Tomorrow she will graduate from kindergarten. I will be thankful that I was there, present in my mortal body, for at least one graduation of hers, be it from Montessori school. There will be no gowns or hats neither will she know what it means to me, but that is just fine. She is excited about wearing her pretty beaded dress and singing a “Good Bye Song”. I am planning not to wear mascara and to use a waterproof eyeliner. I will drag myself to get dressed and go as I am still exhausted from chemotherapy. I will take some Imodium so I can last through the 90 minutes without rushing to the restroom.
She has been preparing the songs they will sing at this celebration they call “The Spring Sing” ― their school’s annual tradition. She has her daddy’s strong vocal cords and when she sings ‘America The Beautiful’ you can’t help but feel patriotic. She also has her daddy’s loud laugh, which warms my heart, but thankfully her ability to carry a tune from her mom. I have voice memos on my phone of this spontaneous and joyful laugh for my dark days, and living with cancer I am guaranteed many.
She is a happy six-year-old who doesn’t like sad endings or goodbyes. Come to think of it, nobody does ― but at this age, she also does not comprehend them fully. She doesn’t get the finality of death but can be very dramatic if I say, “Mommy doesn’t feel well.”
She will ask, “So are you going to DIE?”
Kids this age suddenly take on a curiosity about death and dying although they’re really young to grasp it. She cannot fully comprehend the fact that her mother is exactly one week out from her chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer, which after almost year of stability reverted to a turbo phase.
“I, sometimes, stare at her as I bathe her, muttering to myself, I wish her body does not betray her.”
She was two-and-half years old when cancer entered her mother’s life and hers. She has grown up in the last four years under the lingering shadow of breast cancer although she still calls it “Breath Cancer” ― perhaps not too inaccurate as eventually it’s the breath that succumbs to this disease. She has grown up seeing pink ribbons in her house and she identifies them as “therapy,” a broken word she picked up somewhere along the endless conversations of chemotherapy, therapy, and radiation therapy. Never mind that she is the daughter of two psychiatrists, “therapy” has been a big part of her life.
But she prefers purple over pink. And I nurture that preference.
I want her as far from “pink” as possible even though the burden of my pink will accompany her all her life. This instills such guilt on me. I, sometimes, stare at her as I bathe her, muttering to myself, I wish her body does not betray her. And her loving paternal grandma, of course, worries about her risk, much to the chagrin of her fierce mom. But could I truly blame her? I wrap all the guilt gently in my heart and do the best I can. Me and my legacy of cancer. I take it with me. I own my illness and I own my motherhood.
Few weekends ago, she and I had gone to see the ‘Beauty and the Beast’, she was enchanted by the movie until they had to abandon Belle’s mother. As soon as the movie ended, she went on a tirade about why that happened and I had to give her meek explanations which would exonerate the mother from this terrible act of being sick and dying.
Two years ago, when we were watching ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ in the theater, Po’s mom had to leave her baby to protect him, she left her seat and came and sat in my lap. She could palpate the sadness of the moment and I could feel her angst.
That evening she went to bed sobbing, trying to explain to me that “leaving your baby is not a good thing for a mommy to do!”
I tried to put my psychiatrist hat on and talked her out of her grief. I had assumed she would forget about it the next day but it didn’t happen. My pangs of hidden guilt ate me from inside.
Next morning, she cornered me in the kitchen again. “Why did she leave her baby?”
“Mommies are not supposed to do that!”
“At six now, she still worries about monsters under the bed, while the scariest monster that stalks her life, lives within me.”
I remember that I had sat down with her and decided to take a play therapy and art therapy approach with her. Inside I felt horrible, a cancer survivor who grappled with the fear of abandoning her children at the hands of a cancer death secretly for the last 2 years. I sat down with her and we drew pictures of the panda family which needed to be a complete family. Mom and Dad and their child. Pretty soon, she voiced how she was mad at the daddy for not protecting the mommy and baby. I roped my husband into our little art session. He had to draw some pandas as well. In her mind, we tried to restore the trust of her complete family unit. Just like her toy sets, with both Mommy and Daddy. Her toddlerhood was obsessed with Diego and his animals finding their moms. At some level, she has internalized, I assume, the anxiety that plagues our home.
At six now, she still worries about monsters under the bed, while the scariest monster that stalks her life, lives within me.
My boy was six when I was first diagnosed; now my girl is the same age. She will graduate kindergarten, just like my boy did two months before my very first diagnosis of breast cancer.
I clearly remember my life at that time. The spring sing of 2013. I had come home after a busy clinic, I was tired but didn’t really understand what fatigue is like I do now. I had hardly eaten in between patients. I still had some notes that needed to be finished. I felt fat at 130 pounds and felt my dress showed too much pudgy. I remember being upset that my long shiny thick hair wasn’t behaving and looked frizzy but I had not had time to get them done. I had a two-year-old to feed and change as she battled potty training, and six-year-old to put down for a nap so he can last the evening for his graduation. Everything was rushed and stressful.
But those times were the really “good times.” I was healthy, strong, and working. I was a successful doctor and a mom. But I was not treating myself with compassion. I had too many demons in my mind, the perfections and the should-bes that were getting in my way of appreciating my life that I had had.
Four years later, living with cancer, I have greatly unloaded stress. I have embraced self-compassion and my vulnerabilities. I am kinder to myself and allow myself to be good enough which works better than “perfect” if consistent. Tomorrow, I will be thankful that I still have my own hair for the “graduation” (it will likely fall out in another 2-3 weeks) and I am alive and grateful for another day of my life.
I am no longer the neurotic mother I used to be, preoccupied with developmental milestones, classes and their academic future. I am more a “here and now” mom. I spend time with my kids and resigned last year from my practice to be more available to them. Cancer has changed the mother in me. I understand there is nothing perfect about motherhood. In fact, motherhood is full of shortcomings as long as they are adequately compensated by a loving heart. I reassure myself that Beauty did eventually find happiness in her life.
In my life, the petals keep falling. But I have to keep faith that magic does happen (not just in a kingdom). And until then my motherhood has to stay fresh and viable. The beast may transform or at least I hope it will.
Both a little scared, neither of us prepared… Mommy and the Beast.