I got my diagnosis on a Friday afternoon, and really, I think I was mostly in shock the rest of the day. I managed to drive home from work, and then collapsed with Kevin on the couch in the living room. It didn't seem real, most of the time, but occasionally, it would hit, and then I'd lose it a little. I mostly wasn't scared of dying -- that in particular didn't seem real, and still doesn't, mostly. But what did seem real, what terrified me, was the thought of leaving my kids without a mother.
I always knew that was a risk, of course. I had my first child at 35, and my second at 37. Advanced maternal age on the charts, and I certainly felt it, when I was staying up all night with infants or chasing after high-energy toddlers. My mother had me when she was 19, and there were many times when I thought she made the wiser choice. But mostly, I consoled myself with the thought that I was a more patient, easy-going mother, for being older, than I would've been otherwise. Possibly even a bit wiser.
And I didn't really think there was any danger that we wouldn't be around for their childhood. Kevin and I would talk about how we just needed to get them to college, but we didn't think that would actually be in any jeopardy. (Paying for college, on the other hand...) We thought we could count on living into our 60s, at least -- all four of my grandparents lived that long (though not much longer). Plenty of time to get them into college, and out the other side.
But I have friends who lost their mothers young. Some when they themselves were still children; a few in high school or college. And even though I teach college students today, and they certainly consider themselves adults, I'm now old enough that to my eyes, they tend to look like children too. Trying so hard to be grown-up, to take care of themselves, but so often floundering, unsure. When my kids get to that stage, I hope we have the kind of relationship where they feel like they can call up their mother and get some advice.
As I learned more about the diagnosis, I panicked less. I'm in the 95%+ likely-to-survive group, so odds are, I'll be around for quite a while. But yesterday I had the BRCA gene testing, and we mapped out my family tree, and talked about how my positive diagnosis means an increased likelihood of cancer for my children, and I have not been angry about this cancer so much, but for a moment there, I was raging.
I'm a calm person, normally, but this is where my emotions rise to the surface and spill over. I am scared for them, scared for all the sad, bad, hard things that they're going to encounter in their lives. So far, we've protected them from almost everything, but hard days will come. And now, a little bit of me is quietly terrified that their mommy won't be there to help them through it, whatever it ends up being. Broken hearts, false friends, bad choices, bad luck. There are so many things in the world that can hurt them, and some of them may be embedded in the very genes of their bodies, the bodies we gave them.
I used to joke about hybrid vigor, but on some level, I took comfort that Kevin and I came from opposite sides of the planet, that, in fact, whatever bad genes we carried were less likely to be passed down to our kids. Maybe we did improve our odds a little, by choosing to combine across such a wide genetic divide. Not enough, though. Not enough to guarantee their safety.
The genetic results will come back in two weeks; we'll see if they're at increased risk or not. (It surprised me to learn that 70-80% of breast cancer is sporadic, rather than genetically-linked.) I had a repeat MRI yesterday (hence the jellyfish socks); we'll see if they want another biopsy, or if we can go ahead and start chemo. One way or another, we're almost done with the testing; soon, we start actual treatment.
I can't wait. I know the chemo will make me sick, will make me feel horrible. But I plan to be around a long, long time -- I plan to see them go to college, and out the other side, and if Kavi and Anand decide to have kids, I want to be around to meet the grandkids. So dammit, let's go already. Time's a-wasting.
I wrote this poem more than a year ago; it feels bizarrely prescient now. But I think all of us who have our children late worry this way.
Ive never been afraid of dying.
Its true. I have friends who worry
about their deaths a lot, friends
who take an array of supplements
so they can live as long as possible,
the kind of people who inwardly rage
that they were born too soon
before we learned how to live forever.
Ive never really understood that.
Ive always wanted to live
as if I could be hit by a bus tomorrow,
wanted to live fully, saying everything
that needed to be said,
doing what needed to be done.
People say to me, often,
I dont know how you do so much!
They dont understand --
Im trying to pack it all in.
But now I have a problem.
My father is seventy,
works full-time, takes long walks,
watches what he eats -- in some ways
looks better now than he did
a decade ago. I may have him
for a long time yet, but I can also see
the day is coming, like the day
when I was small. The letter came
across the wide ocean,
on onionskin paper, thin and blue,
telling him his father was dead.
The only day I saw him weep.
And now, I have a daughter, a son;
I want to give them everything.
I had my children late in life,
and I may not be here to meet
their children, should they have them.
That is a regret.
But my fear, my terror, is that
I will leave too soon. A stroke,
a heart attack, a cancer will descend
and carry me off while they are still
too small to understand. I have friends
who lost a parent young. They went on,
built good lives, full of love, but Im not sure
they ever recovered completely.
And even if I survive
another seventeen years,
until my son is twenty-one,
until they are both, technically, adults --
I do not know if there will be
enough time to tell them
everything. Everything I want
to say. This is what I want to say.
Im sorry. Im so sorry, my dears.
For you, I would have lived