Our kids are sharing a room with each other for the first time, and this morning Eleanor woke early and disturbed Samuel. Coleman got up with her and took her downstairs, but a few minutes later I heard their bedroom door open slowly. I called Samuel’s name, and a sleepy “Yes, Mama?” answered. I invited him to come climb into bed with me, which he did, and we cuddled in the dark. He asked to nurse, and I reminded him gently that we can’t nurse anymore.
We had our last nurse before my surgery, and talked about it then; our concerns over my deteriorating health were enough at that point to lead us to decide to wean him. Days later I was diagnosed and learned I would have to stop nursing Eleanor as well, my body too worn out, and the radioactive materials used to find the cancer so strong that the syringes are stored in lead cylinders before being injected, which would take place only after I signed paperwork confirming I was not pregnant or breastfeeding. It’s taken weeks for my milk to slowly dry up, its stubborn refusal to go a reminder of my body’s incredible capacity to provide life and also that this is yet another thing this cancer is stealing from me. My lingering milk showed up on the scan, confusing the first technicians who hadn’t realized I’d only recently stopped breastfeeding – the radioactive sugar is taken up by hungry, fast growing cells, and my still-producing breasts lit up the images, startling techs who were looking for tumours in my abdomen and pelvis.
I am grateful for the nursing relationships I’ve had with my children, but grieve their abrupt end before we were all ready.
Back to snuggling with Samuel. I gently reminded him we couldn’t nurse, and he asked if I was sick. I told him no, I’m not sick, but that I still have cancer. He talked about my ‘plasters’, the bandages I had after surgery, and we talked about how the doctor had cut the cancer out of me and sewed me back up, and put on the bandages, and how then I went back and he took the bandages off. “Then you came home!” he said. “To our home?” Yes, I told him, I came home to our home in South Africa. Now we have a home in America, with Grandma and Grandpop.
He though about this for a while. We snuggled and cuddled some more. Eventually we got up and he went downstairs for breakfast.
It as not our first conversation about my cancer, nor will it be our last. Sometimes we repeat the same things: I’m not sick, but the cancer makes me sore and tired. It’s not your fault that I have cancer, you didn’t cause it. The doctors cut some of the cancer out but we need to make sure we get rid of all of it, so I need to go to the hospital for tests to find it. I might need another operation or medicine. We will do everything we can to get rid of the cancer so that I can stay here with you.
There are the harder things to say. How do I tell my two year old that I might die?
We tell him that when people die, the Lord send angels to bring them to heaven. That heaven is a beautiful place where we will all go someday. That Jesus loves me, and him, and wants us to live with Him forever and when we die here, we go there, to be with Him.
These lay the groundwork for a conversation I never want to have, but don’t want to risk being unprepared for. And they are beautiful eternal truths that bring comfort and joy, not fear.
My one year old knows the word cancer. She has less understanding of the details, but no less perception of the big picture. She knows I was gone and came back, that we stopped nursing and we moved to a new place. People have come and gone. I can’t pick her up much anymore, can’t carry her around. We talk with her about the changes that have happened and the ones that are coming. She looks at me with wide eyes and lays her head on my chest, wrapping her arms around me and holding me close, my sweet compassionate girl, sharing a primary love language with me: touch.
And this time with my two year old, snuggled in bed, talking about cancer, listening to his questions, hearing his heart and speaking gentle truth in answer feeds him, fills him with his primary love language, the quality time he needs.
My heart breaks for my children, that they have the burden of a mother with cancer. They are so young. It makes my grief for them and for Coleman and I more intense, and it is at the same time a comfort – they are incredibly resilient and highly adaptable. I am so very grateful for the support and love of our families, our communities, surrounding them. They are loved, and they know it. They know joy and laughter and warmth and friendship. They will continue to know these things in the weeks and months and years to come, whatever we face.
Thank you for loving my children, so that I can talk to them about cancer, knowing we are loved.