Two weeks ago, I am at Children’s Hospital, waiting for the results of my daughter’s blood test. I am convinced my future looks bleak, hers even bleaker. Which is strange, considering I’m usually such an optimist. How am I going to write this scene in my memoir, I find myself wondering? How will I describe this night in the years and pages to come? (Such is the curse and the privilege of those who play with words, I suppose).
Just 45 minutes earlier, I am home in the playroom, reading with a feverish Zoe when our pediatrician calls with an unsettling white blood count, and urges us to get to Children’s Hospital for closer scrutiny. I drop everything and leave the house.
In this memoir, I am the mother of a cancer baby. First there are tears. Chapters full of tears and rage. But fast forward years and I am organizing walks to raise money for childhood leukemia, heading the local chapter of the fight to end this childhood killer. This becomes my passion, my raison d’être.
I stop this train of thought quickly and stare at the Triple-A baseball game on the muted TV hanging from the wall. I cannot get the remote to work and am stuck with this channel. I think about all the other mothers who have taken on the mantle of Cancer Mom. I selfishly do not want to join their club tonight.
With the din of the ER outside my door, I cannot escape my imagined future for long. In later chapters of my book, I find myself reflecting on my counseling experience: working with children who’d lost siblings and parents, the grief groups I ran in schools, the overnight camps I attended with these families who faced early and tragic death head on. It all makes sense now, preparing me for this moment with my own family.
I think about our experience with miscarriage. We tried so hard to bring my daughter into this world. After so many losses, we finally welcomed our little girl, and though we didn’t know it at the time, named her after the Greek word for life. How could irony be so cruel? I wondered as I waited. I should be used to loss by now, but this is different.
Because there is nothing else to do under the florescent lights, and scrolling through my iPhone somehow feels inappropriate at a time like this, I let my mind wander again. Would I miss her wedding? Her high school graduation? Her first words, even? Would we never get to shop for her first training bra together, her prom dress, her first pink lipstick? What about her first crush, her first heartbreak, her first kiss?
My eyes well up and I hope the doctor’s knock on the door will wait long enough for the tears to dry. She will be fine. She will be fine. She will be fine. I repeat to myself and to my daughter, kissing the top of her head.
And yet, I have somehow convinced myself that the doctor will return with the news that life as I know it will be forever changed. Every doctor, nurse and assistant that we see asks if I think she looks pale. She always looks this way, I say. But had I not looked closely enough at my own daughter? Had I never noticed what everyone else seemed to be seeing? I hold her tightly and look into her eyes; run my fingers over her hair, growing in ginger tufts at her neck; and rub her little belly, warmed by a slight fever. You be strong, you hear me? I whisper through tears. It feels absurdly dramatic, the two of us in the emergency room, huddled under the bright lights, waiting for life to change. (It should be Reese Witherspoon here playing this part, with some baby actor, in Hollywood. Not me. Not Zoe. Not in Milwaukee. This is too much Drama for us).
Turns out, she is fine. The doctor returns and quickly dismisses the disease I feared. She may have a virus, she’s definitely got anemia that we need to understand and then control, but she does not have leukemia, she does not have cancer.
On the way into the hospital, Zoe throws up all over the both of us. I had no idea she was even sick in this sense, so this feels like an ominous foreboding. I walk into the entrance with a garbage can in one arm, Zoe dangling in the other, and the nurse quickly shuttles us into the triage room. This kind woman says she’ll look for a new shirt for me in their closet and comes back with an extra-large blue scoop-neck t-shirt from Target with a faded Aztec design. Nothing I would ever choose for myself in real life, but this is not real life. During the wait, this becomes the scene in the memoir called the shirt I was wearing when I found out my daughter had cancer. And I was going to rip it to shreds. Instead it becomes the shirt I was wearing when I found out my daughter did not have cancer. Now I never want to take it off. She does not have cancer. But for two hours that night, I thought she might.
You take life for granted, until the moment you can’t. And then you don’t.
Hug your people tight tonight friends!