A few weeks ago marked the five-year anniversary of my breast amputation. My youngest child, Isaiah, was four when I had that surgery. I did not talk about the anniversary with my kids, or with anyone. I quietly honored it this year on my own.
But the week of the anniversary, as I was tucking Isaiah in, we reflected on his day at school. He shared with me that he took “Mama Bear” as one of his three items to share about himself with his new classmates. Mama Bear is a bear I gave him when his dad and I got divorced, which was right before my breast cancer diagnosis. In his mind, I gave him that bear when I got cancer. For him, they are linked, and I don’t feel the need to change that.
He said he almost cried when sharing with the class, but he didn’t. I asked what he shared, and he said he shared what he remembers. Which is that he cried for two days when I told him I had cancer. And then he said that he told them about how hard it was to see me in the hospital after my surgeries. And then, after he told me, he did cry, because he had been holding that heavy sadness all day, and probably for five years. I held him closely to me, and I told him that I know that was a hard time.
Cancer is always present
And now, even five years later, it’s still a hard time. Everyone that lives in my house accesses my cancer on a pretty regular basis via memories, hearing the word “cancer,” seeing me with my lymphedema sleeve or a zillion other reminders. There is a sense of relief, yes, but there is also a sense that it hangs over us. There seems to always be a “yes, but …” whenever it comes up.
It’s as if cancer is always in the periphery. Sometimes it’s noisy and irritating, and other times it sits more quietly. But it is always present.
I gave up trying to hold all of my own feelings, and those of my children, about cancer. I just practice being present with myself, or my kids, when sadness or anger or fear come up. I know I cannot make it better or make it go away, and I know that we will probably all be processing it for the rest of our lives.
I am aware that they are learning about illness and death from me. They are learning how to face hardship, uncertainty, mystery, limitation and darkness. It is my greatest wish that what I am teaching them is that instead of fearing the mysteries, we can to peer into them with curiosity and reverence for what they teach us, in the moments after we have cried all the tears for the day.