Recently resettled in a new community, my family and I are shocked to find that we have an unexpected and unwelcome resident in our home. I would like to boot this interloper out, but cancer doesn’t leave that easily. Less than a month after our move, my not-yet-50 husband was diagnosed with aggressive multiple myeloma (which affects the immune system). And I thought adjusting to the relocation was going to be my children’s biggest challenge!
While each child is a unique individual–not necessarily like his or her parents in personality, ability or interest–it is generally helpful for parents to have encountered life challenges themselves before they are called upon to help their children in those areas. I can instruct my children in telephone etiquette, for instance, because I’ve had more experience talking on the phone. I can guide them in making new friends, because I have had to do it many times myself. I will be able to give them job-hunting advice when the time comes, because I have constructed resumes, applied for work, been on both sides of interviews, negotiated for pay and benefits.
But this new cancer experience is different. I have never walked this road before. My children and I will be taking this journey simultaneously, perhaps with me about one step ahead of them. We will be together, and yet our viewpoints may be quite different. They are still children, and I am an adult. They are a daughter and a son, while I am a spouse. They will be less involved in decisions, depending on me for information. Fewer people will be talking with them about their father’s disease. As I am feeling sad, confused, lonely and angry–I expect that they will know all these feelings and more, in their own ways. Adding to the strangeness of it all is that much of life will go on as normal, as before. And yet, in another way, nothing is normal now.
I have read that cancer is a family disease, not referring to the genetics of it. Surely the specter of suffering and death that it raises, along with the opportunity to hope and heal, are elements that potentially pervade all of shared family life as well as the experience of individual family members. All four of us–the patient, the spouse and the children–will be impacted by this unwelcome guest in our midst. We will not be the same as individuals or as a family. That is scary to me, even though I know it will not be all bad.
Of course, I am already feeling the pressure to “be there” in every way for my children through this. Some of what I am feeling is probably similar to what solo “single parents” experience all the time–including the responsibility of being the only adult to do the chores, make the decisions and give children practical and emotional support. Although there are people in our lives who would instantly step in to help if needed, I have thoughts about having to stay healthy and avoid accidents, because I am now “it” as a parent. My children are depending on me as never before.
I am being honest and open with our children, mostly because I don’t know any other way to be, which I pray will serve them well. Still, there will be fears I won’t have to immediately express to them.
At the beginning of all this, when my husband had been hospitalized for about 24 hours and we didn’t know yet what was wrong, our son woke up in the morning and eagerly asked me, “Could Dad have can….” I thought for a moment he had figured out how bad things were and was jumping ahead to the dreaded diagnosis. “…dy?” But no, he just wanted to make his father a card with candy—the ultimate gift—taped inside.
Later that night, I told the children that their dad did have cancer, a word that meant more to our teenage daughter than to her younger brother. The three of us sat together and talked about the worst and the best of what might happen. We cried. We hugged. We prayed. We affirmed our togetherness, as a threesome and a foursome.
In addition to whatever fallible parenting instincts I possess for this journey, I will read relevant books for parents and talk with others who have know similar struggles. But much of this new family experience will be made up as we go along. I already know it won’t be perfect. But it will be ours, and we will do as well with it as we can, one day at a time.
It is amazing how fast cancer changes people and families. When my daughter visited the eye doctor and completed new patient information, she checked YES for the first time under CANCER in the family history column. We are not the same as we were just a couple weeks ago. And yet we are the same. The same people who love each other. The same people whom God loves. Even cancer cannot change those amazing realities. For that my family and I are most grateful.
Karen Johnson Zurheide, who chair’s BCE’s board of directors, moved recently from Oklahoma City to New Hampshire, where her husband, Jeff, is a pastor.