"No matter what we hear today," I said to my husband as we prepared for the appointment that would reveal what stage our teen son's cancer was at, "we have to be like a rock. We cannot fall apart in front of Jeremy no matter how hard the news might be." With resolve to remain stoic, we drove our son to the hospital for what would prove to be one of the hardest conversations of our entire lives.
Stage 4b. Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Seven different chemo drugs. Radiation. Compromised immune system. Potential side effects. Potential complications. Blood infections... and on and on ...
We did remain stoic. We did not flinch. Jerry and I sat there as if we were in a conference discussing the terms of buying a car. I had flipped the switch, a coping mechanism I developed many years ago when facing down stressful, emotionally charged events. I can almost always flip the switch to Numb Mode. I was thankful that this day, this moment, my switch was in working order.
Jeremy, our son, started off in his own place of stoicism. But as the difficult conversation progressed, all entirely focused on his body, his health, his well-being, he became more and more agitated. I recognized he was coming close to losing it, and not wanting my son to become overwhelmed by such difficult information, nor lose his composure in front of new doctors who were strangers to us, I finally held up my hand in the universal stop gesture. "I think we need to end here. It's a lot to take in."
That was a good mom moment. I did right by my son as we navigated him home. He did lose his composure in the safety of our car. Jerry and I remained steadfast in our calmness. I held back tears as Jeremy raged at the hard hand of cards he had been dealt. My own falling-apart'ness came later where my son could not see or hear my anguish. Another good mom move.
But not all my moves during our sojourn in CancerLand have been as noteworthy. I have failed many times at being the mom-on-task caregiver as the lead nurturer of my son's care. Like the time Jeremy ran out of a critical medication. We had just been to the clinic the day before and I had completely forgotten to get a prescription. This particular med requires a paper script to be filled at the pharmacy. As Jeremy informed me of this, I grimaced. I had planned my day out, but now with the urgency of going back to the clinic, getting the script, running it to the pharmacy and getting him that much-needed-med before his next dose, ugh ... my face scrunched up with the ugh-ness of it all. And he saw it, and it rained shame down on him that his medical need was an inconvenience to me. That he had become an inconvenience.
I apologized. I reassured him. I spoke of my undying commitment to care for him no matter what and No, he is never ever never ever NEVER EVER an inconvenience "for I am your mom and it is my honor to help you and care for you and be alongside you to help you move towards wellness."
Another time I ranted to him about an irritation that had happened at work. Jeremy and I developed a strong bond during his treatments, and in that bond I sometimes misplaced my judgment by speaking with him as if he were a friend rather than my ill teen son who is just trying to get through another day of feeling crappy. "Mom, uh... mom," he would sometimes stammer ever-so-politely, "Can we not talk about this right now?" I flushed with embarrassment more than once as I carelessly crossed boundaries. The stress and isolation of this serious illness affected my mothering limits more times than I'd like to remember.
It became clear to me that with a disease like cancer come weird ideas like how to be positive all the time and saintly and noble and Hallmark-card-good-all-day-and-night-long. My friend, writer and blogger (and cancer survivor) Jo Hilder, tells in her book, Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, how expecting positivity all the time is like telling a hungry person to never ask for something to eat.
When the person with cancer never talks about the scary parts and is never honest about their fear of pain or death, the only good thing which results is the people around the person with cancer don't have to be inconvenienced with an awkward conversation,
(or) deal with their own fear of cancer...
It was a very weird tension of trying to be the Good Upbeat Mom all the time. And though my son nor anyone else put this expectation on me - in fact, quite the opposite - I had put a huge pressure on myself to Be Super Mom and Super Positive all the Super Effin' time.
But I never did find my damn cape and the Super powers that come with it.
I wish I had a worthy Lifetime movie of the week story of how cancer transformed me into a better version of myself. Nope. Cancer tested my resolve, yes, and the crisis of a sick child created pressures that I sometimes handled with grace and sometimes did not. Like the time I lost my temper with my 20-year old daughter and began railing on her while my chemo-sick son laid on the sofa..."Please stop, Mom," he moaned. "I don't need this." And of course I stopped ... and of course I felt horrible for bickering with my daughter in front of my ailing boy. Another ugh'ish moment.
This is the real stuff of our CancerLand experience. I did a lot right, a whole lot of right, yet I will always wish that I had done EVERYTHING right. But I'm human, and the crisis of cancer did not suddenly transform me into Super Mom or Super Human or Super anything except maybe super worried ... I worried about everything with Jeremy, every little thing, and I still do as he is still recovering from the side effects of the treatments that saved his life.
Cancer made no saint of me. The crisis, though, made me more aware than ever of how the human experience is full of paradox and contradictions and highs and lows. I wish I had a narrative, a take-away of the valuable life lessons me and my family absorbed from CancerLand. In the end, I have my cancer-free boy (YAY YAY YAY YAY!!!!!!) and a bit more insight of how I am who I am, foibles and all, in the face of extraordinary difficulty.