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Telling the Children About Cancer

Our First Evening Coping with Cancer

Martha Blowen, my partner in life and in work, died on August 18, 2008,  from metastasized breast cancer. The following is from collated excerpts of journals we both kept at the time.  (Before she passed away, she gave me permission to share her entries.)

The memoir is called My Eye Fell Into the Soup, after a dream in which one of her eyes fell into a cauldron. She later interpreted this to mean she was not paying attention to her health. (This is written about elsewhere.) As with most people, I suppose, the cancer diagnosis was a shock. The italicized excerpts are hers: the others, mine.

The first excerpt, “A Cancer Diagnosis”, is available here, the second, “Will We Find Cancer There, Too?” here, the third, “Coping With Chemo—Again” here. We hope to publish the e-version of the book on May 29, 2017, and the hard copy sometime in June.

7:50 PM, the same day, November 9

I have lit a fire in the wood stove, and the room is warming nicely. On other evenings, we would even say “cozy,” but nothing will make this room “cozy” tonight.

How many times have I wadded paper for the stove’s wood box and lain kindling over the paper and then small wood? On these evenings, Martha would be in the kitchen preparing supper. I would strike a match and put it to the paper. In a moment, the kindling would catch fire and turn into a blaze. Then the smaller wood would begin to burn. I would add larger pieces and, after that caught, put a log on top of the flames.

On how many evenings, seeing that I had gotten the fire blazing, would Martha fill plates for us to eat from as we watched a movie? We often had talked all day in the office about the film we had already selected for that evening and how we were looking forward to it. With our plates laden with supper, we would commence to watch.

But, not tonight.

Tonight the fire has brought the room temperature up, but nothing right now can remove the chill in our hearts.

“I can’t believe it,” Martha says. She is not in the kitchen preparing supper. She is lying on the couch, head propped with a bed pillow. “Why was I in denial? Why didn’t I think of cancer as soon as I had pain! Why did I listen to Dr. Ackerly? How could I have believed in allergy? I just didn’t think of cancer at all!”

Neither had I.

Who wanted to think of cancer?

The room is so quiet. I am sitting on the black rocking chair which I have moved next to the couch to be near to Martha. I am writing in my journal. Martha has taken the painkiller she was prescribed in the ER and is drifting in and out of sleep.

The unreality of this afternoon is stunning. Lesions on the lungs and liver! She also has pain in her groin and upper side. Are we eventually going to find cancer there, too? Her body has been screaming that the cancer has recurred, and we were not listening.

“Do we still have some illusion that this is not a metastasis?” I ask myself. But, that is unreasonable. This is a metastasis.

How could we have been so deaf?

In a moment when she had drifted out of sleep, Martha says she feels “in suspension.” Between the past and the future. Is that like feeling “numb”—which is what I feel? Absolutely traumatized. I do not want to contemplate telling our children Zoé and Maxim about this. We have agreed not to tell them until we have a visit with an oncologist and have a therapy in place.

Why the hesitation? Perhaps we need to reserve time to get to the bottom of our feelings? To be à deux about this for a little while? To postpone the pain that we know this news will cast over them?

This evening, I feel very close to Martha, feel the love I have for this woman I have made my life with, the mother of my children. She will pull through. How can she not? She made it through in 1992 and she can now.

Meanwhile, we are in for rounds of doctor visits, for mornings and afternoons spent waiting, sitting in rooms with strangers until the doctor can see us.

That is also stunning, but one day, we will go on with our lives. We have to believe that.


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