Many, many moons ago I was in a crowded ER of Children’s Memorial Hospital. Our daughter’s ER stays almost always happened late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. We went when her neutropenic fevers reached the requisite 100.5 — the witching temperature for a child with cancer.
Often times there was a very kind and lovely social worker on duty. Tierney was her name. Once, when things didn’t look very good for Donna, I came out of our little ER room to get something for her. Tierney was there and took me aside. She asked how I was, how the family was. It was never perfunctory when she asked. She cared and she listened and it was easy to talk with her, to acknowledge the fear and terror I had become accustomed to in Cancerville. She was an amazing social worker.
That night she gave me some words of wisdom that still shore me up. She told me that while childhood cancer was a bastard, there would still be good moments in Donna’s life. Lovely moments, joyful moments of childhood that had not a damn thing to do with cancer. She encouraged me to recognize those moments when we were in the midst of them. To own those moments, seldom as they may be some days, and really feel them. And then, once the joy and wonder and love were acknowledged to say, “Take that, cancer.”
Tierney’s point was that while cancer sucked, like, supremely sucked, it didn’t banish all the good in our lives. Cancer didn’t have that ability. It could wreak havoc inside our girl’s body. It could create fevers that had nothing to do with infection, but still required a long hospital stay. It could make Donna’s hair fall out and rob her of the ability to jump and run like other little kids. It could kill her, take our little girl’s life way the hell too soon. Cancer could do all those things, and did, but it could not touch the joy and love in our lives.
Tierney wanted me to remember that.
And so I do.
Today, her words are really resonating with me. Today, you see, is a Fuck You, Cancer kind of day. Today, my oldest son, my boy, Donna’s beloved brother, turns five. Happy Birthday, dear boy. Happy Freaking Birthday!
My husband and I have been parenting for almost nine years now, but today is the first day we have parented a five year old. That, my friends, is a gift. It’s my son’s birthday, but that gift is all ours to enjoy and appreciate. So you’ll forgive me if I am a little verklempt today. I can’t seem to stop the tears from welling up here and there and pouring over.
I am so happy to be this boy’s mama. I remember with intensity the joy Donna took in her brother. The love she showered on him in the few months their lives overlapped. The abject anger in her voice when, during her vigil, she popped straight up in bed, alarmed that her Dad and I were discussing taking her baby brother to the ER because it was a Sunday and he had a fever and something just wasn’t right about him. “NO!,” she screamed from the bed.
She never wanted for her brother what she herself had endured.
The selflessness of her love astounded me in that moment of Donna’s vigil. There she lay dying, knowing her fate, and she still had it in her to know that an ER was no place for her baby brother. Donna loved her brother so much.
So I welcome the tears this fifth birthday of my son. Somewhere, I know and feel, that Donna is still loving on her brother (both brothers now), and she is loving that her little brother is now older than she ever was. Because that is just the kind of girl she was.
And as sad as I may be on any given day to no longer mother a daughter, to know that cancer took my Donna from me, today is a day I can gladly and joyfully tell cancer to take a hike because today is a good day, a joyful day, a milestone day.
Today, bastard cancer, today I became the mother of a five year old. And there is not a damn thing cancer can do to take that from me.
Happy birthday, dear boy! May five be your best year yet.
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