The day before yesterday Daniel hugged me tight and said he wished I would never die. Then he looked at me intently and asked me if I was going to die soon and stop talking, because, “…when you die you stop talking forever ever.” I told him that this was true, when you die you do stop talking. I asked him where he heard about dying and the answer wasn’t clear. Though we’ve had many conversations about cancer I don’t talk about my death to him as I think it would be confusing and beyond his age, not to mention totally unnecessary at this time. I’m all for openness with children, very much so in fact. But a 3yo doesn’t need to hear that this disease is capable of killing me, not that he could even grasp what that meant anyway.
He wasn’t upset in the least when we had this little exchange and as much as it could have been a bit poignant for me it was so out of the blue that I didn't have a chance to be taken aback. I suspect that although his description of death was pretty apt I don’t think his concept of “forever ever” is quite the same as an adults.
Now Megan is a completely different story -- she has a significant understanding of this saga, but she’s 8 ½ and obviously needs to. She knows that some women die of breast cancer and some survive, and that Mama is going to try and do everything she can to have a very long life. But I also wouldn't want to mislead her into thinking that once I'm done with treatment I'm cured and this can't ever come back -- so I have told her that this might be what I die from…eventually -- or it might be something else. Either way, it certainly won't be today and not for the near foreseeable future.
Meggie saw pictures of reconstructed breasts before my mastectomy in preparation. She watched with fascination as my visiting nurse change my bandages for months as I dealt with skin necrosis. She has seen me suffer physical pain, seen me cry, seen me deal with anxiety, and no doubt been aware of me sometimes feeling like I wanted to give up on my worst days. But more importantly she has also watched me get up, get dressed, put on my wig and go for treatment anyway. We have talked about everything along the way and any discussions have been at her comfort level. I must say, regarding my cancer journey she is incredibly astute beyond her years. I firmly believe that keeping children in the dark is a mistake – they need to know, in an age appropriate manner, what is going on. The unknown, the hidden, the secrets are what make children afraid. We grown-ups fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve managed to protect or shield our kids and we rarely do. As my grandmother used to say, “Little pitchers have big ears.”
Before I had Daniel there was a time when I dealt with some deep depression and acute anxiety in front of my daughter, it was impossible to hide it from her. Even in the midst of my emotional crisis her father and I managed to talk to her and explain to the best of our ability how I was feeling and what it was all about. She also saw me get through that only a little the worse for wear in the end. And I think it taught her something important. Sometimes when faced with certain challenges people fall apart – and that’s okay. Ultimately they heal, they move on. It’s a lesson I wish I’d known at a young age. I was always afraid that I would break, that each crisis or tragedy would be “the one”…the thing that destroyed me. Sometimes, very often lately, I admit I’m still afraid of that. But I try to remind myself that falling apart doesn’t negate strength and life rarely breaks anyone. We fumble through it and keep going.
And my Meg comforts me sometimes by reminding me of that past episode…wise little creature that she is. She says, “Remember how bad you thought that was, and yet it was okay, you learned to deal with it and things got better. Cancer is just like that, Mama, you’ll see. I know it.”
As for Daniel, I told him that I wasn’t going to die for a long, long time. He said, “Good. Can you fill my juice cup, pease?” And so I did. Because there are always juice cups to be filled. There are always little things that need doing and I’m their mother so I do them…not their mother with cancer…just their mother. And that is always a huge part of what gets me through.