Today is my birthday.
Today my little girl started a new chemotherapy drug.
Today we cut her hair off, because it is going to start falling out soon.
This doesn’t seem like the recipe for a good birthday. Or a good day. Or even a tolerable one. I was fully prepared to let this whole ‘celebration’ concept slide. Not really feeling it. My smiles are pasted on, replicas of the real thing; polite reflexes to communicate my real appreciation for the ridiculous amount of support pouring our way.
There’s nothing like cancer to awaken the selfless impulses. Not the saintly ones forged in empathy, discipline and hard-won maturity. The parenting ones that roar to life in fear and desperation. I barely blinked when we cancelled our Christmas trip to Disneyland, and our 20th anniversary getaway to Mexico, and postponed my writing projects and school aspirations. I happily camp on a mat on the floor beside her bed. I hardly remember to eat or wash or go to the bathroom. Life and death is in play, and the world has narrowed drastically.
But this is no short term crisis. Life doesn’t begin after cancer. Life is right now. Two long years stretch ahead of us. And they will be different, hard, with all sorts of frustrations and heartaches. But if we’re going to make it through, we’ve got to live.
Today had it’s hard parts. Kissing my son goodbye with the vague promise to see him “sometime this weekend.” Holding my daughters arms and legs down so the nurse could hook the IV up to the tubes in her chest. Catching a glimpse of her cropped hair, looking shorn and strange.
But it was still a good day. Today I took a break. I woke up in my own bed, snuggled my son, talked to my big girls, ate a casserole for breakfast (so much better than granola bars and pilfered hospital food). Today I enjoyed a visit with a friend who just happens to specialize in cool haircuts, ate ice cream for lunch and hugged my husband. Today she felt good, her counts were up, the nurse hep-locked her IV and we got to explore the far reaches of the hospital, including a huge empty stairwell. Today I howled like a dog and laughed and sang and listened to the echoes without ever checking the clock, or worrying about the next thing to do, or feeling silly for acting like a child. Today I lay beside my daughter and listened to her breathe until she fell asleep. I can’t remember when I was more acutely aware of how precious each moment we have together is.
I suspect cancer, for all the many ways I abhor and despise it, will also make life sweeter. As long as I remember to live it.
So here’s us, on the brink of death, like every other human being on the planet. We just notice it more.