Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Day 306: For My Daughter's Fifth Birthday

I am going to do what I promised, and include some kind of birthday message to Lenny, who is five today (at 5:48 PM…do mothers ever forget those things? I suppose not, after the two and a half hours of pushing). However, I have a rare opportunity to write about something positive on the cancer front, so I thought I would update on that first. On Sunday I was starting to feel better from the antibiotic for my mastitis; my fever was gone, my breast was still red and painful but it wasn’t nearly as swollen or hard as on Friday and Saturday. I decided to go to pilates, so I went to the bathroom to change. That’s when I almost had a heart attack.

Less than three months after chemo ended, six months after the last one, I had my period.

At first I didn’t believe it. I felt like I was 11 again, wondering what the hell that was. Then I thought, so that’s why my hot flashes are gone and my libido is back! My hormones have gone back to normal almost as suddenly as they disappeared altogether! I didn’t think it was possible to be so excited about something that is generally speaking a pain in the ass. When I was a month shy of 12 and I had my first period, I found it annoying more than anything. I was a tomboy and this whole menstruation thing just seemed like an inconvenience. My mom was worried that I would have the same issues that she had with anemia, pain, etc., so she wasn’t happy for me either. I enjoyed not having it for the duration of my pregnancies, and it didn’t return for 3 months after I weaned Lenny, though I started having regular periods when Augie was less than three months old even though I was exclusively nursing. I can’t say I welcomed it any of those times, though I suppose I was relieved to know things were working normally.

This time I was so happy about it I actually teared up a little. I called Gabe upstairs and told him, and we had another of those strange moments that only happens in cancer-land. My husband started hugging me and crying, telling me I should believe him now that I will be fine. Then he said “I guess I should go schedule that operation now.”

Is it normal for a grown man to respond to his wife getting her period with relief and happiness and a promise to get a vasectomy? Well, who knows what’s normal anymore. I am just ecstatic that my body has recovered so well, and so quickly, from chemo, after it literally brought me to my knees not that long ago. If I didn’t have this hair, you might never know I had gone through chemo at all. The long-term effects seem to have escaped me, at least those that are less insidious. On a happy day like Sunday, I could almost forget what I went through with chemo—almost. I can’t forget surgery and radiation, especially with this continued redness and pain in my breast, constantly reminding me of what I went through. In fact, I wonder if this mastitis is somehow related to my cycles, since I had it the first time almost a month ago. It’s possible that this sign of normal womanhood could bring some real suffering my way for a while.

Regardless, this little bit of normal made me so happy that I really wanted to celebrate. It was too late to find anyone to celebrate with me, so I took myself out for a steak dinner and had too much wine while Gabe took the kids to a birthday party. If anyone else thinks this bit of random news is a cause célèbre, let me know and we’ll go out on the town.

This should be the clinching example of how attitude doesn’t affect cancer’s outcomes. I thought I would be in menopause forever. My hot flashes were so severe, my sexual side effects so extreme, that I just didn’t see how it would be possible to go back to normal. And yet my body did—just like that.

So there’s the cancer update. I’m on a prolonged series of antibiotics for this mastitis and therefore I’m on hiatus from rowing but other than that my life is just the same. Except that my little girl just turned five. What do I make of that? It’s hard to put into words, but I promised to, so I’ll try:

Dear Lenny:

Today you are five years old, and I am writing you a letter. We have a mug at home that I use to drink my tea that says that a letter is a hug from a friend who is far away. A letter is not, however, a real substitute for a hug, or for being together. Words are no substitute for just being there. And I probably won’t allow you to read this letter for some time, until you are older, so this is a present you won’t even know you have received.

In some ways this entire blog is a long letter to you and your brother. I write it with the selfish hope that if I don’t survive this cancer, you will know something about me, other than that I loved you and cooked good dinners and made you laugh. It seems to me that almost everything about how a parent loves a child is selfish. We want things for you that you might not care about, we steep ourselves in denial about anything potentially bad that could happen to you because we couldn’t bear to see you go through it. You are the heart that walks away from us.

It is too easy to say that I can’t believe you are already five years old. I can believe it. Time moves so slowly for you as you wait for the next thing to happen, not understanding what that thing is or what it means. You wait for something for five minutes and it’s 10 hours in your mind. You ask about what it will be like to be grown, what you will look like, where you will live, whether you will always be older than your brother even if he is bigger than you. We sing to you on your birthday and kiss and hug you. Your father cries. He wishes time could stand still and you would stay little forever. I wish that time was just slower, until I realize that if I could choose, I would go into the future so that I could know you as a grown woman, and see the answers to your questions for myself. It is my selfish fear that I won’t be able to do that, but that is not what gives me pause.

I am astounded by you, by how you are such a…Lenny. Parents like to say that their children are a part of them. That is simply not true. Children are just small people, whole unto themselves. Perhaps there are some things, like table manners, that we can take credit for, but most of the things that are marvelous about your kids are things that have nothing to do with us. We did not give you a photographic memory. Two weeks ago, you performed in a play. Two nights ago, you decided to have your stuffed animals put on the same play. You recited the entire thing, all of the parts and the narration, without looking at a single piece of paper. When I play the insufferable parent and I say “remember when you were 18 months old and…” you often actually do remember. This talent of yours has caused us significant embarrassment as parents, and has been continuously entertaining as well.

But it’s not the only thing you bring to the table. Regardless of what convention tells us, we did not make you smart. You were alert from birth, watching us, waiting to learn about the world, too interested in everything to sleep. We taught you to read, never used baby talk with you, assumed you had some reason. But when you pointed to a photography book at your grandmother’s house when you were fifteen months old and clearly said “Signs” (the title of the book), I had no more idea what to make of that than anyone else. The things you know continue to amaze me years later.

We did not make you shy around people and comfortable on a stage. We did not make you fragile, or funny. We might have taught you empathy but could not teach you the appropriate times to use it. We did not make you fussy, or willful, or contrary. We sure as hell didn’t make you good at gymnastics, my least favorite sport in the world.

We didn’t even give you that beautiful red hair—not really. I don’t have any other hair DNA to pass on but red, and your dad is apparently a carrier of the gene. The end result was completely out of our control. Now that I have short hair that I gel up into abstraction, people wonder if you even belong to us. Where did you get that hair? My mom, you say. But it’s yours, and I know you want to hold onto it right now.

I do have to take credit for some things, even if I would rather not. You are an inherent worrier, but I have given you one of the biggest reasons to worry that a five year old can have. I am truly sorry for that and for all the times when you couldn’t sleep during this past year. I’m sorry that you have seen some of your friends less often and that you missed out on things. I gave you this burden, but I didn’t tell you how to deal with it, because I really didn’t know how. I was concerned about my impact on your friends and classmates, not wanting you to have to answer questions about cancer. How could I know that you updated everyone about my cancer treatment all the time? How could I predict that you gave a little preschool tutorial on chemo when someone asked about me and you said “my mom is on chemo. It’s medicine for people with cancer. It made her lose her hair and it can make her sick. You get chemo through a needle in your arm. Soon she won’t have to do it and she will feel better on radiation.”

As with many things over the last five years, I just didn’t see that coming. That is the gift you have given me—the gift of being continuously surprised. It is difficult to find a way to thank you for that.

There are many things I wish for you. Back in November I included a poem in the blog that I had written for you that gave voice to many of those things. I could say many trite things about wanting you to be yourself, to enjoy life, to have no regrets, to find something that you love to do, to be a part of improving the world. But the truth is I don’t know what I want for you. I just want to know that you’re there.

Perhaps that is what I am trying to pass on to you, this strange ability to be a comfort just by being. It might be a better way to walk through life than any other. Or maybe I tell myself that to make it seem acceptable that I am not the things that I am not. For example, I know that you are a daddy’s girl through and through. I know that I am not the perfect nurturer. I have been stern, and angry, and busy, and sick, and bald. I read the newspaper and ignore you. I am the reason we watch sports on TV, not kids’ shows. I leave the house a lot to exercise. I cook and clean and collapse on the couch and I rarely get down on the floor to play with you. I am, quite frankly, not the fun parent, even if I am often the funny one.

So what am I? I am there. I always come home, and when you are upset you ask for me. I know that I have the ability, good or bad, to be like a piece of furniture in your life, that seeing me there is comforting and expected. That is how I feel about you. I want to see and talk to you every day, but if I can’t, it’s enough knowing that you’re seeing and talking to someone else. A man told me once that if he didn’t see me all of the time, it would make him sad, but he wouldn’t miss me, because he knew he would see me again. Then he stopped and said, but even if I didn’t, it’s enough to know that you’re out there in the world, and that you’re all right. If I ever get to a point where that’s all I can ask for, and the last thing I know is that you and your brother are there, it would be enough. I love you.

Happy birthday, Lenny.




  1. You know, you're pretty sentimental for a non-sentimental person. :) (That's a compliment, by the way. Your letter is lovely.)

    Also, you weren't the only person who teared up upon learning that your period came back. That. Is. Wonderful!

  2. Meh, you're making me tear up at work! Seriously, that girl's a genius. She reminds me of my niece Hailey who is also red-headed, serious and sensitive, a mini-adult, COMPLETELY different from her audacious younger siblings, and her parents are nothing like you or Gabe. Lenny has an old soul, I think.

    I'm going to send you an email about the exercise thing from the previous entry.

    Hope my book club hug didn't hurt. Glad you're doing a little better.