‘Parenthood’ and Cancer

I love parenthood.  And I love ‘Parenthood,’ the NBC slice of privileged Northern California life drama.  I never miss an episode.  Really.  And when I see a new episode pop up on Hulu, well, I know just what Imma curl up with as soon as the boy is asleep.  Every episode makes me cry.  Every damn episode.  I love it.  Capital “L” Love it.

I pine for the closeness of the four siblings.  Four kids each crazy different in qualities and temperment attached to four spouses/significant others also equally different in qualities and temperment, but impossibly, making all those relationships work.  And the parents?  Love those two, too.  I can’t quite get a read on the Mom Camille, but the Dad?  Zeek?  Bam.  Great character, great acting.

I have no idea how they make it work without familial bloodshed.  Really.

This season, its fourth, is like crack for me because so many of the story lines mirror my own life:  Adoption?  Check.  Stepping away from employment to focus on family?  Check.  Cancer?  Check and check.  Sadly.

It is commonly understood amongst the cancer circles I find myself in that it is hard to portray cancer and living in Cancerville accurately.  My Sister’s Keeper?  I hated it.  Really, really hated it.  50/50?  Better and so full of potential, but missed so many marks.  I am both hoping and dreading the inevitable sale of the film rights to “The Fault in Our Stars,” a newish and wildly popular YA book that is next on my list of books to read, but is getting tremendous press.

This season, Kristina Braverman (great and intentional surname, no doubt) is diagnosed with breast cancer that has metasticized in her lymph nodes.  Not great.  Especially not great for Kristina, who is a fairly high-strung, though incredibly loving, mom.  Ugh.  I feel for her.  I do.  And, yes, as a sometimes high-strung, though incredibly loving, mom myself, yeah, I relate.

Hats off to the writers, man.  They are nailing it.  Capital “N” Nailing it.  The nuances of Cancerville, though the Braverman family has just moved in, are spot on.  I see the fear in their eyes.  The complete lack of control you have within the medical system, as you become just a cog in the cancer wheel industry.  The almost unbearable beauty of life that you become aware of that at times feels oppressive as you have to recognize and appreciate all of it.

The sacred moment when you watch the poison that you hope/pray will heal you snakes its way through yards of plastic tubing.  The quiet in the room at that moment, despite whatever noise may be present.  The helplessness of the person you love most staring at you, close in inches, but miles apart in so many other ways.  The awkwardness of needing help and feeling immense gratitude when that help presents itself, but it is paired with equally immense annoyance that you can’t find the damn jar of peanut butter.

I watch every week and I am dumbfounded at the writers’ precision, the actors’ gifts in bringing Cancerville to life.  Seeing that reality so deftly portrayed on screen is bringing truth to life.  And there is comfort seeing your truth on a screen, whatever that screen may be.

Parenthood Cast

Cast of NBC drama ‘Parenthood’ — aren’t they all just impossibly beautiful?

Truth or Dare? I pick truth.

I started blogging way back in March of 2007, three days after my dear daughter was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, and have been at it ever since.  Writing became a lifeline for Mr. Mary Tyler Mom and I, an almost daily, or more often nightly, ritual that helped us make sense of the hell we found ourselves in so very unexpectedly.  When you move to Cancerville and aren’t religious and the only thing you have faith in is one another and the love you share, the immediacy of the internet is intoxicating.

We wrote of our fear, our joy, our family, our love, our terror, our routine, our beautiful Donna.  Weirdly, people cared.  They wrote back.  They held onto everything we put out there and asked for more.  Even when Donna died, people read.  Even when Mr. Mary Tyler Mom stopped writing – – he is funnier and smarter than I am – – they still read.  Even when I spoke the truth about grief and pain and sadness that is unending, people still read.   For that I remain grateful.

In January, a few weeks after returning to work after four years of caregiving and grieving, Mary Tyler Mom came into being.  I wanted to write, but not only about grief, not only about Donna.  I wanted to write about working and mothering.  I wanted to be clever and sassy.  I wanted to be separate and distinct from my grief.  I wanted a new voice.  I wanted anonymity.  Voila!  Mary Tyler Mom was born.  She was witty and sassy and clever and hated Gwyneth Paltrow!  You know what?  Mary Tyler Mom was still sad, a little bitter, burdened with loss. 

It is what it is, folks.  Mary Tyler Mom is both sassy and sad, silly and mournful, snarky and sentimental.  I am her.  She is me.  We are one in the same. 

When you don’t see a post from me in a while it’s because I feel too sad to be sparkly and clever.  I’ve not wanted to burden this audience with the depth of what I feel and I’ve not wanted to disillusion my daughter’s journal’s audience with my swears and snark.  Quite honestly, it’s not unlike the Madonna-Whore paradigm. 

In Donna’s journal (www.caringbridge.org/visit/donnaquirkehornik), I am kind of a saint to a lot of folks.  Many of the readers I don’t know.  They tell me, often, that I am courageous, brave, a beacon of motherhood, and never with irony.  It’s a lot to measure up to, folks, I’ve got to say.  I mean, our daughter got cancer.  You do what you need to do.  I mothered her the best I could, but I made mistakes.  Lots of them.  Geez, I still hold my head in shame over the apple juice incident and how much my mothering sucked in those moments.  (Forgive me dear, Donna, I still struggle.) 

Mary Tyler Mom gave me the freedom to not be a saint.  To not be an inspiration.  To not be so freaking strong all the time.  She lets me bitch and moan just for the sake of bitchin’ and moanin’.  She let’s me judge under the guise of that aforementioned anonymity.  It felt good, but always a bit inauthentic.  The truth is, I’m Donna’s Mom and I’m Mary Tyler Mom, too.  I am strong.  I am inspiring, that’s right, I said it.  I am brave and courageous.  But I’m also small, and petty, and insecure.  I like a little gossip and a lot of snark. 

Today is my dear Donna’s would be, should be 6th birthday.  It’s been kind of a collision of my worlds for me.  When Donna died, Mr. Mary Tyler Mom and I started a charity to honor her memory and do good works in her name.  (You can find it here:  www.donnasgoodthings.org.)  Founding and growing Donna’s Good Things has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.  I mean, since when does having a child die qualify you as a philanthropist?  For cripes sake.  Another cancer mom friend of mine who lost her son joked once, long ago, that when your kid dies of cancer, you’ve got no other option but to start a charity and start running 5Ks.  Guilty.  As.  Charged. 

But that’s part of me, too.  Anyways.  Today was Donna’s birthday.  At her memorial service I talked about how Mr. Mary Tyler Mom and Mary Tyler Son and I had to go home and start figuring out how to live our lives without Donna.  I’m still working on that.  Birthdays, for instance.  How on God’s green earth are you supposed to celebrate the birthday of a child you’ve buried?  A child you, yourself, personally, lowered into the ground?  Last year we tried a pizza party with friends and that sucked.  Super sucked. 

This year we decided to scale back:  A small cake for just the three of us.  A trip to the zoo.  A stop at Children’s Memorial to drop off some donations from Donna’s Good Things.  We also asked the facebook fans of Donna’s Good Things, all 592 of them, to post a photo of themselves wearing black to honor Donna’s memory – – black was Donna’s favorite color.  Seriously, how many four year old girls choose black as their favorite color?  Imma telling you, Donna was amazing. 

And the amazing thing is that people did.  People we know and people we don’t know took the trouble to wear black today, photograph themselves, then post that bad boy on facebook.  For a techonophobe like me, that’s asking a lot.  And people did it.  It started early – – the first one came in at 4:30 this morning.  The last one just a few minutes ago. 

There is something incredibly humbling and inspiring about the Donna’s Good Things facebook page today.  It makes me want to be better.  It makes me want to shout out to the world, “THANK YOU, WORLD!  WE ARE SAD AND GRIEVING, BUT YOU CARE!”  It makes me want to out Mary Tyler Mom. 

So I just did.  For reals.

WTF: Required reading for the toddler parent.

This book is not even published and I already love it:


Admit it.  You’ve had this thought before.  More than you may choose to admit.  Embrace it, I say.  Revel in the liberation of wailing loudly (inside your head of course – – it’s just rude to curse at a toddler, yo), GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP. 

Right now Mary Tyler Son is generally pretty considerate of his folks.  Yes, there is the bed time dance.  A ritual involving undressing, dressing, teeth brushing, ear cleaning, water sipping, reading (three books, board books if we’re tired), three songs, then “loving,” our word for hugging and canoodling just before dropping Mary Tyler Son into his crib.  This dance takes 45 minutes, start to finish, and from what I understand, we get off easy.  I’ve heard tale of 90-120 minute dances.  Nightly.  Damn.

But seeing the chatter on facebook today about this book transports me to a different time, in the not too distant past when I wasn’t so lucky with the bed time dance.  The Spring of 2009 was spent in the lovely environs of Bloomington, Indiana where my beautiful three year old Donna was having her brain and spine irradiated five days a week for twelve weeks at their proton beam center. There I was with Donna, and newborn Mary Tyler Son, just eight weeks old at the time.  Four of the seven bedtimes weekly I managed alone as Mr. Mary Tyler Mom spent half the week working in Chicago.  He came down for extended weekends. 

Like clockwork, Donna somehow stopped going to bed at a reasonable hour the day we arrived.  Imma talking midnight or later each and every night.  I don’t know what it was, but there was no fixing it.  It was like a light switch went off every night at 8.  Bing!  Wakey-wakey!  Honestly, folks, some of my least favorite parenting moments occured during those hours between 10pm and midnight.  Lights were out.  Newborn sleeping in a car seat in the bathroom with the fan on (Lordy, that’s a whole ‘nother post), me lying in bed next to my beautiful, cancer ridden daughter, knowing she would have to be awoken in just seven short hours to dash to the proton center where they would use drugs to induce her back to sleep so they could irradiate her tender, battered brain.

All of this is happening, the reality of cancer thick between us, and all I could think was, GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP, CHILD.  I didn’t use those words, but they brought me some internal comfort, expressing them silently, like a mantra, in my head.  Instead, I would hiss at my girl in the darkened room, “go to sleep right now, missy, or you will be in BIG TROUBLE.”  Do you know what it’s like to have evil thoughts about your poor daughter who is smiling up at you so sweetly, with such innocence, despite her cancer? 

See, when you have a very sick child, you don’t have the privilege of losing your cool.  Your time together is limited, you know this on some deep and painful level, and trust me when I say you do NOT want to be THAT MOTHER to such a vulnerable soul. 

But, alas, sometimes I was THAT MOTHER, minus the language.  Despite our best  intentions, sometimes we are all THAT MOTHER or THAT FATHER, which brings me to the genius of Adam Mansbach’s book.  I think it’s okay to be THAT PARENT.  Think it, embrace it, let it go.  And for the love of God, go the fuck to sleep, already.