Three a.m. on Day 89 and I’m sitting on the side of the Firecracker’s bed while she howls over my many reasons why we can’t turn the clock radio on high in the middle of the night. INXS is playing. “What You Need.” I turn it off. She balls her fists over her eyes, begs to go to my bed, squirms under the new Minnie Mouse sheet set and blanket we’d bought to lure her to her room to sleep in the first place. The clock radio had been part of that package. Along with one plush penguin with a flashlight tummy and a zebra-striped beanbag chair she’d pushed into her inflatable igloo in the middle of the room.
On Day 17, after my first round of adriamycin and cytoxan, I’d stuffed myself full of anti-nausea meds, curled up under my blue blanket, and found the Firecracker beside me. “I want to sleep in mama’s bed,” she said, and we held fingertips and whisper-sang her usual bedtime songs and somewhere in the middle of “When the Red, Red, Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along” I drifted off. That’s okay, I thought. Her mom has cancer. She needs comforting. And hadn’t it been a comfort to me too, to roll over and find her softly snoring away on her dad’s pillow. She’s pretty much been there ever since because it would seem the corners of her room at night yawn wide with terrible monsters, like the one she met in the Whole Foods fish case earlier on Day 89, the red wide-eyed dead fish which sent her into a blood-curdling scream-run toward the bulk bins.
The problem is, she’s a restless sleeper unless she’s in her own bed. She’s been staggering off the school bus in the afternoons, wild-haired and half-awake, having slumped to sleep on the ten-minute ride to our front door. She’s been in a bad mood. She’s told her best friend she’s not her best friend anymore forever and ever, sparking a meltdown worthy of a call from her teacher. The problem is, an overtired Firecracker is even more fervently firecracker-like. So I turn INXS off, though the song keeps playing in my head. All night.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer and given the treatment plan back in November, the first thing I did was research. I learned what to expect on chemo, what to do to curb side-effects, what to eat, and so on, but nothing explained that while I was on chemo the kids would take over like kudzu vine through window gaps. One reason is ease. It’s so much easier from under the throw blanket on the sofa to wave a hand and let them play video games for hours on end and eat all the snack packs meant for their lunch boxes and gather every cushion and pillow in the house to make a fort and scatter uncapped markers across the wood floors and accumulate laundry. It’s so much easier to shrug off a sibling shoving match with something like, “Just ignore each other for awhile, please,” than to actually bring down the hammer of discipline.
The even bigger thing is the cancer guilt that functions in at least two ways. For one, I never want to be the reason why they can’t do something – have friends over, go to a movie, stay after school, play outside – whatever it is they often ask to do that requires a little more effort, a little more planning than playing video games and inhaling Oreos at home does. I don’t want to be the reason, or, more to the point, I don’t want cancer to be the reason. And when they want something – a shopping spree, skinny pants, a second Instagram account, another dozen stuffed penguins, a spot in mommy’s bed forever and ever – my default reaction is to think, That’s okay. Their mom has cancer.
Maybe few have written about managing the family on chemo because there aren’t any easy answers, no right or wrong under the circumstances. Maybe there’s only pushing through to the other side of treatment and reorganizing in the aftermath. And we’re almost there. Two more chemo sessions to go. Four more weeks.
I assure the Firecracker that daddy told the people at Whole Foods to take the red fish to the polar bears at the zoo. “They ate them up, and they’re gone,” I say. “The red fish aren’t coming to our house tonight.” Then I try to convince her again that she doesn’t need her radio to go back to sleep. She’s only quiet under her Minnie sheets when I tell her I’ll sing the song that was my favorite when I was her age: