Shortly after my breast cancer diagnosis, in the midst of meeting with surgeons and oncologists, I paid a visit to the family resource room at Dana-Farber. I was told they offered free books and materials that would help my children deal with the trauma of having a parent with cancer. I walked out of there loaded down with paraphernalia, ready to attack any question or fear my kids would face. It’s interesting now, almost two years later, to look back and see exactly how each child handled the turmoil.
The backpacks they gave me for each of my kids were broken down by age. My 14 year old son received a different book to read and an older version of the journal that my 11 and 8-year-old were given. The younger kids got a stuffed animal and some Wikki-Stiks. I understand why they were broken down by age but that is not the only indication of how they will react. Children not only deal with trauma differently at various ages but it is their sex and personality as well as placement in the family that also go a long way in gauging their reactions. It would be too easy to say, alright we know for a fact, any 12-14 year old will react this way and all 8-11 year old’s will react that way.
Once I gave the kids their backpacks and showed them the contents, I have to be honest, I kind of dropped the ball. I do remember sitting with my 8-year-old daughter and seeing what she drew about her fears, but my middle son didn’t pay too much attention to his stuff. I have seen the book they gave my 14-year-old on his desk in his room, in a somewhat prominent position which makes me think he may have read it a few times, but whenever I asked him about it I got the same answer, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Now I am not stupid enough to actually believe that, I understand that he needed to talk about it but I didn’t quite have the energy to drag it out of him at the time.
Part of me has been thankful for this traumatic event in my kids lives. I grew up surrounded by turmoil. The youngest of seven in an Irish family left me with a whole host of opportunity at dealing with the tragic. Suicide, car accidents, prison time, drug addiction ,alcoholism,religious fanaticism,schizophrenia — I saw it all. At the time would I have loved to be a little more sheltered from all of that? Maybe. One thing is for sure though; there is not too many problems you can throw at me now, as an adult, that I can’t handle. Because of this, I probably didn’t coddle my children as much as someone else might have when I found out that I had cancer. I think that kids need to deal with difficulties. It’s what makes them resilient. It’s what life is about. Shit happens, and unfortunately will continue to happen. It’s important to teach our kids how to handle scary and disappointing events in our lives.
So what I did, instead of the round table discussions and the open talk of feelings that was highly recommended to me, was that I fought through treatment –I cried a lot, got angry, yelled a little more than usual but also spent time with each of them doing the things they love. I tried to go out of my way a little more and appreciate their sheer existence in my life. And I showed them by example, that I wasn’t going to lay down and let this take over me. I beat it back a little. Mostly I tried like hell to keep everything as much as ‘normal’ as I could. There were some tough moments, but we all made it through.
Did my approach work? How have my kids turned out? Let’s see. My oldest son, after dealing with his own knee surgery this year, is walking around saying that God does not exist.
“What kind of God gives you cancer and then messes up my knee so I can’t play sports?”
Good Question –one I can’t answer, but I do believe that even without my cancer, he would be having the same struggles with God at his age. This is normal, we all go through it. He is a self-centered teen.
Son #2 — the middle Guy. Sometimes when things happen to me, like knocking myself out with a rocking chair, falling down at Fenway, or having my appendix out, he cries and hugs me and says “Why does everything bad have to happen to you?” He seems very protective of me. Is that because of the cancer? Maybe. But his general personality lends itself to over-feeling and since he is the middle child, he is always going to be the most loving. So I would say he also came through with flying colors.
Onto my 9-year-old daughter. Oy. There were times throughout my treatment when I felt like my whole cancer journey affected her the most. She certainly was the most vocal about it. She cried and worried about losing me. She became afraid of things like hospitals and didn’t like it when I was not home. On chemo days she would sometimes cry in school. I was probably the most proactive with her in terms of helping her through the turmoil, as a girl and the youngest I could relate to her more so I did things like taking her to chemo with me so she could see how ‘un-scary’ it was.
How is she now? Last week as I lay on the couch after having my appendectomy, I called for my husband to help me. My daughter, who was waiting for a ride from him to her friend’s house, stood with her arms crossed, and watched me writhe in pain.
“Get…DADDY,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Jeesh Mom, it’s not like you are gonna die or anything,” she callously said and then turned on her heels and yelled,
“Dad, can you drive me to Caitlin’s?”
I know what you are thinking. What a bitch. I thought the same thing too. But now I realize, no, she has come through the trauma of her mom having cancer, just fine. Of course I am not gonna die. She gets that now. She has seen me come through a lot worse than an appendectomy so to her this was no big deal. What was bothering her was the power struggle that was ensuing –we both needed daddy at that moment, and she was damn sure she was going to win. Normal? I think so.
So regarding my children, I would say, they have all managed just fine. I can’t say that I did everything correctly and I know that these last two years have left as many scars on them as are on my own chest, but I truly believe that to go through this life with any kind of gusto, you must bear some battle scars. My kids may have been sadder than their fiends last year or a little more worried but hopefully they walk away from my cancer a little stronger and a lot smarter than they were before — and hopefully much more resilient.