Introduction: The impact of a serious diagnosis on a family is far reaching and the healing continues long after treatment is over.
“Mommy’s dying,” Julian declared, his sticky half boy-half baby fingers stuck to the short hairs on my neck. He looked into my eyes to gauge response, and I could tell by his little smirk he had no idea how hard that blow just hit me. I took it in with a deep inhalation, tempering the sinking heart feeling with my best grownup face.
At the age of 5, what does he really know about death? I can see him trying to understand, trying on words and concepts that creep in from school or television, but certainly not from home, the hushed tones of uncertainty kept to nighttime whispers and secret diaries. Last summer we found a garter snake in the yard, already stiff with the rigors, a little blood around the mouth and head where some bird of prey struck the final blow. “Awe, poor snake!” he kept exclaiming. I told him it was dead, that dead things can’t move and feel anymore. I spoke very basically about the food chain, my simplified circle of life talk. The next day it was gone, neatly removed by nature, proving my point that everything has its use and place.
Then in the fall his beloved Chloe died. The sweetest, smooshiest yellow lab that ever was, would let him climb over and under her belly and spoon with him like he were her very own pup. Arriving home the first time without Chloe, having to explain she would never return, that she was in Heaven now with her sister Hannah, I tried to find soothing words. He just wailed and his heartbreak was sadder for me than the loss of the dog. I could feel a little piece of his childhood breaking off and dissolving in this moment as I held him, his little face soaking my shirt.
Julian was only 3 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Just 1 week after his 4th birthday he came home to find his Mommy sequestered in the bedroom, barricaded by a baby gate. In drug induced semi-consciousness, I remember hearing him screaming at the gate, anguished that we dare be separated. I choked back my sobs, lest I tear at the surgical seams. Each shudder of sorrow brought a new wave of pain. Never will I forget the sound of him crying for me and my arms and chest unable to bear him. Mixed in with the muddy memory is my husband crying too, the two of them holding each other, Joey trying to convince himself even more perhaps, that I was going to be alright.
Maybe it was a day or two later, after much soothing and cuddling, he was carefully brought to me. I was the delicate newborn, lying on the other side of a pillow buffer. Joey controlled his spindly little limbs, as his hands found my face and hair and he pressed his soft baby cheeks to mine. His eyes looked so old as he peered into my face for understanding and reassurance. “It’s OK, Mommy’s here. I’m resting. Mommy just needs to sleep.”
For weeks beforehand we read Nancy Reuben Greenfield’s, “When Mommy Had a Mastectomy”. I can’t say if it registered. He didn’t care to stay in my lap and look at the pictures as they weren’t nearly as riveting as the Thomas the Train stories. At that point I didn’t even get into Sherry Kohlenberg’s, “Sammy’s Mommy Has Cancer”. I was still wallowing in my shock, trying to find preschooler words to convey something I couldn’t understand.
How did I get here at age 36? After all the organic food and exercise, holistic medicine and mind/body awareness, law of attraction, talk therapy, forgiveness… certainly I was not perfect, but this? Early childhood Catholicism colluded with eastern thinking. Was this karmic payback for the sins of my past lives, or perhaps for the old shadow thoughts of my unworthiness of love?
The doctors ministered their science. BRCA1+ hereditary cancer was the proclamation. The very thing that took my grandmother at age 57, just a year before I was born, would resurface in me. I found the lump in my left breast one day while Julian clambered over me like a jungle gym. Surely it was a swollen lymph gland I thought, as I doubled up on the homeopathic medicine and waited. It would be 5 months later when I finally saw a doctor and the wave of probing, testing, second and third opinions swept over my life. Going with the most aggressive course of western medicine, a double mastectomy and chemotherapy was what everyone recommended to combat the “Triple Negative” tumor, known best for fast growth and high reoccurrence rates.
I looked everywhere for a way out, for absolute proof that I could kick this with colloidal silver or pure essential oil of orange, or mega-doses of Vitamin C. Everyone in my local Woodstock, NY and online communities rallied with well-intentioned advice. One man, touting a sure-fire cannabinoid oil cure called me just a few days before surgery saying, “Don’t let them take your boobs!” That night I stared at my little boy’s sleeping face for a long time.
One year a survivor now, with my son perched on my lap, I want to reassure him that all these sacrifices were not for nothing. I speak quietly and simply about death. “When you die, you go away and you don’t come back. I would be in heaven and you wouldn’t see Mommy anymore.” He is quiet as this sinks in. I add, “Mommy is not dying. I’m staying right here with you and Daddy for a long, long time.” In my heart is the loudest prayer. I hope I am telling the truth.