I just tucked in my 10-year-old daughter, Sabrina, and her friend Colby, who is spending the night with us. I sat on the edge of the bed and said prayers with Sabrina and watched an array of emotions play across the face of her friend. My daughter must have sensed it, too, for she reached across and took Colby’s hand in a quiet act of tenderness that broke my heart just a little bit more.
Because Colby’s mother is battling Stage 3 ovarian cancer, and, so far, it’s winning.
I saw her mother today — a lovely, upbeat, kind-hearted woman named Esme who, thoughout her ordeal, has hardly voiced a single complaint to me. Esme tried radiation, but it failed to arrest the cancer, and so now they are throwing chemo at the beast. She has lost all her hair, even her eyebrows, and her face has taken on the artificial fullness associated with chemo bloating, but her smile is bright and she is determinedly optimistic. I am in awe of her.
In contrast to her mother’s softness and sunniness, her little girl is not an easy child to get close to. Colby can be difficult, mouthy, and disrespectful. Thanks to the influence of a 17-year-old sister, she is wise beyond her years and in ways that my own 10-year-old finds off-putting and confusing. But Colby is still a little girl, struggling with something that I, more than 30 years her senior, cannot fathom dealing with — losing a mother.
My mother and I have a complicated relationship. It has been good and it has been bad, but it has never been easy. Even so, I love her dearly and would miss her desperately. Her love is a constant and a beacon and a touchstone on which I have relied for nearly my entire life. I was never so afraid as the night she called to tell me she’d been diagnosed with four (that’s right, FOUR) autoimmune disorders. I stayed up half the night researching them on the internet and torturing myself with worst case scenarios.
And I was 35 at the time. Colby is 10 and a half.
I have no idea what to say to Colby about her mother’s illness. I have no idea how to comfort her or what to offer her or how to be present for her as she moves through this confusing and frightening time. I know that other parents feel the same way. Although Esme is well-liked, her daughter is generally not, and I can see the other mothers wrestling with my hesitancy, too. What do you do for a child who is not easy to love?
I’m not sure, to be honest. For now, I am simply opening my home to her. I have talked to Sabrina about what Colby is going through and encouraged her to be supportive but also acknowledged that she cannot fix this for Colby, nor should she allow Colby to take advantage of her simply because of her sad situation. I have instructed my nanny to be patient with Colby and helpful to Esme and to keep me informed of anything she hears or sees. And I have signed up for the neighborhood dinner delivery group to help Esme on her chemo days.
But I cannot make this stop for either of them.
When I place myself in Esme’s situation, my throat closes and my heart pounds in my chest. Not for the hypothetical loss of my own life, but for the excruciating pain in having to leave my girls too soon. The very thought of having to say goodbye to them, to leave them without my love and wisdom and guidance and nurturing is almost too hurtful to contemplate. And yet, surely Esme is having to do just that. What must play through her mind in her quiet moments? How is she strong enough to let Colby go for the evening and stay with us, when her own nights with her are likely numbered? How do you simultaneously keep living, even as you plan for possibly dying? And finally, how the hell do you carry your daughter through an uncertain nightmare that you’re stuck in as well?
Again, I am in awe of her.
I know the statistics for recovery from stage 3 ovarian cancer, and they are bleak. I have no idea what will become of Esme or Colby. I wonder at how random the brutality of cancer is. And I hope for the best.
In the meantime, I pray passionately for a little girl named Colby and the mommy she is so terrified of losing.