by Zachary Rubiner
I was 3 ½ when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I can’t remember much of that time, but what I do remember will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Mostly I remember a few things that happened when my mom had surgery. My grandma stayed with us to help out. I remember once when my mom was still in the hospital and I was with my grandma and I was crying. I don’t remember why I was, but I do remember my dad coming home and reading me a bedtime story. I think that it was hard having a parent with that kind of illness and it was nice to have one parent who was functioning. With that story he calmed me down and made me feel like there was still one parent there for me. I knew that if my mom died I would still have my dad.
I also remember the donuts! Every day on the way to school my grandma would take me to a donut shop. I loved those donuts! One day in the car I asked my grandma if my mommy was going to die. She responded, “We are all working very hard so that doesn’t happen.” Looking back and knowing she survived, it feels strange asking someone if your mother’s going to die because it must have been so scary, even though I don’t remember exactly how I felt at the time.
I remember my mom telling me a story about when she picked me up from school one day. She had been talking to another parent about her surgery and her doctor. The other parent said, “Oh yeah, my dad had that doctor. He died.” I didn’t hear it but I was right there, and my mom was afraid I would hear the next time someone would say something like that. My mom sent an email to the head of the preschool, which got sent out to all the parents, asking everyone to be careful not to talk about the illness in front of me so that I wouldn’t get emotionally distressed. My dad did a similar thing at his office. The day my mother came home from the hospital was my dad’s firm picnic and I was going with him. My dad sent an email out asking that everyone be careful and try not to ask how my mom was doing so that I could go and just have fun at the picnic. Both my parents were going through hard times, like me, yet they were still my parents and they still cared about me. Even though my mom was suffering from a potentially fatal disease, she was trying to protect me, as well as herself.
Everyone in my extended family pitched in to help us. My aunt and uncle took me to San Diego for a week. My grandparents came in for spring break and took me on daytrips around my hometown so that my mom could rest from her treatment. Another aunt came in to help out during treatment, and my mom’s parents were here many times.
Years later I learned that sometimes it’s good the have a child who speaks bluntly. After my mom got better, my grandmother was diagnosed with mesothelioma, another kind of cancer. Many of my family members were afraid to talk about my grandmother being sick and whether she would die. But my mom taught me that a cancer patient never really forgets about it, and so asking questions isn’t really a reminder. That helped me learn to ask what I wanted to know, and it was usually what, deep inside, everyone else was worried about too.
Speaking as a twelve year old, I’m kind of glad for how little I remember. I think that every child of whose mom has cancer needs a family who loves that child as much as my family loves me. I couldn’t have done it without them. Even today, I often ask my mom what it felt like to have cancer. She said the cancer itself did not hurt her, and when she says that I think to myself “thank god it was the 21st century.” If we were alive 500 years ago, or maybe even only 50 years ago, she could have died. The idea that she could die was one of the scariest parts, especially since, in a way, my mom was diagnosed accidentally. Her doctor ordered a routine test to make sure nothing was wrong, but it was. Later my mom’s oncologist actually called my mom’s internist, to tell her that she had saved my mom’s life. Thank you to my mom’s internist Dr. Monica Sarang and to her oncologist Dr. Barry Rosenbloom, for saving my mom.