Lately, a few friends of mine have mentioned that they are feeling down. Life sometimes takes a strange, unexpected turn, and you are thrown off balance, wondering what you did to deserve this.
It doesn’t help that it’s grey and raining out, every day for the last week has been hidden from the sun. All of us are just walking around in the pale grey light like ghosts floating amidst shadows, everything around us is coated in milky cloudy colors.
Days like these blend into each other, if someone asks you later what you did last Tuesday you can’t remember the difference between Tuesday and Wednesday. Maybe there was none.
Do you ever look back at how you were as a teenager, and wish you could warn that person? Or at least, give her a hint? I do. I sometimes think about her and feel like…she has no idea yet! She still thinks she’s going to meet the love of her life next year, get married in a castle and have several perfect kids, have a meaningful career that makes a difference, have a close circle of friends that are funny and cool (probably called Phoebe, Monica and Rachel, or something like that) and live an exciting life of adventure and meaning, leaving a mark on the world when she finally passes away at an old age, her many admirers gathering to have a huge party celebrating her life.
Where and when did that plan start to derail? Was it a slow process, a gradual silent shifting of gears, or a sudden, quick flash of lightning in her face, blinding her with its bright white light, leaving her forced to feel her way with her hands outstretched, guessing at where she was going?
And most importantly, was it meant to be like this?
I found a photo of Elliot recently. It was taken while on holiday in Denmark, about 6 weeks before his diagnosis. He is standing on the beach, his feet under water, a huge smile on his face. We had taken off his wet clothing, so he’s just in his little underwear, no shame of course at age 4, his arms held high as he waves at the sun.
If I look really closely at the photo, I can see the bump on the lower right side of his abdomen. The bump that turned out to be a tumour. The tumour that was cancerous. The cancer that spread to his lungs, making it stage 4.
What if I had noticed it back then? Would six weeks have meant it would not have metastasized yet? Would it have made a difference? But no, there’s no turning back time, I can’t go back and spot the bump earlier.
But what if I hadn’t found it when I did? What if I hadn’t noticed even 6 weeks later?
These questions could haunt me. But strangely enough, I don’t bother with them much. I know it serves no purpose to analyze all the “ what ifs”.
But I do wonder about whether or not this path in our life was meant to be, or whether we have any control over our destinies.
I like to think I have some control. Oh who am I kidding, I’m a total control freak. I secretly semi-consciously believe I am the best at everything important. (Note to the critics: putting gas in the car is not on my “important” list).
So it’s hard to let go, and accept that not everything is within my control…
So at times like these when some of my friends are feeling a bit down, I feel I should be able to “fix it”. Monica can do anything! She can clean the apartment and bake twelve lasagnas and analyze her friend’s love life and drink coffee and look fabulous all at the same time. And she’s only mildly annoying as she’s doing it all. So why can’t I fix all the world’s problems, or at least all my friends’?
Well, I guess maybe, just maybe, I have to admit… some problems are actually out of my control… For one thing, I can’t stop the rain. Hey that should be a song.
And what about all my other dreams? I did meet Prince Charming eventually; it just took me a few decades longer than expected. We got married at the city hall… a building potentially old enough to qualify as a castle in my books… My kids are truly perfect (ok maybe it would be nice if I didn’t cringe every time I had to enter their bathroom…) My life is certainly exciting and meaningful, although most cancermoms would agree with me that a little less excitement could be nice…Hmmmm. Am I actually the victim of my own wishes? Isn’t there an old Chinese proverb that says “be careful what you wish for, it might come true?”
Is my life a milder version of that old suspense story by W.W. Jacobs, The Monkey’s Paw, where a person’s wishes are granted, but with unexpected consequences? Is life just a series of random acts, or does everything you do and think affect something else?
What’s that thing about the butterfly making enough wind with its wings to cause a cyclone in another part of the world?
A friend’s daughter recently just finished her treatment for leukemia. For those not in the cancer world, or at least not the leukemia world, treatment for the most common leukemia (ALL) takes roughly two and half years for a girl (longer for boys). This is a huge part of your life, not to mention your child’s life! In fact, my friend’s daughter has spent more time in treatment than not. To say that this was a difficult time is not even close to being able to describe what leukemia parents and kids go through. I thought that the 10 months of Elliot’s treatment was interminable, imagine years. And because of the long treatment cycle, immunity is often low for long periods of time, so the kids are often restricted in what activities they can participate in. Many miss out on school, friends, parties, outdoor activities, events, in fact, anywhere there might be a risk of catching something… The family lives in a bubble, in an “alternate reality”.
And that’s when things go well.
Often, despite all these precautions, a leukemia kid will still catch some virus, bacteria or fungus. You know, there are fungi called aspergillosis, I looked this up because I was curious what the risk was to Elliot when he was in treatment… They just float around in the air, everywhere. You can’t escape it, only normal people living outside of the alternate reality of cancer, have immune systems that just deal with those little buggers and destroy them right away. But for leukemia kids, these little beings are just waiting for their chance… In fact, one of the leading causes of serious infection during treatment is called “opportunistic infection”, it means there are creatures out there in the world, little germs, just hovering in the air waiting for an opportunity…
But wait! She made it through the treatment. She made it through a variety of infections and reactions and long term hospitalizations, and the treatment and side effects and got to the last day of chemo. (Actually, she jump-started the last day of chemo by cleverly getting so sick from one of the heavier treatments a couple weeks before the end of chemo date, so that they finally decided to just not even give her that last pill. Clever girl.)
And the parents breathed a huge sigh of relief!! And the family and friends and everyone who had followed her story cheered! They signed her up for school, to start the day after the Easter holidays. Hurray!! Life would get back to “normal” after years, they would be allowed to leave the alternate reality!
Then the family went skiing…
Is it irony? Is it almost tragi-comedy? Is it enough to make you scream out loud?
She broke her leg skiing. Three days before starting school.
The type of thing that when you hear about it, you literally don’t know if you should laugh or cry. Maybe you should do both.
On the one hand, how incredibly incredibly frustrating to go through all that treatment and just before normal life starts you are back in the hospital world.
On the other hand, how normal… How incredibly nice and normal to be at the hospital with a kid who broke her leg skiing… That’s a “normal kid” problem!! People outside the cancer world can maybe not quite understand this but… She was skiing!!!!! The little girl who just a few months ago was battling a fungi attack in her lungs! The little girl who probably knows various chemo regimens by name, who can most likely tell you the exact dose of methotrexate it would take to make her puke!
When I got the news I felt just awful for my friend, who once again had to rush to the hospital with a hurt child. My friend who felt guilt, because moms always feel guilt even if it’s not our fault, because somehow we think we should be able to prevent any bad thing from happening, especially to a child who has endured more than her fair share of bad things.
But at the same time, I also felt a strange feeling of gratitude and pride. Because she was skiing. She was being normal.
And after all, isn’t that what we want most for our child? To be able to live life to the fullest, take risks, fall and get back up again (with a cast maybe), be happy?
Maybe that is all the meaning we need.