Friday, November 18, 2011

Having it all

"C'mon, Mama!" he yells, "our song is on!" Sure enough, the thump-thump-thump beat meets me as I head up the stairs. I find him in his bedroom, his sweet dark eyes shining as he pauses to belt out the lyrics

I throw my hands up in the air sometimes
Saying AYO!
Gotta let go!
I wanna celebrate and live my life
Saying AYO!
Baby, let's go!

with such earnestness that I want to grab him and smother him in a huge hug. He works his wiry, muscly frame around nearly (but not exactly) to the beat of the music. He's learned a few new moves from his friends, I suspect, which include a bit of a football player's blocking jam and a frat boy fist pumping "rock on" kind of expression. It's adorable.

God, I love this kid.

We shout the lyrics to each other, smiling that this is our favorite song together (of the moment), the enjoyment of serious, hard dancing taking us both out of whatever else exists for the moment.

The first time I heard him sing these lyrics I thought "You're 8. What in the world do you have to throw your hands up in the air about? And what is this about celebrating and living your life? You are 8. What's that about?" It was in the space the before my diagnosis, before the reality of having a parent in cancer treatment would invade our family, before his daily "how was your day, Mama?" became code for "did you feel ok today?" or "how did the chemo go?"

This cancer experience sits deep with this little guy. Patient through my bad moods, thoughtful and helpful when I haven't felt well, David is 100% a trooper. He's a kid that keeps things inside, handles things at his own pace, asks questions after you create the space for more questions. It takes some prompting.

I will never forget the day that we told the kids that I had breast cancer. We were heading back to Rhode Island to see family and knew that we needed to tell the kids for fear that they might overhear something and be confused. Driving that 45 minute stretch to the airport seemed like the best option. We turned onto the highway, I turned to Nick and said "let's go" and he began.

He said "Guys, we need to talk about something. Mom got some news about her health that we need to talk about. She just found out that she's sick. It's nothing that you can catch and she's going to be ok, she's going to have to take some medicine and have some surgery."

I had been scared to bring this up, so incredibly close after my mother's own death from lung cancer. David and Ava had seen my mom just days before she died, when she was in no way herself, thin and incoherent so close to death.

Standing at my mother's bedside, they clung to us; David's face buried in my belly, Ava crying into Nick's shoulder saying "That's not my grandma". They knew too well how cancer could ravage a person. I knew that the connection was just too close.

"What kind of sickness does she have, Dada?" David said.

"She's got cancer, David," Nick said.

You could have heard a pin drop. I turned around to look at them both and said "It's not like Grandma Suz's cancer, David. I am going to be fine, it's not the same thing. Don't worry."

And then my sweet, sweet boy let out a long, slow and soft whistle of relief and my heart broke completely open. No child should have to hear this, I thought. No child should have to hear that his mom has cancer. His momentary fear and subsequent feeling of relief was palpable. 

I tried to get him to talk over the weekend, to ask some questions and let some things out. He refused. He really didn't want to talk about it. You could see in his eyes that he was really scared and playing off that he wasn't. Ava, on the other hand, was a non-stop question machine. "What happens with cancer? What will happen to you? Will it hurt? What do they do? How will you feel?..." Endless questions.

On the flight home, I used his little sister's inquisitive and fearless orientation as bait. As we sat on the plane together, I said "You know, D, Ava's had some great questions about my being sick." "She has?" he responded, "what kind of questions did she ask?" So we went through Ava's list of questions and what I told her. We talked for the full hour and a half about what was going to happen, what he was worried about, what I was worried about, how treatment worked. He finally said "Well, at least you won't lose your hair." That part, and the reality of it, I think made him saddest of all.

The guy sitting behind us had a bird's eye view of our conversation and as we all stood up at the end, he said "I don't think I've ever heard a better conversation between a mother and son about such a difficult subject. You have an amazing kid on your hands there." Damn straight.

Ava runs into the group to catch the last few verses of the song and we all three sing the lines of the song that mean the most to me:

I'm gonna take it all like
I'm gonna be the last one standing

Cause I, I, Believe it
And I, I, I
I just want it all, I just want it all

And it really strikes me. I do want it all.

"All" now has come down to a pretty narrow set of things.

I want to be here for these children for as long as I can, to get to know them deeply as people and be amazed at how they grow. I want to be healthy and happy and curious about life.

I want time. That is all.

I want to believe that I can be the last one standing, against the odds, dancing with my children years from now at their weddings. It's not so much to ask, and it's not so much to expect when you look into the eyes of these little people who need a mom.

So the next leg of this journey is fulfilling that promise, that expectation. The next leg is setting myself up to have it all--even in this modified space of what all might mean.

Check this kid out. Wouldn't you?

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