Survivor guilt’s a bitch

While driving to GR to teach, I chatted with a fellow childhood cancer momma.

I went to class and had an absolute blast. Teaching feeds my soul. My job sucks it out and teaching on Monday nights restores it. Tuesday and Wednesday I was an absolute bitch. Moody, passive aggressive, mean. I know why; I’ve been here before.

Survivor guilt.

The momma I spoke with lost her son. She walked a completely different path than mine. Hers is worse. Way worse. Everything that we did for L, she did that and more for her own son, only it didn’t work. Her path is gut-wrenching, catastrophic. Cruel. Unnatural. Wrong. Parents should not bury their children. Ever.

Yet, while we talk she is kind, funny, gracious. We laugh. A LOT. She asks about L. Always. “How old is he now, what is he into, how is he feeling?” In the moment, these comments are lovely. I am awed by her ability to think outside herself and ask about my son, when her own is forever 11. Days later, I feel ashamed. Her kindness is too much. The light is too bright and I have to look away. I feel unworthy, naked, hypocritical.

Survivor guilt is a black hole, a vortex of rage, regret, and shit. It’s shit. My inner monologue is a barrage of anger and hope; grief and light:

I hate my job. But I shouldn’t hate it because my kid survived. My kid survived. I hate my job. I am not allowed to hate it. Yes, you are. You worked for five years to earn a degree that you thought would help you get…somewhere. You’re allowed to be frustrated. You’re allowed to strive for more. Or different. Nuh uh uh. No you’re not. Your kid survived. That was a gift. Suck it up. This is as good as it gets.  

My Facebook feed is people whining about Kim Kardashian and asking for video of her kidnapping. WTH? What in the world is wrong with people? The very next post I see is someone begging for prayers because another child is dying of cancer. I see things happening and sometimes feel as if I am the only one. I look over my shoulder like, “Do you see this? Can you believe this?” Fear, anger, people hurting. Six year olds get shot at school. We’re on the verge of World War 3 in Syria and a deranged bigot is running for President. There are kids at my sons’ school in a wealthy mid-west suburb who come to school hungry. A hurricane destroyed Haiti. Again. I get angry, like shake-my-fists-at-the-sky angry. “Why aren’t people noticing? Why don’t people care?”

I want to call my friend back and shout: “Please stop. Stop being so kind. I don’t deserve it. It’s too much. Too much. Why aren’t you shaking with rage? Everything you went through and…..”

While I was home sick two weeks ago, I tore through Glennon Doyle Melton’s new book, Love Warrior. She refers to herself as a canary in a coal mine. Canaries are brought in because they can sense toxins better than humans. When the canary stops singing, it’s time to go. She stopped singing because she sensed toxins. That doesn’t make her crazy, it makes her smart.

Maybe I am a canary, too. I see and feel things that others don’t. Maybe that makes me…me. I should embrace that person, instead of feeling bad that I feel all the things. I need to pull myself out of the guilt spiral and find a place that wants to hear my song. Because really, it’s not guilt I feel. It’s shame. I am ashamed that eight years post-diagnosis and six years off-treatment, I am still…not where I thought I would be.

I am supposed to be different as a result of L’s cancer. Aren’t I? More aware. More…something. Wouldn’t that have made 2008-2010 “worth it” on some level? Aren’t I supposed to be gracious and kind and loving, like my friend who is a tireless advocate for our kids, while she also grieves? Always grieving. She has been through hell and is a better person than almost everyone I know, when she could be angry for the rest of her life and be completely right in doing so. I quickly give others the benefit of the doubt, but never afford myself that grace. I see my friend as amazing. I see myself as a failure of graciousness. I secretly fear that if the roles were reversed, I would not be nearly as kind as she. My kid survived and I wallow. What would I be like if he hadn’t?

I have no idea what my momma friend thinks. That’s not my place. I am starting to believe that my role is to share good things so she can rejoice in them. Maybe hearing about kids who do make it helps her heal. Maybe that is part of how I can give back and heal, too….Show all the good. It brings me joy when I see others happy and thriving. Why wouldn’t my son’s progress and our happiness do that for others as well? I wonder if I secretly fear my own happiness.

I should pay more attention to my friend’s generosity. And really, that of all grieving mothers. There is not a single one who has ever made me feel bad that Luke survived. Ever. They have rejoiced more than me because they know the other possibility and they don’t want anyone else to endure it. That is the mark of a warrior and a survivor.

Grief and guilt are sneaky. Around the corner is a landmine that blows you back or a memory that makes you smile. It just depends on the moment, the millisecond that it catches me. Some days I am fine. I see pictures of baldy Luke and think, “Wow that was a different life. Thank God that’s behind us.” Other times, an amazing phone call with a friend pushes me underwater.

Glennon (we’re on a first name basis because I’ve read both her books, she signed my second one, I’ve heard her speak in person, and she retweeted me a few times) also says that maybe life is just hard because it’s hard, not because we’re doing it wrong.

Maybe grief and survivor guilt survivorship are like that, too. Maybe it’s just really hard.

First Day of School, in Three Parts

2009

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.

2011

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.

2014

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.