Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Story About Love

Since the first night we brought Teddy and, three years later, Annabel, home from the hospital, Brian and I have tiptoed into the kids' rooms and kissed them goodnight on our way to bed. By that time, they would have been asleep for a few hours, and we would have forgiven (though not forgotten) the sitcom of a bedtime episode from earlier that evening -- the crying and the giggles, the whispering and yelling, questions and answers, requests and responses, commands and coercion. On the upside, the madness of bedtime makes the peace of a sleeping child all the more precious.

I know I'm not the only one who deals with the vortex that is young-kid bedtime and I know I'm not the only one who feels an overwhelming sense of love for my sleeping children when I finally kiss them goodnight. Alone in their crib or their bed, fast asleep in Batman pajamas or Red Sox t-shirts, and huddled among sentimental blankets and stuffed animals (and, in Teddy's case, signed baseballs, picture frames, and Brian's championship hockey ring) they look so innocent and so darn cute. I have often wanted to crawl into bed next to them and hug them all night long. Then I remember the few times I have slept in the same bed with my children and I remember that after a few kicks to my stomach, I regretted my decision to snuggle. So I don't crawl in beside them; I just kiss them, and hold their hand or rub their back and whisper to them how much I love them and how proud I am of them.

On a completely different note, have I mentioned before how much I f%*#ing hate cancer? Well, I do. Tonight I hate it because it is a terrible thief in ways that people close to it often don't even mention. For instance, it's time that I admit that cancer has stolen from me many of those kisses that I used to give Teddy and Annabel before I went to sleep. I'm not proud that I was robbed this way, but I'm ready to confess that I was.

For some context, tonight's confession was inspired by two photographs I saw earlier this week while scrolling through Facebook.

Melanie Tracy Pace / Loft3 Photography
When I saw these side-by-side photos (more linked HERE), I immediately knew that cancer was lurking in the background. I knew that the brutal disease was to blame for the feeling of loss and fear that seemed to reach out from the screen and suffocate me. And so the first few times I saw the images, I rushed past them, never clicking or reading or commenting, and trying so very hard to find a frictionless part of my brain.

There was, however, no avoiding these images. They are incredible, and they deserved to be found, and so people found them and shared them; and shared them some more. As I rushed past the images, I once again realized that I am long past the days of being able to hide in my cancer cocoon. Still, I just wanted to curl up and cry.

Last December, my New Years resolution was not a popular one among my family members. Yes, it was a bit dark, but I was serious about it then and I've been serious about it ever since. I thought back to that resolution today when I thought more about these images and about kissing my kids goodnight.

My resolution was based on this quote:

If, every day, I dare to remember that I am here on loan, that this house, this hillside, these minutes are all leased to me, not given, I will never despair. Despair is for those who expect to live forever. I no longer do.
~ Erica Jong, writer

Almost one year and 166 published blog posts ago, I wrote:

This year, I will dare to remember that I am here on loan, that this house, this hillside, are leased to me. This year, I will not expect to live forever and I'll try to feel less despair in the fact that I won't. I'll try to remember that my minutes are only temporary so I better put them to good use.

In some ways, I've done OK on my resolution, even perhaps, in the "A" range. But in other ways, I'm hovering around a D+. Kissing the kids goodnight is one such place.

Many times this past year, I have purposely passed by my kids' rooms at night. I've neglected to give them one last kiss because I couldn't bear the indescribably awful feeling I'd get in my heart and in my stomach when my overwhelming love for them morphed into cancer fear. So I skipped the trip altogether. Less love, less pain. That was essentially my split-second rationalization.

*  *  *

This morning, as I waited on the train platform, I once again bumped into the photos. I almost lost it then and there. Why were these images so powerful? How could a simple glance at them -- a bride, a groom, a child, a father -- crush me so? I didn't end up crying amidst the Orange Line crowd (there's enough weird stuff going on there). I did, however, decide that I was so upset I may as well click into the link to confirm what I knew was true -- that stupid f$*&ing cancer left this little girl without her mother and this husband without his wife.

The first line told me. Cancer. 31. F*$%. I couldn't read any more. 

I boarded the train in a daze. From Back Bay to State Street, I stood sandwiched between a businessman and a guy who smelled like pot. I don't remember hearing any sounds; I was deep in thought about what I needed to write down about what I had seen and what I was feeling.

By the time I arrived at my office, I had a whole blog planned -- mostly about how hard it is to stay positive when there's such tragedy all around. I planned to write about stubbornness and about how everybody shows up to work or to school or to their own front hallway in so many different states of mind. I didn't get to write it down, but I figured I would do so on the ride home. Don't think about it until then, I told myself.

Well, we all know how "Just don't think about it," goes for me -- it doesn't. I couldn't stop thinking about the family and a few hours later, I found myself back at the images. I needed to know more.

I clicked back into the article and this time, I read beyond the first line. OK, maybe I only had the guts to skim, but still, I skimmed, and once I reached this part, I stopped and read it and reread it.

When he wrote about the experience, Ben said, “Many people have asked me how I felt while doing that photo session. What I want them to know is that this isn’t a story about grief and loss and hurt. Yes, I’ve gone through those emotions and still do but that’s not what I want people to see in these photos. This is a story about love.”

And that's when I arrived back to the nights since my diagnosis that I haven't been able to kiss my sleeping kids goodnight; those nights when I've been so in love with them that I couldn't even stand beside their beds and look at them. I tried to rationalize that it wasn't a big deal, me not going in there; that Brian still went in, that the kids were asleep anyways. But every night that I decided to pass by their open doors and white noise, I knew that cancer had taken something from me.

The photos, as awesome as they are, haven't lead me to any great epiphany. Strength and courage and progress are rarely, if ever, made in any one huge leap. But I do think that the last sentence of that passage taught me something that I needed to know, or at least, to be reminded of.

These photos reminded me that love can be bright and happy and clean, like a bride and groom, or a new house, or a baby girl. Love can also be so strong that it has no other place to go except into a fear that one day, it all could end.

This is where Ben's message becomes so powerful. Obviously his wife can't stand there in the family photo or kiss her daughter goodnight. Cancer destroyed all that. But cancer didn't destroy the love that Ben and his daughter have for their mother. Cancer didn't destroy their strength to stand where she stood and do the things that she did. In fact, cancer only strengthened those things.

Don't get me wrong, I am most certainly not thanking cancer for anything or giving it any credit it does not deserve. And I would never argue that people should (or could) welcome or embrace grief as a comfortable form of love. I just happen to really like Ben's simple message -- that he has experienced grief and loss and hurt, but nevertheless, these photos are a story about love. Ben reminds me of my resolution -- of the reality that I won't always be able to kiss my kids goodnight, and I don't mean because cancer will permanently rob me of that. Rather, my kids will grow up. My time to adore them as my little ones is limited, not necessarily by my cancer, but rather, by the lease that is life.

I admit, it's really (really) hard to see these images, just like since August of 2012, it's been really hard to kiss my sleeping kids goodnight. Thanks, however, to the strength of people like Ben, I'll try my best to take back part of what has been stolen from me; to remember that the frightful feeling of potential loss is born by the reality that I have been blessed with an awesome role in a very precious story about love. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Tara. For your words that remind me I'm not alone in this duality that is life after cancer-- deep love and deep angst rolled into one at times. And for the Erica Jong quote. Seems as though it should not be comforting, but it is. Wishing you and your family a peaceful Christmas season and year rich with blessings. xo Jean