I recently read a fantastic graphic novel about a young woman's experience of having Metastatic Breast Cancer (weird, right?). It's called In Between Days, by Teva Harrison, a Toronto-based artist and writer. The cover looks like this:
I was amazed at how open Harrison is about what cancer takes from her, about her terror, her body, her disgust at all the well-meaning assholes who tell her that she should "be positive" and that she'll "pull through." She also describes another side of this shape-shifting disease-- the absolute necessity of hope, despite (or maybe spiting?) the hopelessness of her situation.
I mean, really, why brush your teeth if you're going to be dead in two years? I have to admit that for about a month after getting diagnosed, I'm pretty sure I didn't take a shower or brush my hair. I shuffled off to radiation in the same yoga pants and t-shirt every day, and often slept in
the same outfit. It made it much easier to get out of the house in the morning, and who cared what I looked or smelled like anymore? A very select few of you may remember what my eyebrows looked like in high school-- I was Frieda Kahlo for Halloween every year for a reason-- and for most of March and April I rocked the same about-to-turn-into-the-wolfman look. Finally Mattie gently reminded me that at some point I had asked him to tell me if I started to stink, and I shook off the funk of forty thousand years and panic and tears and sadness and desperation and got in the fucking shower. Yesterday, I shaved my legs. Today, I'm even going for a haircut.**
It's also striking how similar Harrison's initial experience was to mine. She started getting terrible backaches, but because she was a runner, her doctors told her her problems were "mechanical." It took her ages to discover that her pain-- which, like so many other women's, was minimized or dismissed-- was actually cancer destroying her spine.
But even as I nodded and wept, I started to realized there was one big difference between our cancer lives.* Diagnosed at 36, Harrison hadn't yet had children with her beloved husband; something else cancer stole from her. For me, on the other hand, my kids are one of the most present, painful parts of the whole thing. I'm finally at the point when I can cuddle with them without breaking down into sobs thinking about leaving them, but that's a fairly recent triumph of self control, and there are plenty of times when I have to excuse myself from the dinner table to go cry or have a panic attack in private. The kids have done their fair share of crying too, more than I suspect we know about; Leo off-handedly made a remark a few weeks ago about having cried all the tears he could ever cry, but to us he's seemed surprisingly stoic.
All of which made two conversations I had with them this week even more remarkable. Sitting on the couch with Henry after school, he asked me if he could ask me a question, which always indicates something serious or, sometimes, annoying ("Can I ask you a question? Can you buy me a Warriors 2017 Champions hat?"). This time it was the former. When I left the table sometimes because I was sad, what exactly was I sad about? Of course, I lost it, but between crying and blowing my nose I managed to tell him that I was sad because me having cancer was such a big part of their lives, and that I wished they could just have normal happy childhoods like before. Henry, who is 8 by the way, moved closer to me and stroked my hair, looking thoughtful. "You don't have to worry about us," he said. "We're kids, but we can get on with it. And it's not like you died, and it's not like you're about to die right now, so it's okay." Cue more crying and some tearful, sweaty cuddles.
The next evening I was sitting on the bed with Leo, while my wise, compassionate younger son was pitching a fit somewhere else in the house. Leo complained about how immature Henry is, and I told him about how thoughtful and loving he had been the day before. Leo looked away for a moment, and then said, "That's something I've been thinking about a lot too. Remember when you first got cancer [he means this time, not four years ago], and for like a month that was all we could talk about, that was all we could think about? But then after a while we kind of. . . we kind of started to live our lives again?" I nodded. "So. . ." Another look away. "So. . . I mean, hypothetically. . . I mean I don't want to hurt your feelings or anything. . . I mean hypothetically if you. . . . I mean if you. . . " I held his hand. "You mean if I died?" His words rushed of him as he patted my hand. "Only HYPOTHETICALLY, okay? I mean only hypothetically!" He sighed. "But hypothetically, if you died, I mean, it would be kind of like that. We wouldn't be very well off, because you're like, the center of the family, but it would be kind of like that." We were both teary, but this time I managed not to actually cry.
Because the strange thing is that they gave me hope. I've been so terrified about leaving them, about what they would do without me, about scarring them forever, and so sad about not knowing how they would grow up and who they would turn into, that I somehow failed to recognize how strong they are already. They will get on with it, and they will grow into wonderful, thoughtful, ethical people because they are so damn strong. And without wanting to toot my own horn, they got that strength from me. And that gives me hope too.
*Cancer isn't a journey. If you tell me cancer is a journey I will likely punch you, although I really am working on my anger.
**Possibly foolhardy since I have no idea if/when I'll be getting the kind of chemo that makes you lose your hair, but fuck it.