“Mommy’s dying,” Julian exclaimed, from the perch of my lap, sticky fingers laced around my neck. He looked into my eyes to gauge my response, and I could tell by his little smirk that he had no idea how hard that blow hit me.
At age 5, what does he really know about death? I can see him trying to understand, trying on words and concepts that creep in from school or television, but certainly not from home, where the hushed tones of uncertainty are kept to nighttime whispers and secret diaries.
Last summer, we found a garter snake in the yard, already dead, with a little blood around the mouth and head. “Awe, poor snake!” he kept exclaiming. I told him it was dead, and dead things can’t feel anymore.
Then in the fall, his beloved dog Chloe died. The sweetest, cuddliest yellow Lab, she would let Julian climb over and under her belly and spoon with him like he were her very own pup. Arriving home without Chloe, having to explain that she would never return, I tried to find soothing words. Julian just wailed, and his heartbreak was sadder for me than the loss of the dog.
I could feel a little piece of his childhood breaking off and dissolving in that moment as I held him, his little face soaking my shirt.
Mommy Has Cancer
Julian was only 3 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A week after his 4th birthday, he came home to find his mommy sequestered in the bedroom, barricaded by a baby gate. In drug-induced semiconsciousness, I remember hearing him screaming at the gate, anguished that we dare be separated. I choked back my sobs, each shudder of sorrow brought a new wave of pain.
I will never forget the sound of him crying for me, and my arms and chest unable to bear him. Mixed in with the muddy memory is my husband crying too, both holding each other, my husband Joey trying to convince himself, even more than his son perhaps, that mommy was going to be alright.
A day or two later, after much soothing and cuddling, Julian was carefully brought to me. Like a newborn delicately placed into a mother’s arms, he received me, lying on the other side of a pillow buffer. Joey controlled his spindly little limbs as his hands found my face and hair, and he pressed his soft baby cheeks to mine. His eyes looked old as he peered into my face for reassurance.
“It’s okay, mommy’s here. I’m resting. Mommy needs to sleep.”
For weeks we read Nancy Reuben Greenfield’s, When Mommy Had a Mastectomy. I can’t say if it registered. He didn’t care to stay in my lap and look at the pictures; they weren’t nearly as riveting as Thomas the Train stories. At that point I didn’t even get into Sherry Kohlenberg’s, Sammy’s Mommy Has Cancer. I was still wallowing in my shock, trying to find preschooler words to convey something I couldn’t understand.
How Did I Get Here?
How did I get here at age 36? After all the organic food and exercise, holistic medicine, and “law of attraction” conscious thinking, talk therapy, and forgiveness—certainly I was not perfect, but this? Early childhood Catholicism colluded with Eastern thinking. Was this karmic payback for the sins of my past, or for the old shadow thoughts of my unworthiness of love?
The doctors ministered their science. Hereditary breast cancer with BRCA1 genetic mutation (alteration) was the verdict. The very thing that took my grandmother at age 57—just a year before I was born—would resurface in me.
I found the lump in my left breast one day while Julian was clambering over me like a jungle gym. Surely it was a swollen lymph gland, I thought, as I doubled up on the homeopathic medicine, and waited.
Five months later, I finally saw a doctor, and the wave of probing, testing, and second and third opinions swept over my life. The most aggressive course of Western medicine—a double mastectomy (removal of both breasts), and chemotherapy—was the general recommendation to combat the triple-negative tumor, best known for fast growth and high recurrence rates.
I Hope I’m Telling the Truth
I looked everywhere for a way out, for absolute proof that I could kick this with colloidal silver, pure essential oil of orange, or megadoses of vitamin C. Everyone in my local and online communities rallied with well-intentioned advice.
One man, touting a sure-fire cannabinoid oil cure, called me just a few days before the surgery, saying, “Don’t let them take your boobs!” That night I stared at my boy’s sleeping face for a long time, and knew what I had to do.
Now a 1-year survivor, with my son perched on my lap, I want to reassure him that all these sacrifices were not for nothing. I speak quietly and simply about death. “When you die, you go away, and you don’t come back. I would be in heaven and you wouldn’t see mommy anymore.” He keeps quiet as this sinks in.
Then I add, “Mommy is not dying. I’m staying right here with you and daddy for a long, long time.” In my heart is the loudest prayer: I hope I am telling the truth.