September 11, 2001
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.
story: My Sky Is Falling