Monday, March 29, 2010

A Mother's Fight

With each passing day I often spy tiny glimpses of my daughters sprouting like tulips after days of steady rain. Their arms extend miraculously to the higher shelves, their legs dangle assuredly over the seats of our kitchen barstools. Yes, those are my girls growing right before my eyes and I cannot take my eyes off of them. Sometimes I see them as if I were levitating above them just hovering close enough to capture the movement of their elastic limbs sneaking ever so slightly into longer, thicker appendages. Blink and I’m sure I’ve missed something – an eyelash lengthening, a toe bursting out of a shoe. It’s almost ridiculous to think that a child can become so much in such little time. Every single day I wake with the knowledge that something new is going to happen. Alex will exercise a new way to manipulate me into giving her candy and Sammy will fold with ease into a new pretzely position that she only just discovered she could do. The list goes on and on.

I recently learned that a friend's eldest son was stricken with Leukemia. This news caused my heart to quicken pulsating at the rate of someone who had just run a marathon. The saliva in my mouth evaporated and the hairs on my arms stood erect. I didn't say anything except, I don’t know what to say.

Mute and still not quite certain that what I just learned was real I looked inward; I looked back at the me from two years ago when I first learned that my daughter Alex had a tumor in her left eye. Then after a moment of reflecting, I looked at my girls and felt terribly sad. I began to wish in the same manner that a child wishes for Santa Claus that our lives remain in a constant kinetic state of forward propulsion of which I did not want to end. I yearned for forward momentum not the stagnant stale state of being stuck in a realm where cancer called all the shots.

For the first few days after the diagnosis I felt like cement blocks were tied to my ankles forcing me to stand still. When I learn that cancer had infiltrated our household and had attacked my youngest daughter, I paused. I could have been standing in the middle of a busy street and all I could do was analyze infinitesimal aspects of my life to try to make sense of it all. I began rapid fire questioning everything about myself, my pregnancy, the food I prepared, the house we lived in, the people we spent time with, the school my children went to, the vaccinations, the microwave, the oil furnace, the fabric softener, the wood floors -- everything and anything to try to make sense of it all. I needed a reason why this evil came knocking on our door.

I couldn’t make sense of the randomness. Doctors kept saying that my daughter’s cancer was a random occurrence, it wasn’t hereditary rather it was a fluke. This explanation was not acceptable which caused me to develop a deep sensation of inadequacy within my soul. I walked slumped over and sullen. Nothing at this point made any sense to me. The cement blocks were debilitating and I almost gave in to the listlessness of it all. Nothing ventured, nothing gained seemed okay by me.

Then when I least expected it, I felt free to lift my head and open my eyes. I could take a step and almost feel the blood pulsating through every part of me. I was alive again walking amongst the living. My mood elevated to a place of calm and a place of acceptance. I couldn’t stand in the middle of streets any longer for I could see everything before me more clearly. And when I was finally able to hold my head high, to my surprise I looked up and the first thing I saw was a mack truck barreling toward me at a rate too fast to escape. So I had to do what anyone would have done – I let it hit me. I let cancer smack me around a little bit because I had to in order to allow myself to feel the anger bubbling up inside of me. I then shook my head vigorously like a wet dog fresh out of water and understood the weight of what the cancer diagnosis would have on me, my child, and my family.

Once calm and coherent, I got to work. I knew what I had to do. I had to continue to go to work, cook dinner, do laundry, get the kids off to school, watch TV, listen to music, talk to friends, have date night, take Alex to the oncologist, sit with Alex during chemotherapy treatments, be there when Alex awoke from anesthesia, be there with a towel in hand each time Alex vomit, fill prescriptions, take Alex’s temperature, clean Alex’s hair from the bathtub after it began falling out, tell Alex’s sister Sammy that all will be okay. All of these things had to be done because this is what a mother of a child with cancer does. I no longer felt the need to question everything; I just knew I needed to start the process of making Alex well again.

When my husband and I learned that the treatments were no longer the best approach at killing Alex's tumor, we had a tough decision to make. We had to decide if we wanted to switch to a more drastic form of treatment or if we wanted to simply remove the tumor, which meant, removing the eye. After several tearful days and nights, we agreed to have the eye removed . . .

Children all over the world are being inundated with toxic medicines with names like Vincristine, Etoposide, Carboplatin and many others too complicated to name just to rid their tiny bodies of cancer. It is not for the faint of heart to watch a child go through this horrible ordeal but many of us do. Today I am so angry that my Alex was one of these children. I’m further angered by the fact that I know of another little girl who went through what my daughter went through and more. I’m angry that my friend is sitting in the hospital {right now} with her son as he too fights cancer. If you know somebody with cancer or if you know someone who has had cancer then you know my rage.

Every day since learning about my friend’s son I eagerly check Facebook and email looking for updates about how treatments are going. I wonder if he’s getting stronger, if he’s eating, if he’s comfortable. I wonder if my friend is pacing the hallways half dazed out of her mind from sleep deprivation and worry. I wonder how her other son is doing. Does he know what is happening to his big brother?

Despite my bouts between anger and sadness I remain optimistic that in my lifetime I will see cures for some forms of cancer. Sometimes I’ve imbued cancer with too much strength and I forget where the real strength lies – and that is, with the patients. Sure cancer can pick on the little ones but more kids are surviving cancer than ever before. Children have strength, courage and fight in them. Cancer is just a horrible and intrinsically diabolical bully. I’ll not give cancer the privilege of a compliment. Never.

My friend is sitting in a hospital room waiting to go home with her son and when she does get to go home, I will cheer for her and probably cry tears of happiness. I know she has an entire army of family, friends and doctors keeping her in forward motion toward happier days. I know my friend isn't just standing still. I know she's fighting. I know she will win.  


  1. Oh, Maya, so beautifully written about such a wretched thing as cancer. My heart is full. I indeed know a little brother of someone in Kai's class who has leukemia - the worst kind in the book and diagnosed the same age as Alex... So far a survivor, following countless pokes and chemo treatments. His mom is, especially, a fighter like you. My brother is also doing his oncology fellowship at Seattle Children's. I ask about his patients, and the stories of hope and grief are enough to make a mother weak. I'm encouraged by your strength and how perspective has obviously taken its course thru' your posts. Do you have a Caring Bridge site? You all look well. Bless you and your family always! x

  2. Positive wishes to your friend, her son and family as well...

  3. Ava/Kai - thanks so much for your comments. It makes me so happy to hear about new oncologist at Children's because it only gives me more hope that these children will be well cared for. You are so sweet. And those children of yours are gorgeous. You are such an amazing photographer and I'm so happy to know you. Your blog really tells a story and demonstrates how much care you take in each project. Keep up the fantastic work!!!

  4. This is beautiful, Maya. Thanks.