“Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, How are you?” the maintenance worker in the hallway talked so fast, his words just jumbled together. Before I could respond he was gone. That is a good thing, because I’d been tempted to snap back, “How do you think I am? I’m in a children’s hospital ward on Christmas Day.”
“How are you?” It is an innocuous question on a normal day. The bag boy asks it while he fills our trunk with grocery bags. The postal clerk when we buy stamps. No one expects the other person to answer anything other than “Fine.” And if they actually respond with anything else, such as “Well, my knee is giving me some trouble,” or “I’m having a hard time with my teenager,” or perhaps, “Not so good,” we wonder why they have the audacity to share their troubles with a virtual stranger.
After David’s cancer diagnosis, it was that simple question from a drive-through bank clerk. “How are you doing?” she asked when I reached my hand out the car window to make a deposit. She knew David because her mother lived in the nursing home where he worked. She always had a special cheery greeting for him when we cashed his checks together. This time I was alone.
“How are you?” she asked, and I couldn’t speak past the sudden lump that had formed in my throat. I just shook my head, tears filling my eyes. When I quickly drove away, I could barely see through the wellspring of tears that began coursing down my cheeks.
Three times now I have walked out of a doctor’s office with someone close to me who has been definitively diagnosed with cancer. Four years ago, with David, the diagnosis didn’t seem real until I told our oldest son, Dan. With my 82-year-old mother this past August, it seemed all too real. Last week with my grandson, only the reflection of terror and sadness in my daughter’s eyes as she held Jacob close gave this nightmare credence.
I have gone to the grocery store only once since this news, and I’m not exactly sure what I bought. I stopped once at my sister’s consignment store to look for soft sweatpants or a nice gift for Jacob and I found myself hiding behind the boy’s rack until Louise, who works there, spotted me and came and gave me a hug. I have walked the hallways of the Ronald McDonald House and shared a meal with other residents of the house, knowing full well that they were going through something similar with their own child or grandchild. I never once asked them, “How are you?” because I already knew the answer. I have sat in an ICU room with my daughter while Jacob lay sedated and have seen a troop of doctors file in and cheerfully greet her with “How are you?” Do they really want to know? Once my daughter laughed at the irony and replied, “Not too good,” but otherwise she politely murmured “Fine,” followed by “I guess.” If they are at all observant, I am sure they could see her body language and eyes said otherwise.
Yesterday I avoided a family Christmas gathering and went to Iowa City to be by my daughter’s side instead. I did the required Christmas Eve celebration with my other children, which was actually quite enjoyable, considering. On Christmas morning I watched them open their gifts and even enjoyed that. But by noon I was eager to see Beth and Jacob. I remember well how lonely it can get in the hospital in the evenings. Jacob was doing so much better last night. This morning he couldn’t stop smiling. I got to watch him walk to the playroom twice and see his fascination with a puzzle-type contraption on the wall that included gears and gadgets and bright yellow balls he could control with careful manipulation. I felt a pang of sadness when his hospital gown opened a little in back and I saw the bones protruding from his shoulders. He is already so small and so thin. How will chemotherapy affect him?
I could see Beth was having a difficult time today. She has been there in the hospital with Jacob since last Monday, mostly alone. She is eating whatever other people bring her, leftovers of Jacob’s and the expensive and greasy cafeteria fare that passes for food. Her sleep is broken and uncomfortable. While she certainly appreciates that Jacob is healing so well from his surgery, she can’t help but worry about tomorrow. Not tomorrow-tomorrow, meaning Monday, but all the tomorrows ahead; the upcoming oncologist report on exactly what kind of Wilm’s tumor we are dealing with. The radiation treatments. The chemotherapy that might require hospitalization.
And yesterday morning, on Christmas Day, well-meaning friends and family greeted her on Facebook with, “Merry Christmas.” She closed her laptop and didn’t pick it up again until this afternoon.
I know something of what she felt, because I am feeling a bit of it myself. Beth’s “normal life” ended on December 16th. She is now the mother of a child with cancer, just as I became the wife of a husband with cancer, and then a daughter of a mother with cancer. And now, I am a grandmother of a grandson with cancer. We walk out of a doctor’s office after that kind of news and the whole world looks different. We wonder at the fact that the Earth is still spinning. The sun sets and rises. Mail is delivered. Bills have to be paid. Sandwiches have to be made, milk poured in glasses. Snow fills the driveway and covers the sidewalks.
Christmas still comes.
And my daughter Elizabeth realizes that her life will never be “normal” again.
And a tiny part of her begrudges the normalcy of everyone else’s life. How can she not? On the very bad days, Facebook will not be a support for her. It will be a reminder that for the majority of her friends and family, the biggest irritant in their life is a fight with a boyfriend, a bad day at work, children experiencing cabin fever or a bad cold. Not an ill child fighting a life-threatening disease.
Then there will be days that the Internet will be her lifeline; days when an encouraging e-mail from a friend or a cyber-hug will be what holds her together.
A new normal. That is what cancer patients and cancer survivors told David and me to expect in our post-cancer life. A new normal. In many ways our life has improved in the four years since David’s cancer. Our marriage is stronger, our empathy heightened. We are better, stronger people. We appreciate each other and all the little blessing in our life. My prayer is that Beth and Ben will be able to say the same thing a year from now and that our little Jacob does something absolutely amazing in his own life because of this experience, not despite it.
How are you?
Tonight, with my daughter and her son alone at the hospital and my son-in-law caring for their other two children at home, I hope their truthful answer is: O.K. I am okay.