By Jessica Wahlstrom
The morning light is beautiful in our bedroom; it casts friendly shadows of tree branches onto the white duvet cover. On her sixth birthday, my youngest daughter opened a gift—in her green robe with wet hair—on our bed. Silhouettes of sycamore branches, bare and still, rested on her back as the sun shone through the panes of the sash window.
She actually cupped her hands around her mouth when she saw the dress wrapped in tissue paper and gasped with the delight she so easily accesses. Impulsively, the night before, I had bought the dress, with silver tulle and a glittery sash, for her to wear to a surprise tea party. I snapped a photo of her in the morning light, smiling at the open box, birthday crown atop the tangled hair that she refuses to cut. I watched the way she let her hair tickle her back, head up and gently turning side to side, and I saw what she felt in that moment.
My youngest daughter leaves glitter in strange places. There is always some stuck to her scalp and in her sheets. My husband and I joke that she generates and secretes it from within. I went into the backseat of the car to get a bag of groceries one afternoon and laughed. The seat fabric behind her booster chair was shimmering. I nearly gave birth to her in our car. She came quickly. I was fully dilated when I arrived at the hospital and I apologized to the midwife for waiting too long to leave home as they pushed my bed from triage to a delivery room.
When we reached the room, I instinctively turned and grabbed the back of the bed, squatting and bearing down. I heard a deep inhalation from a nurse when my daughter was born and turned around in time to see the midwife removing what looked like a veil from her face. Early the next morning, one of the nurses touched her tiny feet when she came in to check on us. I was told in the woman’s hushed voice that caulbearers—like my daughter—are prophets, healers, bringers of good fortune. I smiled politely as the nurse left the room. In the almost quiet, I lay there—eyes closed, baby on my chest—amused by the thought of sharing the story about the nurse with my daughter one day, when we were older.
On her third birthday, my daughter pointed to my tumor. I hadn’t yet felt it with my fingers. It had gone undetected by a doctor weeks earlier. I was assured that nothing was wrong. I knew that wasn’t right. My daughter pointed to a red spot where my skin was irritated from a sports bra as I changed and asked what was there. I felt my stomach drop as she turned and ran off to play. I waited until the next morning to touch my left breast. Next to the area she’d pointed to, I felt the lump. It was hard, as they say, like a tiny marble.
They cut the mass from my body on the Winter Solstice. My husband and I emerged from the same hospital where our youngest daughter was born into the dark, cold, bustle of the West Side. Cruelly, I had to walk by the sign for the obstetrics department to get to the breast center. I didn’t want my daughter’s birth and my cancer to share a space; we had to find another hospital for treatment. I could not push the same worn button in the elevator to chemo that my husband did the night she was born, while I leaned against the wall, trying to catch my breath between the waves.
A few days after my tumor was removed, I overheard my daughter telling her older sister that she was the one who found Mommy’s lump. My stomach dropped again. That afternoon, as she sat with a puzzle on the worn, wood floor of our living room, I quietly told her that it was not her responsibility to find—or look for—anything.
I’ve made variations of that point many times since. I want to free her from the notion that she caught something, that she has the power to catch other things. I still wince when I imagine her little shoulders carrying the weight of vigilance. It breaks my heart to think that at such a young age she already bears some of my burdens.
Despite my pain and the stitches and the bandages in the weeks after the operation, my daughter didn’t shy away from the space that once held the tumor. She put her head on my chest, gently, and I remember feeling acutely conscious of the fact that she was the only one—including me—not avoiding that part of my body. At first I was uncomfortable; I didn’t want her near the place where the dangerous cells proliferated inside of me, but she was unafraid and I followed her lead as she leaned into the dark.
As I started to heal—from the surgery, the chemo, the radiation, the therapies, the gutting—she would sometimes cup her tiny, warm hand loosely over the scar and hold it there as she sat in my lap. I could feel my heart beating, not through, but around the space. Little shots of warmth would sneak into the numbness of my chest.
During my treatment, and in the months after, my daughters watched me closely. When I was tired, I felt their eyes on my face. I had a stomach virus at one point and the little one ran into my room past my husband, who was trying to get them out the door to school, to ask me (in a barely audible whisper) if my cancer had returned. I make a point to tell them about long runs, heavy things that I lift, and uneventful appointments. I reassure them that others are watching and caring for me.
The fear remains, but we’ve grown more accustomed to, and no longer as captivated by, its presence. My girls seem less on guard now, a reflection of their growing confidence in my viability.
At one point, I was afraid that I would be dead before my youngest daughter turned six. I watched her blow out the candles at her sixth birthday party as she sat in my father’s lap and I silently cried. Only my husband and sister noticed. At times they see inside to the light and sadness that I now generate from within—somehow and always at the same time—in balanced force. My sister’s eyes stayed on me as I sat on a wooden chair in the little tea shop on a December morning; her gaze steadied my breathing through the waves.
My daughter looked over at me and smiled easily, entirely. In that moment I think that she saw what I felt. I cannot live forever—no one can—but I had the good fortune to be here for six of hers. I was there when my daughter bounced on our bed earlier that morning in the sun, glitter swirling around her and resting as bits settled into the places where the sun doesn’t reach.
Jessica Wahlstrom has worked with a number of non-profit and global health agencies. She writes and works in New York. Jessica just watched her youngest blow out the candles on her eighth birthday cake.
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