Six years ago, I heard three of the worst words that a mom can hear about her child: “It’s a tumor.” In spite of the fact that my happy, healthy, energetic five-year-old child had been having headaches, the news still hit me like a wrecking ball.
Joey received cancer treatment for about eleven months before he died at age six. Throughout that year, other moms would say to me, “I could never do what you’re doing.”
Unbeknownst to them, I didn’t have some secret plan or method for navigating my son’s last days or for appearing like a rock. I just did it. I cared for my son because I am his mom.
And any one of you would – and could – do the same.
Here’s how I did it:
- I cried in private when I needed to so I could hold it together in public when I had to. Whether it was sitting in my car a little longer after an errand or taking a really long time in the bathroom, I let the tears come at times so other times I wouldn’t have to spend any.
- I accepted help. As a mom who once schlepped three babies under the age of two all over Long Island by herself, I was pretty good about not asking for help very often. But as neighbors and community members brought meals, offered to babysit our other children, and even folded our laundry, I learned to say, “Yes, that would be helpful,” a lot more often.
- I reached out to friends. As negative and banal as social media can be, it can also be mobilizing and uplifting. If it was late at night or I was by myself at the hospital, I would post something on Facebook and receive words of love and support almost instantly.
- I found an outlet. I have always loved to write and kept a journal most of my life. I knew I had to get all the thoughts out of my head before I imploded, so I started an online journal. It was also the perfect way to keep everyone informed without having to repeat the same painful details over and over.
- I kept up with self-care. I still exercised, slept, had lunch with friends, and had occasional spa days. I knew Joey was in good hands while I was away, and I returned to care for him after refreshing, much-needed breaks.
- I medicated. When my nurse sister-in-law suggested I start taking an antidepressant, I resisted. I thought I could handle everything just fine; until I started to take my sadness and anger out on my family. Popping a prescribed pill helped me through many difficult situations during that year, and I feel no shame in admitting that.
- I visualized. We knew the end outcome of Joey’s cancer was death. Over and over I pictured in my mind what it would look like, what it would feel like, and I how I would handle it when it finally happened. And when it did? While tragic, it wasn’t as horrific as I imagined it would be.
- I made memories. With so many little boys under a certain age in my house, family pictures didn’t get taken, videos didn’t get shot, and baby books were left empty. But I realize now, those aren’t really the things that matter in the end. I spent as much time with Joey as I could, reading his favorite stories over and over and listening to him talk in his stuffed cat’s voice. I took mental snapshots of his big beautiful block feet and his long, light curly eyelashes that were miraculously spared from the chemo treatments. Those are the things that I can now recall at any time I need them.
- I “Momed.” Frankly, I was always amazed that other moms told me they could never do what I was doing. I would look at them and say, “Yes, you could because you love your child just as I love mine.” There were such tough times for Joey – like the first few nights in the hospital or the day he got fitted for his radiation mask – that I had to step up and MOM. I had to put my sadness and fear aside and comfort my child. Because I love him.
Just as you love your children. Any tough thing that comes their way, you will be there no matter how hard it is because you will summon that inner badass that lies within us all.