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September 11, 2001
A Life Interrupted
By Janet Ring

illustration: family photo

My girl and I, we have scars. Like everyone else's, some show and some are invisible. Our scars bond us together for life, in a way I didn't know was possible between a mother and daughter.

It was just two years after my own diagnosis of T-cell lymphoma that I found out my only child had Hodgkin's lymphoma. With numb horror I received the news my mind refused to accept. I finally knew what it felt like to think you are living in a nightmare, desperately wishing you could wake up. I blamed myself because she grew inside of me -- my flesh and my blood. At various stages I blamed the furniture, the household products, the global environment, and God. But no amount of blaming can ever change reality.

My daughter and I are in a restaurant with my sister and her husband, having dinner. Looking across the table, I think about how normal my daughter and I look. And before our shared illness our lives were, indeed, relatively normal. We had the usual problems during her teenage years. She stole my car keys, sneaked out of her bedroom window at 2 a.m., and drove my car smack into a fence before she had a driver's license. She defended her right to drink beer when she was only 15 and is still certain she knows more than I do about everything. She even ran away from home once, but only made it to a friend's house nearby, then called to let me know she was safe. I've heard the words "I hate you!" scream from her mouth, the perfect echo of my own youthful rage.

To me, my daughter is radiantly beautiful -- the soft blush of her 17-year-old cheeks, her crimson lips, and the long, thick red hair spilling from a comb of crepe flowers. She thinks I see her only with a mother's eyes, but I catch the glances of the men who serve our table now, and I remember the men who watched us across the street as we entered; their eyes soften when they see her, appreciative. I tell her, but she doesn't believe me. She has the body of a woman and is still a child, still suffering the familiar clumsiness of adolescence. No one else at the table can tell that her glorious red mane is a wig that covers her downy head of sparse hair left in wisps, like a baby bird fresh from the egg.

Across the table, I wonder if my sister and her husband notice the paper-thin scars on my chest above the curve of my dress, or the tiny blue dot that marked the field of my radiation therapy. I know they can see the fresh, thick scar across the base of my daughter's neck. They can also see the small, round Band-Aids that she convinced the doctors to use to mark her field of radiation, instead of giving her the traditional tattoo mark, like mine. I remember my own exhausted resignation to the sting of the needle that made a permanent mark on my chest. But now I wear my dot with pride; it reminds me that I am fierce, determined, and triumphant.

After my treatment ended and I was in remission, I imagined that if I prayed hard enough, God would surely spare everyone else in my life from catastrophe. I actually believed I had suffered enough for all of us and won. But the best intentions and most fervent prayers can't prevent life from progressing on its own terms. We can teach our children and walk with them through life, but none of us can truly protect our loved ones from their own challenges.

Between courses of salad and risotto, I recall the shy smile my daughter gave the host of the Victorian bed-and-breakfast as she descended the stairs to go to dinner. She balanced her way gracefully down the staircase on her black platform shoes, looking the picture of teenage fashion, the same as she does on the days of her treatments. She thought he noticed the contrast between the thick, shiny hair spilling over her shoulders now and the thin bun at the back of the baseball cap she wore all day.

When I tell people that my 17-year-old daughter is undergoing chemotherapy, their eyes well up with tears. I don't know where my own tears are -- I'm so full of coping that I've nearly forgotten how to cry. If they only knew how tired I am of talking about cancer every day, they might not ask so many well-meaning questions. Resisting the urge to stop them, I look at them blankly and assure them we are both doing fine.

My daughter and I still lead the normal life of "Mom, I lost the car keys" and "Can I have money to go to the movies?" Never mind the nights she spends on the couch, too nauseated to eat, her pale exhaustion apparent. Never mind the days I can't get out of bed or think straight, and all I can do is sit and stare. These are the scenarios no one else sees.

Yet who can truly claim that their problems are the worst? My late grandmother, Rachel, used to say that if we all put our troubles out on the table in order to swap, we'd each take back our own and run. She was one of a family of strong, determined women who taught me that no matter what happens, you get up and keep going.

I think of my grandmother's words when the waiter brings the dessert. The soothing sweetness of the first bite is a reminder of the sweetness of the company at our table, and why we still get up and keep walking. There are cakes to be baked and school clothes to buy, and people who love us. We have our eyes and ears -- and legs to ride bicycles. The sound of my sister and my daughter giggling together across the table from each other warms me. We have learned to live with the unlivable and laugh at the unlaughable. Tomorrow we will have another day to live, and because of our scars, we'll remember to enjoy it.

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