My Brother's Childhood Cancer Affects How I Parent


Right now, my daughter should be in PE class, maybe counting down the last 45 minutes before the final bell rings, releasing her of all academic responsibility until Monday morning.

Instead, she’s on the couch. “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” reruns are cycling on the TV, but her eyes are unfocused. Her cheeks are fever-flushed, and her head hangs over a basin that’s been prepared for the next inevitable round of vomit.

Logically, I know she’s fine. This is the stomach flu we’ve managed to avoid for the past five years, the one that’s had six kids in her kindergarten class absent over the past week. But I can’t shake the feeling that it could be the result of something more sinister hiding inside the lanky body that seems to stretch taller with each passing day.

My parents told themselves the same things I do to quiet my own fears. A series of low-grade fevers was an unfortunate series of colds; aches in wrist and ankle joints were just growing pains, and unexplained bruises were the result of a 7-year-old boy’s exuberance.

Except they weren’t. They were cancerleukemia multiplying in my little brother’s blood cells and bone marrow. A mutation nobody could have seen coming or prevented. Even doing everything right wasn’t enough.

I’ve walked the loop of our tiny house more times than I can count, feet wearing familiar grooves into hardwood floors. Stopping with each lap, I check her forehead, ask her how she feels and inquire if there is anything I can do, only to repeat the cycle again in five minutes.

In the kitchen, I try to busy myself with a load of dishes but instead find myself peeking around the corner for the assurance that she is OK. The chicken for dinner sits still frozen on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.

Last night was no better. The monotony of my panic rose in unforgiving crests that had me laying my hand across her breastbone to feel the rise and fall of healthy lungs through the fleece of her new Star Wars pajamas. My husband begged me to let her sleep.

“Babe, let her rest. It’s what her body really needs to heal.”

While I knew he was right, the compulsion remained. I bit all my nails down to the quick and spent the early morning hours calculating the passage of time by the timbre of her breathing. The throb of my own rapid pulse quickened with each catch and hitch. I did not sleep.

In the 10 years my brother spent undergoing treatment after treatment, clinical trials, chemotherapies with names I still can’t pronounce and radiation so fierce it left him limp in a hospital bed for months, I saw things I cannot unsee. By the time he finally received the bone marrow transplant that saved his life I’d learned things I can’t unlearn. His cancer colors my every day.

In those panicked moments when my daughter is sick, it’s not really the present me, the rational me, the me who has done this routine many times in the past nearly six years. It’s the 14-year-old me, sitting alone in a hospital hallway, not knowing if the brother on the other side of this closed door has a still-beating heart.

It’s the 21-year-old me squatting down on the side of the road outside of Yuma, sobbing as my mother calls to tell me his cancer is back. It’s the 23-year-old me looking down at my newborn daughter wondering what I won’t be strong enough or smart enough or diligent enough to protect her from.

I don’t much remember losing my own baby teeth, but I do remember my mother begging my brother not to wiggle his, the fear being that prematurely forcing his teeth to loosen would cause his gums to bleed. Without enough platelets to clot his blood, he could end up in the hospital for a transfusion.

Three months ago my daughter’s two bottom-middle teeth started a tell-tale jiggle. She would push against them with her tongue and delight at the smallest shift. “Look, Mama!” she’d shout while showing me their movement between a set of smile-stretched lips.

I cringed each time and stopped myself from asking her to leave them be until they fell out on their own. My husband teased her with all the traditional dad jokes. He offered to tie her tooth to the back of our Jeep and drive away or affix it to a doorknob and slam the door closed to hurry the process.

She declined each offer, instead taking to walking around with her fingers perpetually twisting her teeth until one day, during dance class, one finally fell out. She brought it to me to put in my pocket for safekeeping. There was no uncontrollable bleeding, just a gap where the baby tooth had been and so much excitement waking to a fairy-dusted $5 bill under her pillow.

I can’t live outside the shadow my past casts, but I can enjoy the shade by recognizing the gift of a fever that passes in 48 hours without the need to rush to an emergency room and the limited amount of puke I’ve had to clean in my five years of motherhood.

Someday, I will long for the season of loose teeth, for a proximity that allows me to reach over to and cup her forehead to check for an elevated temperature at my every whim. Perhaps, I will even chide myself for decades of overreaction.

But for now, I’m cutting myself some slack when I find I’m hovering over her, appreciating the perfect bow of her lips and the fan of her eyelashes as she dreams and I check to make sure she is still breathing.

This story originally appeared on Mother.ly.

Getty image by Sasiistock.


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