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Learning To Live When One Parent Has Cancer

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I am curled up into the corner of the couch, despite my efforts to make my body language look casual. My knees jab at the cloth where my elbows rest. I try to keep my voice airy but authoritative. Try to command the attention of three preschoolers without sounding angry. Without sounding scared. Without sounding as though something is wrong.

I knew this day would come. I knew there’d be a time when I would sit down with them and put words I’d spoken millions of times into new and confusing configurations. I knew there would be questions, and tears, and I knew it would be hard. But this is so much stranger than I imagined it could be.

I am sitting on the couch, trying to tell my daughters, all under the age of 6, that their father is going to have brain surgery. That he is sick, but he’s going to be better.

Yes, it’s going to hurt. But only for a little while.

Yes, he’s going to have stitches. right on top of the scar that, for them, is merely a fact of his existence.

Yes, they will be able to draw as many pictures for him as they want.

We are sidetracked by a question about points. The youngest remembers me explaining Weight Watchers and wants to know if Daddy is going to get lots of points for going to the hospital. The only answer she’s willing to accept is “Yes.”

They ask when the surgery will happen. Daddy tells them it will be after Mommy’s birthday. I wonder if his surgeon will let him wait that long, and say I don’t mind if they’re the same day. It’s true.

The children don’t understand, but see we’re trying to be brave, trying to tell them they don’t have to be. We’re being brave for them. They climb onto Daddy’s lap and tell him they don’t want him to be sick, they’re sorry he’s sick, they want him to get better fast. He promises he will.

I’m picking at my cuticles, my body angled into the corner of the couch. I’m trying to be calm and nonchalant. I smile and announce that since Daddy isn’t going back to work today, we can go to a playground. We can even go to their favorite restaurant afterwards.

Over dinner one of the twins reads a flyer with a pink ribbon on it. “It says she has cancer, Daddy. Is that like you?”

He looks at the picture and tries to smile, as though her cleverness is meaningful to him only in that it is deserving of praise. “Yes, like me.” He doesn’t explain the way people look at him when he tells them about it. They way they look at me. His voice is quiet, quiet enough that the woman three feet away doesn’t glance in his direction. I walk to the salad bar and will myself to listen to the radio, grateful the scar across his bald head is on the side she can’t see.

We’re getting ready for bed. “Is Daddy sick?” the 2-year-old asks, in the tone she uses to ask if I’m wearing clothes already on my body. Yes. Daddy has a tumor in his brain. Daddy’s going to have surgery, and stay in the hospital for a while, and we’re going to visit him and draw him lots and lots of pictures.

We’re driving home from ballet class. “Is Daddy getting his stitches now?”

“No, sweetie. He’ll get stitches after his surgery.”

“Why is he having surgery?”

“To take a little tumor out of his brain.”

The questions are already familiar, but I feel like I’ve chugged vinegar each time I use those words, despite my certain tone.

The children need certainty. They need solidity. They need routines and familiarity, something solid they can hold onto. I practice the drive from ballet to the pharmacy, over and over again. I fill his prescriptions for anti-seizure and anti-anxiety medication, and hold my tongue when the pharmacist smiles at me.

I don’t tell the pharmacist that seven and a half years ago I made a different pharmacist cry when she messed up his medication for the eighth time in a row. That the old pharmacist waited for me in the snow, and we hissed through gritted teeth at each other, she saying that I needed to stop bullying her techs, and I saying that she needed to not screw up his chemotherapy for once.

The girls ask Daddy all about his stitches again, and he tells them he might not have stitches at all. “It might be staples,” he says. “Last time Daddy got staples.” The memories are fresher all the time.

While he explains what staples are, I remember washing blood from between metal ridges in the hours after he finally came home from the hospital. I wonder how the children will react to the scabby brown mess I’ll reveal when I remove the dressings. How much easier it will be to clean now that his hair follicles are permanently damaged from radiation. How the kids will respond to a Daddy who can’t carry them to bed, or roll on the floor with them in the weeks after he comes home. Whether we’ll need a stool for him in the shower, whether he’ll resume walking with the long-ignored cane in the umbrella stand. Whether the three flights of stairs to our condo are even an option anymore.

I’m too exhausted and too numb to tell, but I don’t feel scared. I feel resigned and determined, and I accept that my husband’s dominant emotions include a newfound obsession with the minutia of our family finances. Secretly, I make inquiries into getting myself a job that can shift the burden off his shoulders. I take lots of phone calls, write dozens of emails. My passive-aggressive streak and appetite fade into the background. I’m too concerned with what is necessary to bother with being bothered by anything.

With a stack of old MRI referrals in front of me, I realize I’m unconsciously cleaning up a binder of my husband’s medical records. I’ve added new sheets of lined paper for taking notes and removed business cards of doctors we no longer need, like fertility preservation specialists. I’ve been doing this while the 2-year-old hunts for her frog blankie, wearing only a pull-up and Frozen sneakers. I hear myself reminding her that outside shoes don’t go on our feet inside the house, and don’t care that she’s not taking them off. All of this while I’m on the phone with our friend, the neurooncologist. A memory of the way she hugged me when she said, “Goodbye, friends,” after telling us my husband’s cancer was back ripples across my skin.

One of the twins is taping pictures to the door for Daddy to see when he comes home. I think to myself that he should consider going on disability early, taking the rest of the month off work instead of trying to wrap his head around working and having cancer in the handful of days before his surgery and disability becomes a necessity. I am shocked and relieved when he agrees.

I sit in front of my computer, two rooms away, and listen to him talk to the girls. “Ours bodies are amazing.” He tells them his skin will grow back together. He tells them that the surgeons might be girls; girls can do all the jobs boys can do, very important jobs. Every moment is a teachable moment.

My cheek is resting against the wall of the shower, and hot water is splattering against my neck. It’s not hot enough, and the wall is not cold enough. I want to be crying, though I’m not sure why. I want to stand there and have some sort of shower-stall catharsis. Instead I wash my hair and sit down on the bed while the twins select my outfit. For some reason my hip is locked up, and I stumble on the heels they’ve helped strap to my feet.

There are 122 messages, most no more than a sentence long, waiting for responses. They all tell me how strong I am and how they are praying for me. I wonder numbly if that’s a contradiction and close my inbox.

There’s a tightness in my chest that feels only a little like panic. I am not panicked. I am prepared. I’ve been prepared for seven years, nine months, and 28 days. I have been prepared for this since the first time I said the words, “I’m his fiancée,” standing in the ER, seeing his face paralyzed on one side, filthy. Prepared since I made him stop trying to convince me that after 15 hours of being engaged, I wasn’t obligated to see our marriage through.

I don’t know how to cope with this preparedness. I understand cancer and brain surgery in terms of speed, shock, and tearful phone calls, the panic of everyone around me. I don’t know how to be calm in the center of a calm. I feel like a fraud when the tone I’ve adopted is echoed over and over again. But I’m not panicking.

Our children are not panicking. No tears have been shed, save my husband’s few frustrated escapees in the moments after we heard the news, the few that watered the twins’ eyes when we told them Daddy would need surgery, and my own, in moments of silence and isolation, when I glance through the endless words of confidence and prayerfulness that flood my inbox.

All my tears are clandestine. Fugitive. There is nothing to be scared of, or for, I tell myself. There is no sense even wondering what else could be.

Daddy has brain cancer. It is the routine. It is the stability. It is the normal. The same email I sent to our family announcing he had finished his last round of chemo was the one in which I announced my first pregnancy. The overlap of parenthood and glioblastoma is not new, it’s merely moving in reverse.

Daddy has brain cancer, I repeat over and over again. Daddy has brain cancer.

And I know we’re all questioning whether I can be trusted when I repeat, “He’s going to be just fine.”

Related post: Why It’s Not Unfair That I Have Cancer

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