I’ve been doing a lot of “surviving” over the past four years. And while surviving a cancer diagnosis and treatment is unquestionably the most difficult thing I have ever done, surviving life beyond it isn’t always a picnic in the park either. Don’t get me wrong — I’m extremely blessed and thankful each and every day I get to wake up! But it is exactly that tension between the gratitude that humbles me daily and the everyday stresses of life that leaves me feeling this “new normal” everyone keeps talking about is really, well, not-so normal.
So as I’m stumbling upon another birthday that also marks the anniversary of discovering my own breast cancer, I’ve decided to embark on a journey to explore exactly what it is about this new normal that isn’t so normal — one detail at a time. Let’s kick off this adventure with those beautiful creatures who center my world – yep, my kids.
When I was diagnosed, I had 18-month-old and 3-year-old boys. Having been a little girl who lost her own mother to this disease, I know that from a child’s perspective a parent diagnosed with a life threatening illness can be very confusing, to say the least. But somehow, in our home, this confusion has manifested into quirky new realities that are just “normal” — at least to my kids.
For instance, my littlest guy has a love-hate relationship with… my oncologist. I get a massive eye roll from him (yeah, I don’t know where he got that) when I inform him that the morning’s activities include a visit to my oncologist (just a routine check up – no treatment for now). He wants to like it there — the nurses adore him and go to the ends of the earth hunting down Lightening McQueen stickers and tattoos for him — but the child cannot make it through mommy’s blood work (honestly, mommy barely can so I can’t blame him much). He negotiates the best rewards if he sits quietly in the waiting room while I wander off to have an affair with those pesky needles. Good for him — someone should be getting something out of those appointments besides poking, prodding and scanning.
Then there’s the seemingly random and embarrassing announcement by my oldest to a group of other moms (who we just met) that I cannot have more children. I mean — right out of left field. Just a “Right mommy? You know why (wink wink).” Huh? To him, it is a normal point of conversation. He really wanted another kid, despite the fact that he often laments the birth of his younger brother. So we have explained to him why there are just four of us. We simply tell him that because of the medicine mommy took, she can’t have more children — not entirely the truth, there’s more to that story, but good enough to help him understand the realities around him.
Honestly, things like these don’t really give me much pause, they are in fact our “new normal.” Rather, it is the act of mothering these boys each day played out against the backdrop of the very real possibility that I could not be here to mother them at all that sometimes stirs a sense of guilt deep within me and leaves me feeling this new reality is not so normal after all.
My gratitude each day begins and ends with these little guys, but some days the in-betweens leave me completely perplexed and often holding a large glass of red wine. Case in point — my newly renovated family room. Picture it — freshly painted walls, gorgeous new leather couches, custom-made coffee tables and to top it all off the most indulgent shag rug, which makes you want to just lay down and be swallowed up in it. Our boys know there are lots of rules associated with redecorating in our home and they happily enforce them upon all visitors. No shoes, no food, no crafts and no jumping couch to couch. So, when I wandered into the family room one morning after having gone out with my husband the evening before, imagine my surprise upon finding streaks of GOLD SHARPIE pretty much everywhere. (I know, I gasped too.) Sometimes, it’s like their mission in life is to destroy the simple sources of my happiness, including my new family room. And there it is — the source of my new “not-so” normal life.
Yes, I know every mother experiences these emotions. The ones where you want to throw in the towel. The ones where the day can’t end fast enough so you can get those little monsters into bed. The ones where you just want someone else to fix dinner, to clean up the house, to take the kids to sports and play dates. Yep, we’ve all been there. In fact, some of us have taken up residence from time to time — admit it.
For me, it is exactly these emotions of wishing for a small nanosecond that this wasn’t my life, that these weren’t my kids, that I was somewhere else on an island by myself drinking a mojito and reading a book that lead to my guilt, because I experience them in the face of a constant reminder within my heart that in fact I could not be here tomorrow. I could miss it all — all of the big moments and all of the little ones too. This reality that makes me so grateful to wake up each morning is on some days in complete and utter conflict with actually waking up to those small, crazy humans who are climbing all over me and won’t let me sleep in. But, then again, I would not trade those crazies for anything else in the world. They are my world. And, just like their father, I have been in love with them from day one.
So it boils down to this. While there are a lot of things about life with my kids that make our reality as a family different than it would have been BC (that’s, “before cancer” in our house), those things in the end are just our normal. Instead, it is the internal conflict that arises within me on days when I’m frustrated and exhausted from being mommy all the while feeling deeply in my heart how extremely grateful I am for another day of simply playing this role, that makes my journey after breast cancer a little not-so normal.