I’m holding my baby, she is wet and covered in that biological cake batter. Her name is Lucy Pearl, “bright light.” She is my first born and we are both unaware of the cancer that has rooted into the connective tissues and bones and muscles underneath the breast she sleeps on.
Five weeks later, at my routine follow-up appointment my oncologist says, “It’s back.” His nose squishes up toward the cloudy blue eyes and his big fuzzy eyebrows. No tears though, he isn’t crying. On my iPhone moments earlier he watched a short video of Lucy sleep-smiling, so revealing a Stage II Hodgkins Lymphoma recurrence seems worthy of a tear of two.
I’m not crying either.
And then I think the rest of our conversation must have drowned in my bottled emotions because zero percent of the words he spoke linked together to form anything transmittable. I just kept thinking about the sleeping baby at home with Bonnie, my mother-in-law.
Oh noooo….. Bonnie. I’ll have to tell Bonnie.
Shoot. And my parents, too. Not again. Lord, they can’t go through this again.
And while we’re at it, fuck You God.
Call Daddy, then Mama (“it’s back”) as I plow through I-25, toward home. Closer to the newborn I’ve spent the last five weeks cuddling so hard. So hard. She is my breath, my bathing buddy, my nipple-buster, and the softest thing I’ve ever created. Loud, too. But just perfectly noisy enough so I hear her and feed her, never so shrill that I resent her.
Nobody told me motherhood could feel this safe and warm. This is home. How will I spare her from this new normal?
You can’t, Sweetie.
What if I don’t hold her, nurse her, or love her? She can’t yearn for things she never received. The details and consequences of withholding love and affection drowned in the same bottle of coping mechanisms as the conversation with my oncologist thirty minutes earlier.
Initiate robot mode.
Three steps up to the front porch at the South Pearl Street house, three chances to abandon the plan. When I opened the rattly, baby blue door and looked into her eyes, my wounded robot self erected a wall I would have to sledgehammer apart for the next six years. I refused her.
At least she won’t miss me.
Bonnie tears up. No, Bonnie, don’t cry. The oncologist didn’t cry, and neither did I. Stick to the plan. Robot, think robot, please.
David, my husband, arrives home shortly after from his first day at his new job, it’s the day after Easter. He asked me out on our first date after a clean PET scan years earlier, who is this gorgeous, animated girl with such zeal and zest? Yes please! Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” struck a deep cord in his college school years, so keeping me close was like the song playing on repeat for the rest of our lives—or at least until I died.
That afternoon, once Bonnie left and LP went down for her afternoon nap, I decided to let a few tears fall. Poor David, this next part will either burn up the vows we took two years earlier, or it will engrave them in our bones.
Bones. Please no bone marrow transplant please no bone marrow transplant please no bone marrow transplant.
“You’ll need a bone marrow transplant.”
Thirty (or more) consecutive days isolated in a hospital room on the eleventh floor without my Bright Pearl terrified me more than any biopsy, fertility treatment, or chemotherapy infusion ever could. “At least you’re not the woman who just had to abort her twenty-week old fetus to receive life saving treatment,” one doctor consoled.
Totally true. Thanks God. And fuck You, again.
I am not the woman who had to terminate her pregnancy, but I am the woman who had to abruptly stop breastfeeding because babies don’t like chemo milk. I am the woman who had to keep her infant’s fingers from pulling on the IV cords dangling out of her chest. It is I who, with pregnancy hormone still raging, must undergo a rapid-fire, two-week, onco-fertility program should I desire to meet any more of my babies.
At one of my fluid infusions later on I would meet a woman, a mom of six. She carried her newborn into the sterile room with curtained dividers just like I did. A baby carrier in one arm, a yellow mask covering her face, and a shiny, waxy apple head.
God, where are you? I know, You’re here. In the plastic of the car seats and the sweat underneath our furry masks, and the clicking metal sliders attaching the curtains to the tracks in the ceiling. But why is cancer a thing? Why so much suffering?
Thirty days without Lucy, robot mode engaged. And IV happy meds that don’t make you happier, just less aware of how unhappy you are.
During my stay at University of Colorado Hospital, before we found out I was allergic to morphine, I hallucinated male entertainers on the Las Vegas Strip.
“You also tried to convince me you were a beautiful bird; you wanted me to touch your plumage.” David informed me later on.
“And did you?” I responded.
Another time I woke up with a vague memory of having shit and vomited profusely at the same time in my sleep. Must’ve been a dream. But then the night nurse Jerry asked if I had improved since my exorcism the previous evening.
And then the hours I spent weeping uncontrollably for my baby girl, calling her name in a high-pitched stupor. Sometimes even patting my lap, convinced of her presence. After a gathering of the doctors and nurses it was decided that maybe I was losing my mind, and a visit would help.
The day arrived and for an almost dead person, I cleaned up nice.
Lucy didn’t care, or didn’t recall—but I remember.
The white GAP jumper, ruffly with eyelets. Her Hershey Kiss eye balls, big and brown. I remember that softness— there you are, sweet girl. Could we take a bath when I get out of here? Just please don’t pull out my IV lines. Oh your smell, and that chunk!
Those thirty days were written on my heart with disappearing ink, not much remains. Maybe David will write a book, he slept alone each night on the sofa to my left.
“Babe, how did you not smell anything? BOTH ENDS!?”
Once I arrived home, eating and drinking—home run activities for Claire—took on a more volatile nature, because now the only two materials I could consistently keep from erupting out of me were Fritos and Sprite.
I wept watching all the new mamas walk their babies under the close Colorado sun.
Why aren’t I out there walking my baby around in our new orange B.O.B stroller? Motherhood tasted so sweet before, why can’t I keep it down now? Narcotics will probably help.
I know now that each tear of mine was one that trickled off God’s face first. Perspective has also revealed that some of those women had made the same robot pledge I did. We’re all a little wounded, a little numb—sometimes.
Lucy and I sit & suck the salty Fritos together, watching young android families patrol down the street. I barf over the side of the front porch and she smiles, because that’s what babies do.