands and just let the grey come in. I want to process, absorb, and move on. Then again, what the hell do I know? I’m only 3.