When L was in treatment, I remember being viscerally angry at all of my facebook friends who were posting pictures of their smiling 4 year olds off to their first day of pre-school. L was being denied that opportunity because he was fighting for his life. It seems silly and petty now. Pre-school isn’t really school. Not really. And, my time would have been better spent sleeping, or studying, or paying attention to my marriage, or to C, who was still just a baby then. I wasn’t really mad at my friends or their kids. I was just jealous and angry at cancer and scared. So, so scared. That’s the thing with fear and grief. They take you outside yourself and make you feel unnatural things.
I wrote this post about the First Day of School. L was finally cancer-free, off-treatment, and we were dipping our toes into the “off-treatment” life. Well, now I can say dipping our toes. I think at the time it was more like a no-holds-barred-white-knuckle-squeeze-every-stinking-thing-I-can-out-of-life-roller-coaster-ride. I was so afraid that the first days of school would be stolen from us, that I probably over exaggerated their meaning, to me and to L. And certainly to C. I over exaggerated everything. At the time, it was the only way I knew how to get back to living. “This could be the only chance we get to do this. Ever. Quick! Where’s my camera?”
Looking back at that piece I wrote, I can see and smell the survivor guilt dripping from every paragraph like spilled honey. Again, fear and grief make you do funny things. I wrote that post in the living room of our house and I remember very clearly thinking about the Mommas who I would soon meet at the 2011 shave. I felt guilty. My son survived. My kid lived. My kid got to go to the first day of school. My kids would come with us to Washington, DC and my survivor would be on stage with me taking the first swipe at my curly hair.
Meeting those Mommas in person, made it worse for me personally. I feel bad saying that, but it’s true. First, I was face-to-face with women (and their kiddos) who could’ve been me. We are (still are, really) just one spot on his lungs away from relapse or one bad blood draw away from a secondary cancer. I knew that then. I know it now. I will never not know it. Second, meeting the Mommas and shaving in 2011 made me feel incredibly guilty. Like I wasn’t good enough, like I wasn’t gracious enough. That I needed to have worked harder for L’s survivorship, or that I owed all these women and their dead children something because my kid made it and theirs didn’t.
NONE of the Mommas made me feel that way. I made myself feel that way. Survivor guilt and PTSD are real. And they manifest themselves in some really effed up ways. In fact, the bereaved Mommas whom I have come to know and love are kind, compassionate, fiesty, determined, and focused advocates for ALL kids. They are genuinely GLAD for L and our family that he survived. It is what they wanted for their own children and didn’t get. No one knows why. We will never know why. That is the rub. Some kids make it. Some don’t. These women know grief and they will do almost anything to make sure that other kids and their mothers don’t also walk that path. I pray that in the face of such loss I would be so gracious. I don’t think so though.
I didn’t write about the first day of school in 2012 or 2013. I am glad for that. I think I needed to NOT write about it. I needed to just let them happen and not be heavy with so many expectations.
The boys’ first day of school was only last week. Seems like longer. Time is like that. The days are long, but weeks fly by. Last Tuesday dawned sunny and full of energy. This year was great because we were not new. We knew the school, lots of the families, and teachers. The principal knows all of us by name and stands in front of the building and greets everyone as they walk or drive up. I love our neighborhood school and feel very fortunate to live where we do. When we walked inside, I felt excitement and relief. Not relief that L got to experience another “first day of school” but relief that I didn’t feel relief. I was thrilled for my boys. I was grateful and proud. I think the number of pictures I take of an experience is inversely related to how much I enjoyed it. On vacation, I took 20 pictures max. It was one of the best weeks I had all summer. On the first day of school, I took 14 photos. That’s it. And my favorite photos aren’t the staged ones I made the boys take on the front step. My favorites are the goofy ones I took when they thought I wasn’t looking.
September is national childhood cancer awareness month. Around the world, kids and their parents are fighting like hell to get their “first day of school.” Every single one of them deserves it.