Stretching Toward Light

Facing a major illness when my children barely know me suspends me in time. The prospect of a future freezes me in terror, for fear of the unknown. But an illness with so many question marks also makes me terrified to stay stationary, desperate to move on to a safer place.
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Daylight savings time, April 1989. Huddled in my warm house reading a book to my two sons, 3-year-old Jonathan perched on my right knee and 18-month-old Jeremy on my left. I contemplate what it will mean to set the clocks one hour ahead later this evening. Just one hour seems immensely insignificant. Ten hours wouldn't even be enough.

My breast cancer diagnosis just four months prior -- when the skies were dark by four o'clock and the world, once full of promise, crumbled around me -- made me long for time to fast-forward; for it to take me to a safer place, to a fail-safe future where things are straight instead of crooked.

"Mommy?" Jonathan cocks his head, full of rich brown curls, to one side. His eyes search my face, which is frozen in thought. "What happens next, Mommy?" His question, so earnest and pure. My first-born child oozes sweet patience and a rich curiosity; just like he was when he calmly emerged from my womb following an arduous two-day labor, his eyes wide with wonder, darting around the room, taking everything in.

But my attention is not on the book. I am somewhere else; a faraway place. I'm caught up in my own personal story, and a fantasy I wish for each day but is not to be. My mind wanders as my hand caresses the back of my head. My new, downy hair began to sprout just as my last chemotherapy session was to begin; baby hair at its finest -- silky and delicately smooth as an undisturbed lake. A restorative balm.

I imagine myself tearing opening an official-looking envelope boldly marked, "URGENT: IMMEDIATE ATTENTION." In my haste, I suffer a deep paper cut on the tip of my right hand's pointer finger. "Dear Sheryl Kraft," the letter reads. "We are writing to inform you of a lab error. Your pathology slides of 12/8/88 were inadvertently confused with another patient's samples. Your breast tumor was benign." That familiar swoosh of panic and disbelief is once again living in my ears. "We are terribly sorry about the error, and urge you to contact your physician immediately." A thin line of red blood tracts across the crisp white paper, where I trace that word -- "benign" -- over and over, my head spinning wildly with relief.

Jeremy squirms, reaching out to wrest the book from my hands. "Read, read!" he demands. Suddenly, my knees begin to ache. "OK, OK!" I say, a bit too cheerfully, forcing a smile while blinking my eyes to clear my mind of my foolish make-believe. I smooth the page, and continue.

"Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy. Every day the boy would come and gather the leaves and make them into crowns... He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches ... they would play hide and go seek and the boy loved the tree very much. And the tree was happy."

Facing a major illness when my children barely know me suspends me in time. The prospect of a future freezes me in terror, for fear of the unknown. But an illness with so many question marks also makes me terrified to stay stationary, desperate to move on to a safer place.

If I didn't survive, I'd want my boys to always remember at least some of me; the most they could get of me. And if I did survive I wanted to know -- truly know -- my children; to experience all the "firsts" in their lives: their first tumble on the playground, their first victory, their first disappointment, their first kiss. I yearned to worry about them, nurse their colds with chicken soup, hear their scratchy, morning voices with the stale smell of breath coax me out of my slumber.

The cancer humbled me beyond reason, leaving me woozy with a mixture of grief and fear and the realization that to see my children grow up was the ultimate privilege. It was, alas, something I might not witness.

So many new parents are terrified of losing a child; instead, I was terrified of my children losing me.

Each evening when I pulled their covers tightly and tucked them neatly under my sons' chins, my eyes lingered over their compact bodies. "Look at how long your eyelashes are!" I'd say to Jeremy, as I leaned down to stroke his eyebrow, its shape perfect in its preciseness. And it always seemed that each night, Jonathan's toes would reach even further toward the end of the bed than they did just one day before.

I'd lay my weary body down next to each boy, the gravitational pull so hard to resist, my nose nuzzling the back of their necks, inhaling their earthy, fresh scent and their winsome goodness, coveting their life energy, yearning to transfer it into my cells and feel it coursing through my body. I needed their health and strength to face another day of fear and longing.

The years passed. The scraped knees healed, as did the broken hearts; the tough homework assignments yielded test grades making them all worth the post-midnight hysterics.
My treatments ended, my hair grew back (with new hints of gray this time). I happily sat through two high school graduations; one year after the next, tears flowing unabashedly as I watched my boys walk up to the stage to accept their diplomas with firm handshakes. Seeing them from a distance caught me off guard. When had they grown so tall? Did they always have such poise? It was as if I was watching someone else's child. But they were each very much a part of me, grown up before my very eyes yet appearing, at that moment, as strangers.

Our house is empty now, that proverbial nest abandoned. But each time my children come home to visit, my heart swells and fills up along with the house. My little boys are grown and impossibly adult-like; tall and handsome with a hint of boyishness that I hope they never lose. But more important than that, they are good people who make me proud. I want to hold onto them, breathe in their life, tuck them in and kiss them goodnight; then wake the next morning to greet them with pancakes and warm maple syrup.

"The boy stayed away for a long, long time," the story continues. "When the boy came back, the tree was so happy she could barely speak. I'm too old to play, said the boy. I want a boat to take me far away. I have no boat, said the tree, but you can cut down my trunk and make a boat; and sail away and be happy.

And so the boy cut down the trunk, made a boat and sailed away.

And the tree was happy."

But instead, they grab the car keys -- this time their own -- to get back to their Queen-sized beds which have taken the place of the impossibly small-looking twin beds that sit undisturbed in the upstairs rooms which once bore their names.

And I am home alone to fathom, marvel, grieve and heal; secure in knowing that the crocuses will resume their rebirth each spring, stretching toward the sunlight of a longer day.

This essay originally appeared in Brain, Child Magazine.

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