“Mommy, it’s important for me to read this book so I’ll know what to expect when I get cancer,” said my sweet seven year old.
We had just finished reading “My Mom Has Cancer,” one of the two books I was able to find on Amazon that I felt was appropriate for the kids, and my heart rate started to quicken. I felt a lump rise in my throat as I tried to concentrate on her words, as she continued to dissect every element of the story.
How do I respond? What is the right way to respond to this child?
There have been so many of these moments over the past five months, where I’ve just been at a loss for words. Moments when the questions asked have unclear answers, when I just don’t know how to respond.
How are the children is probably the question Gaby and I get asked most often. I usually shrug and say, I think they’re doing the best that they can given the circumstances, but there are days when I see just how much they are struggling and I feel ill equipped to help them. When I have a sleepless night because of their nightmares, or the newfound fears that we don’t understand but try our best to comfort.
“Mommy, when will I die? And when I die, what will I come back as?” asked my four year old a couple of days ago. Lately, he is obsessed with death and dying. He is confused about the concept. Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron (Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s National Day of Remembrance) have added to the confusion between life and death. He talks a lot about Ema Kallus TZ”L, my Grandmother, and how she is dead. He knows that Papa TZ”L (Gaby’s Grandfather) is dead too. But he doesn’t understand that dead means gone forever.
When he asks me when he will die, I stroke his hair and pull him close. I tell him that it won’t be for a very, very long time, when he is a Saba Rabba ( a great-Grandfather). When he is old and his nose is long and he has hair growing out of his ears and over his eyes and he stoops a little bit and walks with a cane. Who knows though? When he’s a Saba Rabba, he’ll probably zip around the neighborhood on a levitating skateboard; canes will be things people look at in a museum. His children will love and care for him, they’ll take him to the local barber to trim the grey whisps of hair that have grown over his eyes while his wife of sixty years waits at home with his lunch. A bowl full of artichokes (his favorite vegetable) and some Greek yogurt, with something sweet and chocolatey for dessert. This is the future that I hope for him, one of good health and old age, of companionship and love, of life and family. This is the story I tell him, even though deep down I know the difference between what I hope and dream, and what is reality.
“If you have cancer, and Miki has cancer, when will I get cancer,” my seven year old has been having a hard time this year. It was already a difficult year for her, with a lot of changes, and we already knew that she doesn’t deal well with change. She graduated Kindergarten and started first grade at an all girl’s school across town in September. Her older sister is in a neighborhood co-ed school but we felt this school suited her best, so we separated them. While it’s the best decision for them both, it was hard for her not having an older sister to guide her through elementary school.
Because school is so far away, we signed her up for the van and as luck would have it, she is the first one to get on every morning. Shy and quiet in demeanor, riding the van alone was difficult for her and so I rode the morning route with her every day for almost two weeks before she was ready to ride alone. In the morning, she gets on the Arnona van, in the afternoon she comes home to Baka. Two different neighborhoods, two groups of girls, two separate vans. Over time, I would slowly hear stories about the girls on the van. They look out for each other; they share snacks and stories and the older girls watch out for the younger ones. She would come home with awe-filled stories about the older girls; about Maayan and Dassi, Liana and Miki, Ella and Liora. So when Miki stopped coming home on the Baka van, she was confused. It was a week after I had started my first treatment when we heard that Miki was diagnosed with cancer.
Shortly after Miki’s diagnosis, Sivan stopped telling me stories about the girls on the van. Until late one night, after a meltdown that left her spent and breathless, tears streaming down her cheeks, she told us that someone told her that if she eats candy she will get cancer. She nodded when I asked her if the girls on the van talked a lot about cancer, but she refused to tell me anything else. She is loyal to the girls on the van, she won’t tell me anything that she fears might get anyone in trouble.
I can’t answer her question honestly. I pray that she will never, ever get cancer. But I don’t know what the future holds. I’m learning that having cancer isn’t a result of something that I did wrong, while I’m constantly searching for the reason. I don’t tell her that. Instead, I tell her that she can eat candy without fear of anything but possibly cavities, and that if she brushes her teeth every morning and night it will minimize the probability of getting cavities. I don’t use words like minimize or probability with her though. I show her videos on Instagram where Miki’s dancing and smiling. She likes to compare our bald heads and she asks lots of questions, but just seeing her is comforting. We say Tehillim for Miriam bat Chaya together when I light candles on Friday night.
“What will happen to me when you’re all better?” asks my nine year old. The question confuses me, and I gently prod her to explain what she means. “Once you’re all better, no one will think I’m special anymore. What will happen to me then?”
What she sees at special, I’ve viewed as “being a burden to other people.” People who have dropped their lives to help us with ours. Our friends and neighbors who have been cooking us meals for five long months. Teachers who have no doubt been cutting her some slack at school, friends and family and strangers who have been showering her with affection and attention, who buy her gifts and listen to her thoughts. When I’m better, all of that will change, and she will just go back to being herself.
Oh how I yearn for that day. For when I’m all better and I can cook meals for my family again, when I’m the one who is waiting for her outside the gates of her school at pick up. When I have the strength to do bedtime, to curl up next to her in bed and listen to the stories of her day. When she has a cold or a fever and I can hold her in my arms without fear of germs. When I can be the one to help her with her homework, instead of the amazing volunteers at Zichron Menachem.
“Whether or not I have cancer will never change the most important thing,” I respond. “You have been and always will be precious and special to me.”
Please keep Miriam Bat Chaya and Lior Shira Batya bat Chaya Yehudit in your prayers.