5 min read

Cancer Diaries: A Year of Losses

Yet, so much gained
Cancer Diaries: A Year of Losses

Yet, so much gained

Author’s children during the Summer of the Pandemic 2020

The date is creeping up on us, tiptoeing ever closer. We have been in a pandemic two weeks shy of a year. It seems apropos that my children will start returning to in-school learning, but even then I am wary. My husband and I went around and around on it. Do we send them, do we keep them home? What do we do? I struggle with the decision, feeling guilty for the year they’ve been stuck in a pandemic with a mom who has been going through cancer treatment and hasn’t been the mom I’ve wanted to be for them in the middle of a health crisis (global and personal). Feeling selfish, wanting to keep them home for just a little longer; to savor and prolong the time with them.

When the pandemic arrived for us, it came secondary to the primary concern of my cancer diagnosis. At the time I was looking towards school, playdates, and sports to keep my children distracted and away from the really hard parts of a cancer diagnosis; the treatments, the uncertainty, and the fatigued that was woven through it.

But the pandemic complicated everything. It made us hypervigilant when it came to virus exposure. We were cut off from our family and friends. We muddled through with dinners arriving on our doorstep twice a week to give us a break and to let us know we were loved.

There was a lot of uncertainty in the first weeks of the pandemic, punctuated with a lot of time putting together puzzles. We let the kids sleep in, and treated the time as a mini staycation. The novelty wore off as the cases increased. My husband tracked the pandemic numbers, I worried about the kids, we began watching Marvel movies in order to pass the time, and got sidelined when we designated Sundays are for Star Wars. We were grateful for the last-minute trip to the library before it closed down for months; the books a welcome reprieve from reality. But my little bibliophiles finished them quickly and the books sat waiting to be returned, but with no return date.

The pandemic lingered and we continued in this dystopian world of uncertainty, cut off from physical contact with family, and seeing them through computer screens.

My kids had front row seats to my fatigue, weakness, and chemo brain. I have this surreal memory of them playing in the backyard, sliding down the slippery mat I bought for them because the summer swim team had been cancelled for the season. I see them sitting on the back deck as they rest sitting shoulder to shoulder, hunched and eyes squinting against the glare of the sun, wet hair dripping with hose water. I observe them from the kitchen window and through the lens of my chemo-induced brain fog.

We lost so much in this past year, but thankfully no one to the virus. We mourned the loss of family gatherings and the seasonal birthday parties where we celebrated the nieces and nephews. Before the pandemic, we saw them at least once a month for birthdays, sacramental milestones, and celebrations. My kids have called it the year without any holidays. It’s not true, we did celebrate, but the celebrations were just the six of us. Six seems so small when you’re used to seeing 30–40 people for family gatherings.

I miss going to Mass in person and receiving the Eucharist. I miss seeing the familiar faces of friends and other parishioners. I miss giving them the sign of peace. The few times I have been able to receive the Eucharist I have cried. Who knew that receiving a sliver of Jesus would be so intimate, so undeserving, so appreciated?

I missed last summer on the pool deck, seeing our swim friends, morning practices on the deck, the evening filled with afternoon practices and a picnic dinner at the pool. I missed the early Saturday beep of the starter and the kids cheering on their friends as they swim across the pool.

But if I sit and think of only the things I miss, then I do not see the resilience my children have gained; I don’t appreciate their strength in the middle of a crisis personal and worldwide.

If I wallow in my guilt that my children had front row seats to my illness, I would miss the compassion they’ve accrued as they learn to provide comfort in the quiet moments. Over the last year they’ve learned to sit in the silence, keeping vigil as I lay sick in bed. They spent hours sitting quietly reading, drawing, or creating small art projects to give me when I awoke. If I didn’t pause to appreciate that time together, it would slip by unnoticed in the silence of their fear.

As my children gave up playdates and bike rides, they discovered sibling companionship and friendship through their walks through the neighborhood. They found adventure in the Narnia bushes at the end of the neighborhood. They learned to lean on one another.

My daughter, the mother hen of the brood, has taken on the mantle of second mother, herding her siblings into her room; giving them a safe space to read, play games, to color, or draw. They didn’t do a lot of talking in those early days. It was a lot of contemplation, worry, looking for distractions. But during that time, they forged a friendship with one another. Even though they spent a lot of time together as a quad, they also paired up: the bigs and the littles.

You know what I don’t miss? The busy schedules, the time filled up with art classes, sports practices and meets, extra classes, and Saturdays so busy that all we wanted to do after Church was to watch The Profit and rest on the couch.

When we lost all sense of time, it was filled with family movie nights. My children watched E.T. for the first time and realized why flying on Elliot’s bike at Universal Studios was a childhood dream come true for me.

Bedtimes have gone out the window and replaced with a late-night series just with the big kids as the little kids listened to audiobooks at bedtime.

Sunday naps were replaced with board games and desserts.

At one point the only family meals we had were weekend dinners and Sunday brunch. But in a pandemic, most meals are family meals as the kids gather at the kitchen table at lunchtime telling me about their classes. Dinner time conversation revolves around books we are reading, things they have learned in virtual school, and questions about what the future holds.

Life in a pandemic has slowly lead away from managing our time to living our days. It’s not perfect. It’s sometimes lonely as we miss our family and friends.

A year ago, I wondered what my children will remember. Now that we have been through the hardest parts, I hope they will remember the ice cream walks around the neighborhood, counting turtles at the pond, Mass in our living room surrounded by our newly acquired pets, a vacation at an empty beach during the school year, an appreciation for one another, and that when our world turned upside down and we were in a prison made of a pandemic and locked by cancer, that there is something to be said to a life lived more slowly so that we could soak up the time with one another.