Last week marked the ten year anniversary of our daughter’s cancer diagnosis. Ten years is a long time. And yet, somehow, I can transport myself to Donna’s bedside at the hospital the morning we got the diagnosis, as if it were only a few days ago. The fear and dread and helplessness and growing pit in my stomach, knowing and feeling that something was not right.
With Donna’s diagnosis, my life became divisible by before and after. “Before,” I was a young, happy mama, naive, busy, focused on my life as mother, balancing a changing career (I had gotten a promotion just a few weeks earlier), with raising our girl. I had one hell of a great life, when I think about it. I worked three days a week, then home for four. My Dad always said I was away from Donna just enough to truly appreciate her when I was home. Wise man.
The “after” part of my life feels so much more complicated. I feel old, sad, tired, unmoored, cynical more often than I care to admit. The career I was so committed to and identified with for twelve years is a thing in my past. I think of myself as a social worker, still, and the values that drew me to social work are as present today as they ever were, but I haven’t truly worked in the field for a decade. These days, I say I am a writer, but am I really?
And I am the mom to two boys! How in the Sam Hill did that happen? I was the mother of a daughter. I should be navigating a life of tween drama and mean girl nonsense. Instead, I am scrubbing pee out of grout on the regular. There is simply a disconnect between the life I have and the life I had.
And then, of course, there is the guilt. Guilt is a heavy burden. Gratefully, I don’t feel guilt about Donna. That beautiful girl received the best of care and was treated by a team of professionals that did their best to give her the life we all hoped for.
My guilt stems from other things related to Donna’s cancer. The thank yous I never wrote, the frustration I feel with her brothers when they misbehave, the very real fact that there are children I still get to raise. Most days I feel I am doing it wrong, “it” being life. Because I know, truly and deeply, just how precious life is, there is a sense that I should be doing it better. Eating better, working harder, planning more fully, not wasting a single second. Sigh.
Milestones make me reflective, and this one is no different. I am choosing to wallow in it, if only just a bit. The actual anniversary was last Thursday. I went to the grocery store, cleaned the house, folded laundry. More than once, I felt hot tears in my eyes because I know that the ability to do simple tasks like shopping and cleaning and folding were things I was not able to do easily while we were caring for our girl. The ordinariness of all of it made me feel mournful.
Ten years ago I gained a wisdom and perspective I would not wish on anybody. Those things don’t go away or erode with time. They inform all of my days, whether I want them to or not. I am so chock full of wisdom and perspective that I am fairly certain that is what I sweat out in the dog days of summer.
At the heart of all of this is Donna. Still gone. Still buried. She dances through my thoughts every day. The beautiful girl with her big blue knowing eyes. Time is a funny concept. Ten years ago Donna was diagnosed. That is more than two of her lifetimes. It feels like never and it feels like fifteen minutes. Fuck cancer.