I never thought I would live long enough to take my daughter to her university dorm. Yet in August of this year, that is what I will do.
In 2014 I spent endless hours weeping about the milestones I wouldn’t be able to share with my children. Graduation, university, weddings, babies, all of these and more were an obsession that consumed my nights as I lay awake.
That was the year I got my cancer diagnosis. The words hit me like a bat “Stage Four, Terminal.” There is no negotiation with those words, there is just rage, sadness and fear. All I could think about is what my little family would have to do without me. I had six months at best, and my children were ten and thirteen. For the longest time I could not control the thoughts that would careen into my mind.
What Happens After a Cancer Diagnosis
How can I leave them? They aren’t ready for the world yet, but I have no say in the matter. Dead is dead.
I pictured their first crushes, and heartbreaks. I thought about ridiculously huge weddings and what they would wear, who they might marry, and where they would live. I broke down when I realized I would not be with my daughter to choose a prom dress, or her wedding gown. It was like a relentless onslaught of tragedies spinning in my mind as I realized what I would miss.
I would be out somewhere and see a new grandmother helping her daughter with a newborn, and I would choke back tears. Both my children would probably have babies of their own, without me to help.
When I started to return to some version of myself after treatment, I tried to compartmentalize the cancer from my life and close the box. My mission was to make sure my family had the resilience it would need when my time came. We travelled and made memories. The smashing clarity that comes from a cancer diagnosis makes your bucket list easier to write. I had one goal, survive as long as I could and make sure my beautiful children knew that their mom fought hard for them and that I loved them with a searing intensity that can’t be contained.
A few months after the doctor told me to get my affairs in order, I was still alive and got to see a band performance at the school. I put my daughter on the bus to high school and watched my son walk down the driveway to get to school without his sister. I watched his little backpack, brand new, full of lunch and a heaping serving of my love as he turned the corner out of sight.
I attended their sports, brought them to parties, met with teachers and did all the Mom things. My other existence was a stark one. Blood test, scans, doctors and mind-numbing fatigue awaited me. I would nap but would always be up when the kids got home. I made snacks and chatted with them as I started dinner.
Time passed and somehow, I was still alive. Sweet 16, and we had a party. Driver’s lessons, the little one in high school, and still I was fetching groceries and remaining upbeat. I had to be. One at a time, I put big mental checkmarks next to the events I thought I was going to miss.
Cancer comes in deadly silence, and not for one second have I forgotten that. Knowing it could strike at any moment and start a catastrophic series of events that would end up with me shriveled in hospital bed is always on my mind. I know how this goes, so I worry about all the next milestones. I recite them in my mind to keep them close.
I had a setback a few months ago and needed surgery. Two weeks after I got out of the hospital we flew on a country wide tour of universities and I was in a wheelchair. I was not going to miss out. Ironically, the day we flew was my five-year anniversary living with cancer. There is no remission, there will be no cure.
Now I am starting to realize that I always knew my firstborn would leave the nest, but now that it is upon us, I know all this emotion is going to have to come out. Saying goodbye to her will be all the more heartrending seen through the magnifying glass of terminal illness.
What if I die while she is in school? So far from home. I know she would fly home to my bedside, care for me, visit me, or drop out for me. Do I want her to interrupt her school and lose a year for me? No, I don’t, but how could she not?
Will my tall awkward boy who is still at home have to watch me deteriorate into dust while he is trying to have the life of a teen boy? He has already told me he wants to stay local after high school. What is better, witnessing or being clear of it? There are no answers, just more questions.
Will it happen next year, the year after? Next month?
I have no illusions that I will make it to their weddings. I do know I will accompany my amazing young woman to her dorm, fuss over her bedding, help her pick out towels and kiss her forehead goodbye; of this I am sure. Everything else is up to science and doctors.
For some people, the first child leaving the nest is one of the most bitter sweet transitions of their lives. It will be for us too, but in the shadows, skulking just beyond the light is the ominous specter of tragedy draped over every moment.
For now, during our eighteenth summer, we will gaze into the sun and remember the feeling of warmth and being together. Tomorrow doesn’t matter yet.
You Might Also Enjoy Reading: