Listen To Your Mother--Chicago show (submissions are due January 15!), I thought it would be a good idea to include the text of the piece that I performed in the 2012 show; this piece, in this exact form, hasn't been posted here yet. You can see the video on youtube (turn up the volume!), read the producers' feelings about it, or ponder my own thoughts about what the experience meant, but maybe the most useful thing would be to show you what I said. And yes, I mean said, not read. Because Lenny was in the audience, and I said this to her.
A Letter to My Daughter on Her Fifth Birthday
by Katy Jacob
Today you are five years old, and I am writing you a letter. In some ways this entire breast cancer blog of mine is a long letter to you and your brother. I write it with the selfish hope that if I don’t survive, 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, we steep ourselves in denial for you, but really we do those things for ourselves, because you have taught us how short our lives really are. You make us wince with your innocent curiosity: “When I am grown will I still see you every day?” “How old will you be when I’m grandma’s age?” “Will I have long hair, or do you think I will get cancer and my hair will fall out?”
And it is upon hearing those questions that we make choices. We make the choice to acknowledge the imminence of separation, illness, and death, and then to just let it go. If I could make any choice, 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.
In the meantime, 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. Take, for example, your memory. You remember all of the things we say, all of the things you’ve seen, all of the people you’ve known. That’s just a part of you, like so many other things. We did not make you smart, or fragile, or funny. We did not make you shy around people and comfortable on a stage. 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 might have given you your looks, but we did not tell you how to handle them. I still laugh when I think of that birthday party we attended when you were three, after the fourth or fifth father told you how beautiful you were and you looked him right in the eye and said, “I know that. Are there cupcakes?” As you get older, I know how weary it will make you as the questions turn into propositions and the appreciative glances turn into unwanted stares.
I wish I could make a different world for you. When you ask how old you will be when this happens, or that happens, you are really asking, “Mom, what will I be like? What will the world be like?” And the answer is that the world will be the same, but you will not, because that is what happens with people who live in the world. I can remember being five, being as happy and friendly and shy as you are today. What I don’t remember is when that was lost, when I learned how to be mean, to fight with my fists, to run and not stop running. In the scheme of things I wasn’t that much older than you.
I want so desperately to protect you, even though I know I might not be there to do that. On some level you know that too. That knowledge is a burden that I gave you, but I didn’t tell you how to deal with it, because I really didn’t know how. I realize now that all I could do was deal with my burden myself, and that you would learn from me how to deal with yours.
I only wore a wig for a few weeks, and only for a few minutes a day when I walked you to school, because I didn’t want you to have to answer questions about cancer. I spent close to a thousand dollars on hair, and then spent six months just walking around bald. And that is the lesson I was teaching you, though it was hard for me to see it at first, until I learned that you were giving preschool cancer tutorials, telling everyone: “My mom is on chemo. It’s medicine for people with cancer that you get through a needle in your arm. It made her lose her hair and it can make her sick. 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 one 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, or to repay you. So what would I give you if I could give you anything on this day? I could be trite, and tell 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 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. I am not the perfect nurturer. I have been stern, and angry, and busy, and sick, and scary. I often read the newspaper and ignore you. I am the reason we watch sports on TV, not cartoons. 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 want to offer to you the one thing that I can’t promise you: I want to still be there. I want to see and talk to you every day. Someone once told me 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. I will always remember how he paused before he 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. Lenny, 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 and that you’re all right, it will be enough. Happy Birthday, honey. I love you.