Sharing the perspectives of my children in the middle of a pandemic as I undergo cancer treatment
Having cancer during quarantine is a surreal experience. It’s surreal having cancer when there was no genetic predisposition for it. It’s even more surreal having it in the middle of a pandemic. We wanted to shield our kids (ages 14, 11, 9, and 5) from the hardships of chemotherapy treatments and seeing mommy sick. The stay at home order has put my cancer in the middle of everything. I can’t get away from it and no one else can either. It really should be Cancer with a capital “C” because it’s like having another member in the family. It’s always there, everywhere we go, it’s there, too.
Having children in different stages of development gives me a different perspective on how having cancer during quarantine affects them. Cases in point:
When you’re 14 you are in the beginning to middle stages of your teenage angst. You’ve gone back to the egocentric and everything is about you, while you try to figure out who you are in this new body that smells weird and has hormones running rampant. You are in a stage where you think you know more than your parents and everything asked of you is a chore. And now you are stuck in the house with the younger siblings and your parents who do not get you. The last thing you want is to have worry about your mom and the treatments and dare you think it so you won’t, but that tiny part of your brain wants to know if your mom is going to die. You secretly google breast cancer; the causes, the effects, the treatments, and the survival rates. And after you do it, you put it in a different part of your brain only to think about it when there is no one around. So in the middle of a pandemic with your family of six that means when you go to bed in the quiet of the late night you worry and think about about what the hell is going on and what it means for you.
When you’re 11, you’re thinking about finishing elementary school and the terror and uncertainty of entering middle school. You’re enjoying your last year where you are finally in a class with one of your best friends, which has never happened in all of your years in elementary school. You’re thinking about the end of year fun. You’re looking forward to the safety patrol picnic at the local fair ground. You’re thinking about the scene you’ve been writing with the help of a local theatre company and how you get to perform it in front of your 5th grade peers and your parents. But now, instead of thinking about that, you are watching your mama warily as she shuffles around the house in her pajamas and her cozy robe. You watch her intently as she sits quietly and looks fatigued. You watch as she shifts your siblings from one side of her lap to the other so that their head doesn’t hit against her port when they lean back into her during a movie. You check on her while she’s napping and tuck her covers tightly around her and kiss her on the forehead. Instead of enjoying this milestone of entering adolescence and starting a new school, you’ve picked up the mantle of second mama and help your younger siblings with their distance learning classes, take them outside for long walks around the neighborhood, and inventing new games to play in the safety of your backyard.
When you’re 9, the last thing you are thinking is that your mom will ever get sick or leave you. It doesn’t make sense that she is sick. Who’s going to help with breakfast? Who’s going to make sure you get to school? Who’s going to greet you when you come home from school? Who is going to make dinner? Who’s going to snuggle with you when she’s so tired from the chemo she’s fallen asleep before you got to bed? You begin looking to your older sister for safety. You spend countless hours in her bedroom listening to new audiobooks and creating digital worlds together. Instead of jumping into your mama’s lap after dinner while your family sits and talks about the day, you go to your daddy’s lap because you’ve hit your mama’s chest port too many times with your head as you try to snuggle in closer, and it hurts her. You ask her, oh so casually, “Mama, are you going to die?” And how is she supposed to answer that? She desperately wants to answer, “Of course not,” but she’s can’t quite bring herself to say something that may or may not be true, so she simply replies, “Not today, Sweetheart. Not today.”
When you’re 5 your first thought is what is cancer? And why does everyone look so scared and worried? Why is everyone crying? Is Mommy dying? And during the health unit in your preschool class you talk about how your mommy goes to lots and lots of doctors appointments.
Thanks to the pandemic, Cancer (yes, capital “C” because it’s an official and unwanted member of the family) is in the forefront of our minds. We can’t get away from it. There’s no where to go. There’s no leaving the house to go to school to escape the worry and the uncertainty. There’s no soccer practices and soccer games to get the physical release of outrunning the concern that plagues the house. There’s no weekly swim practice where the rhythmic motions of kicking legs and rotating arms can lull you into a sense of steady and unwavering future; swim the lap, touch the wall or flip turn, and do it again, again, and again. Instead there are distance learning classes to break up the monotony of the day. Sunny days bring the chance to take walks around the neighborhood and through the “Narnia” bushes to another neighborhood. It also brings hours in the backyard playing tag or reading in the hammock. Daddy is there to take the lead on meals, household duties, and emotional support all while working from home and taking care of a sick wife. Who’s there to support Daddy?
The pandemic has put the cancer right where we didn’t want it: front and center. And now that it’s there, what next? What do we do with it? It will either destroy us or pull us closer to one another. Time will tell.