Mothers with Cancer
Mothers with cancer. Our grief and terror about possibly leaving our children before they are grown. Our grief about leaving our children after they are grown. These are the most tender topics for most all parents with cancer. Given that I have had two breast cancers, twelve years apart, I have had two very different mothering experieces. The first time I was a single parent of an 11 year old and a 19 year old; the older daughter was away at college where she could likely pretend sometimes that this wasn't happening. I told her over and over to keep her own life going, that her doing so would help me the most. She did, and it did. My younger girl, at home, was forced to witnesss every difficult day, and I worried particularly about her. Without an involved and loving biological father, what would happen to her if I died? Many painful conversations with my older brother answered this question, and I had some solace knowing that he and his family would welcome and love her.
Twelve years later, both daughters were young adults. The second time, especially with the addition to our family of a loving and wonderful man who would always look out for and love them, I did not worry about the basics of how would they manage. Knowing that they were doing well in their lives did nothing to ameliorate my sadness about maybe dying too soon and missing all the joy that I knew lay ahead. So far, I have been, we have been lucky, and I have stayed well. As you all know, staying well does not mean that the worry never comes, but it surely solidifies the ground under our feet. Since cancer #2, there have been graduations and a wedding and grandchildren and smaller daily celebrations; I treasure each one.
This is a remarkable and painful essay by Susan Gubars from The New York Times. I give you an excerpt and a link and a very strong recommendation to read it.
Children of mothers with cancer must learn this painful lesson early: the vulnerability of the figure on whom they have grounded their existence. With varying degrees of fearful awareness, such children intuit that the mother who comforts by murmuring “I am here” will not always be there. Under such circumstances, how to safeguard childhood or adolescence from anxious vigilance and dread? Mothers often stand at the center of their children’s orbit. After her mother’s death, Ms. Seton needed help finding a center in herself.
As I sense my dear, dear daughters slowly coming to terms with my incurable state, I am grateful that they are young adults who cooked with me as children, learned my quirky recipes during their college years and later reproduced them for their own families. How thankful I am that I was given enough years to bequeath the sorts of memories grievously truncated in yearning younger offspring. And of course the separation anxiety that cancer instills in children also haunts dying mothers.