Photography: Nancy Wiley
A couple of weeks ago, while driving back from school, my daughter asked me: “Mom, what is the Honeymoon?.” Maria Andrea was 5 years old at the time. I chose to ask her what she thought it was, to know the ground I was stepping on: “Maria Andrea, you tell me: what is a honeymoon?”
Her answer was “A trip around the world that a prince and a princess make!” Then I added: “…after they get married,” (I took advantage of pointing this out!). She was happy and satisfied with the answer. She didn’t want or need further explaining.
Something similar happened when we shared the news of my cancer diagnosis with her.
María Andrea, back then,was only 3 years old. She was aware of everything, but at the same time, she was still a baby: she still asked to be held frequently, she needed to be bathe, she wanted us to go with her on the playground games, etc.
Due to my chemotherapy treatments and radiations, as well as the surgeries I had to undergo, I knew I wouldn’t be able to be with Maria Andrea like I used to. What happened was that I stopped holding her for a long time, I couldn’t give her a bath daily, neither I had energy to play on the playground in the park. Furthermore, I stopped driving her to and picking her up from school. I was doing my greatest effort, but it wasn’t enough for her energy level and desire of attention.
My husband and I decided not to hide anything from her. But, how do you explain a 3 year old girl that her mom has breast cancer? The key was to explain it with her own words, her examples and her context. Therefore, we decided to listen to her, and she started giving us the right words, the right examples and the precise context.
Dad: -“Mom is not feeling well, María Andrea”.
María Andrea: -“Does mommy have a boo-boo?”
Dad: -“Yes! Mom has a boo-boo inside her body”. (A “boo-boo” for a child usually is a cut, scrape, wound that hurts, makes you feel bad. A “boo-boo” needs attention).
María Andrea: -“Is the doctor going to heal you?”
Mom: -“Many doctors are going to help me; I’ll have to go to the hospital often to see them and take many medications.”.
María Andrea: -“Does your boo-boo has “germs” and they go away with medicine?”
Dad: -“To a great extent, yes. They will give her medicine in the hospital. That medicine makes her feel tired and sleepy, so we will let her rest whenever she asks us to.”
María Andrea: -“Why is your hair falling off, mom?”
Mom: -“Because the medicine is getting rid off all the boo-boos and germs, and sometimes, there’s boo-boos and germs even in your hair! So, it’s better to get rid of all of it now.
María Andrea: -“But, I want to braid your hair. Style it!”
Mom: -“You can draw braids on my head; use all the colors! Draw bows on them if you’d like”.
María Andrea: -“Mom, why do you have scars in your body? Why aren’t you “complete”?
Dad: -“Because the doctors cut that boo-boo and got rid of it at once. Now there is no boo-boo in her body!”
Together, Nathan and I, looked for ways to watch how and when to explain things. We took the time to talk to her and answer her questions, every time they arose. We listened to her and she guided us on the way.
Many times, it was not rational explanations while making her part of this adventure. She was 3 years old! Many times it was frustration and crying; and more crying. We learned to recognize this forms to express fear, pain, hurt, confusion. Maria Andrea understood how hard and serious the situation was. We learned to be there for her, to walk together. We didn’t stop being firm parents, after all, during this period, we were much more loving. We tried to be empathetic, patient and understanding of her.
Another thing that helped us greatly to explain cancer, was facilitating practical, sensitive, manipulative experiences; experiences that she could touch, feel, see. Thereupon, María Andrea met my doctors in person: that way she knew who was helping me get better. Maria Andrea helped to cure little wounds: and so she knew how my body was healing and gaining strength. María Andrea helped pulling the hair of my head: consequently she understood that one day it was going to be all gone, and later come back (she took advantage to make works of art in my shiny and bold head). María Andrea helped me to pick wigs, and chose a “purple one” to add color to the mix.
Still, we were always careful that she didn’t listen, see or feel the miseries of cancer, the dark, bitter, black, negative side of it. As a family we were determined to see the good side of this trial and learn as much as we could. We were going to do it together.
Living cancer is difficult. Living it with children is even more difficult. Yes, children are a motivation to be healthy and superlive. Nonetheless, it is the greatest pain in our hearts to see them suffer for the illness of a parent. Impotence! Which parent wants his/her child to go through something like this?
I know people that says that children don’t really know what’s going on. That they forget. That is better to keep them aside, away from these sufferings. In our case in particular, we didn’t believe (we don’t believe) that is the case. These circumstances, even though completely bizarre for children, are extraordinary opportunities to unite the family, to strengthen the faith, to form bigger, more noble, more devoted hearts. I do wish, that no child would have to live with cancer, whether it is in their body or in the body of someone they love.
After three years of this event, María Andrea has forgotten many details (thanks be to God!). However, her heart was formed in a special way; in the fire was turned to gold. Even today, she continues to pray for her mom and other moms that have boo-boos. She is a true champion in all of these.