Telling the kids

Published by pam on Mon, 03/05/2012 - 1:50pm


How do you tell the two people who depend on you the most, the people who rely on you to keep them safe, that this time, there is a monster in the closet?  Yes Virginia, you should be terrified because that shadow isn't just a shadow, it is a beast waiting to eat your mother.  One wrong step and she 'll be gone.  Now, it's not really that bad, but to a child, I have no doubt, it will sound like a nightmare.


We wait for what seems like hours for everyone to get home.  They work, they have lessons.  When they get home, they have to shower, check Facebook, rearrange their sock drawers.  So, we wait.  We stare at each other.  We pace.  It's pointless to do any work because neither of us can concentrate.  When  everyone is finally available, we ask the girls to come into our meg shift kitchen (aka our incredibly cluttered dining room.  Did I mention that we are remodeling our kitchen?).  The girls panic.  Someone has died.  They're sure of it.  


We try to be honest, straight forward.  They are fifteen and almost seventeen.  We owe them an honest explanation.  We tell them the truth as well as we know it.  We focus on what we can control, not on what might lurk in our future.  It's going to be a sucky year, we tell them.  But this is not terminal.  This is not what happened to Margo  (my mother who died of pancreatic cancer nearly three years ago).  This is treatable and most likely curable.  It won't be pretty - and neither will I - but we'll get through it.  To get over the hurdle in front of us, however, it will take all of us working together.


My oldest daughter asks a lot of questions.  This is medical.  It is exciting.  Just think how many doctors I'll get to see.  What will they cut, how will they treat, did my doctor really go to Washington University medical school?   that's a good school, she tells me.  My younger daughter asks to be excused as soon as the details are explained.  I understand she needs to be alone, but when I go to check on her,  I find her crying in her closet.  She had thrown out the laundry basket, cleared the floor of stuffed animals, pushed aside the coats that had slid off their hooks. Curled up on the floor, she tells me small spaces make her feel safe.  I explain that I am going scarf shopping, but before I go, I  want to make sure she's OK.


She doesn't want me to go scarf shopping alone.  That would be sad.  She think the three girls should go together.

And we do.  We waltz through town.  We explain to the shopkeepers what is about to happen.  They pull out boxes of scarves from the back room.  They wrap my head in colors I never imagined I'd wear.  They pick out earrings and hats.  One shopkeeper explains that she'd had cancer twice and opted to wear a wig she bought in Greenwood.  She knew my oncologist and said he's the best.  Another store owner points out a line of scarves and hats made specifically for chemo patients.  The scarves are the right length, she tells us, and they have some grab.  They are both soft and likely to stay in place.  The girls pamper me in a way that is unfamiliar.  They make the afternoon into an amazing memory.  On our way out the door, a woman points at the girls and smiles.  You're going to be fine, she says.  


And I agree.    



So we already talked about telling our fathers - that was tough.  The next difficult step was telling the kids.  In my case, the kids were young (Samantha was 11, the boys were a few weeks shy of turning 9).  My surgery/diagnosis was over the kids' Christmas break from school, and because we didn't know anything before the surgery, we just told them I was having surgery.  Period.  They visited me at Sloan-Kettering, but they didn't know anything...yet.  My surgeon took his holiday break right after talking with me, Jeff, and my sister, but, again, all we had was a diagnosis without a prognosis.  I went back for my first post-op check-up about 3 weeks after surgery and the doctor said those magic words:  "cured by surgery".  No chemo, no radiation - just check-ups every 3 months.  
Now that we had all the information, it was time to tell the kids.  How do you explain to children whose only familiarity with cancer was that it was the reason why I lost my mother when I was 14 yrs old?  We had to make sure they knew I was "cured" (even if I didn't yet believe it myself).  So, we sat the three of them down and explained it as best we could.  They seemed to take it in stride, until Samantha asked the question I was unprepared for:  "Is it contagious?"  (Yes, age 11 is a very egocentric age!).  Jeff and I answered, "no, not at all" and as she went upstairs to finish her homework, I looked at Jeff and said, through tears, "not contagious but it is hereditary".  While it wasn't time then to explain that part to her, she certainly understands it now and knows that, no matter what, she is high-risk and nothing will change that.
Thanks again for sharing your experiences and thoughts - I'm finding this incredibly helpful even 13 years post-diagnosis.

I'm glad reading is helpful.  I started this writing experiment because I knew that my best way through this would be to talk about it without constantly burdening family and close friends.  Besides, I find that often people arent quite prepared for the humor that surrounds this experience for Marc and I. There are definitely some awkward pauses as we do our best to handle this the same way we try to handle everything else - with humor and grace.  But we arent interested in feeling sorry for ourselves.  We're interested in geting through this.  
Often,, I find myself writing while waiting for doctor's appointments or like now, in a hospital bed trying to sleep off the complications to a kidney biopsy.  I find my mind reeling, and the best thing i can do is get all the thoughts out of my head and onto paper (or screen).  And while writing is helpful, reading what others have to say is equally helpful.  I didn't realize the real power of this blog would be that it is a two way street and it makes me feel connected to a larger community.  So thank you for taking the time to writes. It is wonderful to hear your story, even if I am reading it at 3am in a hospital bed.   (nothing serious, so no one out there should panic)

I understand John is doing great, gets through is scans with flying colors.  I can empathize in all new ways.  Your story of strength, survival and success is a real inspiration.  You are in my thoughs.  Best wishes and enjoy the sun.