Two weeks ago felt unbearable. I cried so hard it seemed that I’d completely spent all of the water in my body. I qualified for permanent disability—which everyone says is wonderful—but I guess that’s just not what I planned for my life. I’m in my 30s, I’ve been declared permanently physically disabled—which is the price I paid for more time with my children—and, I guess, everything about my situation just hit me.
BUT this isn’t a sob story. I actually wanted to tell you how I came to terms with it.
Indy and Trey happened to walk into the room during this moment of desperation. Despite how honest I’ve been throughout this “ordeal,” they never see me cry. So, I rushed into the laundry room and shut the door. They know I’m fighting for my life, but they don’t hear about the crippling pain or how truly terrifying this can be for me. I’m not scared of death or suffering. (The doctors still say that unless some freak accident happens, and even if they bought me another decade, melanoma will be what kills me…eventually.) What I fear most now is not seeing my children grow up. Not holding Mike’s wrinkled hand as we hobble along for our 50th wedding anniversary. Not being remembered well. Not making a positive impact on the people who matter the most to me. Not showing my children that cancer, sickness, and even death will never rob me of who I am. And if they see me cry or watch my pain, well, I think that’s placing MY burden on them. Life is hard enough; the least I can do is shield them from my grief about this.
Anyway, in that moment, I listened through the laundry room door. All of my kids are hilarious, but my two youngest are always teasing each other and pulling pranks. It started young too. Trey would give Indy candy if she’d open child-proof drawers for him so he could access all of my Tupperware! And now that they’re older, their schemes have just grown more sophisticated. One distracts me while the other cooks insane concoctions. One watches a romance with me while the other hangs up heavy metal posters—that have swear words—on the wall! And even though I act dumbfounded, I secretly love all of their antics, and they normally keep my sadness about cancer at bay. But two weeks ago, that particular day felt hopeless.
Mike burst into the laundry room. “What can I do?” He looked desperate. The family isn’t used to me falling apart quite like that. “I don’t know what to do!” Tears filled his eyes. “I hate this so much.”
“A bunch of things feel off,” I said. “I know the cancer in my upper spine is gone, but my lower back is still bad. I can only get three more infusions. They said there’s a chance they might be able to keep the cancer stable. I could have years and years. But I’ll always be…disabled. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but this feels like a Herculean task.”
Tears flooded my eyes. Mike is so young and full of energy. I just felt like a lead weight around his neck. How must he feel dealing with this? He’s only 35.
“You could be with anyone,” I said.
“And I want you.”
Looking into his kind face tore me apart. Sure, I can’t be exactly who I want, but at least I can do better than being a bawl baby! After I’d stuffed a bunch of towels into the washer, I grabbed a piece of paper and told myself to “get it together.” Then I made a list of everything that’s bothering me. I wrote about how I rarely do my makeup and hair because I get tired so fast. I wrote about wishing that I could do things with Mike and the kids like we used to: fish, hike, kayak, and camp. I also wrote about how I want to go to the zoo and visit Italy some day. I read it at the end and realized that every sentence started with “I can’t.”
Mike left for work, and Trey and Indy confessed that they knew I wasn’t “okay.”
“Mama, what’s going on?” Indy asked.
“I just wish I could do more things. I can only walk a quarter of a mile. I want to bring you hiking and on epic fishing trips again.”
“But there’s so much you can do! We can go fishing to places that are close to the car. And you can hike to the bridge up Gibson Jack!” And later that day, Trey and Indy helped me make a new list of things they want to do each week this summer. And you wouldn’t believe it, but every sentence started with “I can.” Those sweethearts thought of things “I can” do with them. Fish at Edson Fichter. Hike a quarter mile in to the bridge where we can eat Lunchables. Float the river where it doesn’t require much rowing and Mike can help me. Visit Bear World. And the last crazy thing in our list? Go to Italy.
We started our adventures already. My brother and nephew came up last weekend. My brother is like the best possible version of me and he reminds me of how I want to be. My sister and her husband came up after that. My sister is amazing, everything I wish I could be but am not. She reminds me of how I need to strive to learn and grow outside of myself. I got to speak with Dee, Scott and Colleen Hancock, and my mother-in-law (Maureen)—who always make me laugh. And then my parents (Philip and Ruby) came up and brought me to the zoo. They didn’t care how slow I had to walk or how much I needed to stop. They helped me and the kids check off one of our items, and after we got home I realized again how truly lucky I am.
Anyway, I know it sounds obvious, but it really is astounding switching a mentality from “can’t” to “can.” I’m so excited for this summer, and I think the kids are too. This will be awfully wonderful. They helped me realize that there so many possibilities. The world awaits—and maybe someday so does Italy.