Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Meaning of a Birthday

When your child is diagnosed with cancer, the future becomes a scary prospect. Look too far ahead, and you may find yourself wondering if your child will be alive. To survive, to avoid panic, you break time into small increments, day-by-day goals.

If we can just make it to Halloween. to Valentine's. to the next birthday.

I stopped thinking about things like driver's licenses, visiting colleges, marriage, children of her own. I even stopped thinking about those things for my son, because I didn't want to think but will his sister be here to see it?

Celebrating her fourth birthday with Minnie on our Make-a-Wish trip!
But children are eternal optimists. Bald, puking, sitting in the "hofpital" bed, she would say,  "Mommy, when I grow up I going to be a stay-at-home mom." or "Mommy, when I turn 7, Michael going to be 5."
She was three at the time, and seven was just about too much to hope for.  I set 6 as the magic number. If she could just make it to six. 

Fifth Birthday - Sharing Time During Preschool
Six would be not-quite 3 years from diagnosis. Three years from diagnosis is an important benchmark for AML because kids with AML usually relapse in the first or second year. Kids who achieve and maintain remission for three years from diagnosis, though, have a very low chance of relapse.

Getting ready for the Fifth Birthday Party at preschool
So I looked forward to four, hoped for five, and prayed and begged for six. But I didn't let myself look past six.

Tomorrow she turns eight. There are no longer restrictions on how far into the future I go. I imagine her babysitting in the neighborhood. Going on first dates. Visiting colleges.

I can also look back, with joy, on the time before cancer. The time when I was just the regular amount of mommy-neurotic. Eight years ago, at this very moment, I was in the hospital, trying my best to avoid pitocin and achieve a completely drug-free childbirth despite the fact that my water had broken and my "time was up" so to speak.

Sixth Birthday - Drawing a birthday cake!
After the cancer diagnosis, for a long time I could only look back and think, "Where did we go wrong?" I would try to guess the exact moment that the mutation arose in her monocyte-precursor cells. AML is thought to occur as a result of two mutations. The first mutation may even occur in utero. Was it something I ate? An organic solvent I was exposed to in vet school?

Or did that mutation occur in infancy. Something in our neighborhood? After all, our dear friend and two-doors-down neighbor in Madison was diagnosed with breast cancer at a very early age. Maybe something in the water?

And that second mutation. Had to be after we left Madison. In that town where it seemed like too many other kids were being diagnosed with AML. What if we hadn't moved there? What if we had taken my mom's advice and moved to Raleigh? Or Asheville? Or stayed in Madison?

But now, almost five years post-diagnosis, I can look back at those pre-cancer years and see them for what they were. Three beautiful, exhausting, emotional years. Three years where two parents were doing their absolute best to raise two healthy children. Two parents who were a little too obsessed with being perfect parents. Two parents who wanted to do everything right and on our own and turned down help and scolded grandparents for not being quite perfect enough.

Sixth Birthday Party in the Park
I can also look back and say whatever caused those mutations, whenever they happened, they were building blocks for this life we are living. I am not glad my daughter had cancer. I will never say, "It didn't kill her so it has made us stronger." But we have managed to create quite a life for ourselves in this post-cancer reality.

I can look back at May 11, 2005 at 8:04 am. I can picture my 8 pound 4 oz, fuzzy red-headed, chubby cheeked bundle of perfection and smile. And not wonder, "Was cancer in her body? Were we already heading down that path?"
Seventh Birthday - she's wearing the same dress as her sixth birthday!

Tomorrow we will celebrate with pancakes and birthday presents in the morning. We will make tacos and swim in the afternoon. On Sunday, Mother's Day, she and I will run a one-miler fun run, which I'll follow with a moms-only 5K.

We are creating an amazing life, and cancer just happens to be part of the back drop.