The first time my mother was diagnosed with cancer I was ten years old. I don’t remember the way she told me, but I do remember the way my entire world changed.
When you’re a little girl living alone with your mom and your mom gets cancer, you stop being a little girl. You stop watching the calendar for slumber parties and you keep track of doctor’s appointments instead; you stop trying to see who can stay up the latest and you stay up all night praying God won’t take your mom away. You look for signs everywhere and you believe every sign is a good sign because you have to. And when the doctors say the cancer is gone, you believe it’s never coming back.
We lived in Orange County then, my mom and me, and I grew up with a heart full of love song sing-alongs on the way to school in the morning and late night radio dedications on the way home from my dad’s house every other weekend. Every time Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings came on the radio, mom would turn the volume just low enough so that I could hear her own voice and she would sing to me “…so I was the one with all the glory, while you were the one with all the strength.” She always squeezed my hand when it got to the part where she sang “thank you, thank you, thank God for you,” and I would look out the window and try not to cry. I would watch the city and the people outside, wonder about their lives, and I would remind myself I needed to be strong, that my little girl smile could give people strength and my mom needed my strength most of all. We sang songs by Billy Joel, and Elton John. I know the lyrics to almost every song that played on Adult Contemporary radio in the 80’s and Neil Diamond’s Forever in Blue Jeans still makes me sing along, smile, and think a love like that is a good one to have.
When she would pick me up after chemo, we’d turn on Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, I’d turn my smile oh high, turn the volume up to match, roll the windows down, and her grown up voice would join my little girl one, and we’d sing to the world “…we’ll still have each other. Nothing’s gonna stop us, nothing’s gonna stop us now…” I never knew if that last line was true but when we sang it together, it felt that way. When you’re a child and your mother has cancer, singing together has a way of making it feel like it’s going to be okay and someday she’ll be all better and you’ll be a real grown up, or maybe even just get to be a kid again.
She let me shave her head when her hair started falling out. I asked her to make monkey faces for me; she laughed and laughed and we made monkey faces at each other until we laughed so hard neither of us could breathe. As a woman, I imagine it must have hurt her – to have her little girl shave the hair from her head and have the doctor cut her breast from her body. As a woman who aspires to be a mother, I imagine it must have broken her heart to watch me grow up so quickly; to see my childhood fears become grown up ones, to hear me stop asking about whether we could go to Disneyland for my birthday this year and start asking whether she was going to be alive. When she went into remission, I thought our love song sing-alongs had come true. When I found out just after my 13th birthday that her cancer was back, I was afraid I was going to have to be a grown up forever. And when she died two days later, in some ways I died too.
In the 18 months that followed her death, I made a swift and terrifying descent from 13 year-old Honor Student to 14 year-old drug-addict. Despite the best efforts of everyone around me, I was lost. I stayed that way for a long time.
When I read about Camp Kesem, I was immediately moved to my core by the importance of children being around counselors and kids who understand. When I was growing up, there was a week every summer when I went to sleep away camp. That stopped the year mom got sick. When I went to camp a few weeks after she died, I wasn’t like the other kids anymore. I’d gone serious and shy. I spent the moments after I woke in the morning falling apart and every minute of every afternoon trying to hold it together, trying to pretend my life was normal and I was just like the other kids. But I wasn’t. Everything had changed and the kids and counselors knew what to say to me about as much as I knew what to say to them. So most of us said nothing, except for the kids who teased me for wearing my mom’s clothes and make up. It’s true that none of the other kids were walking around camp, clumsily dressed in bras and t-shirts the size of a grown woman, a face made up in a shade reminiscent of a pumpkin, and leaving a trail of Anaïs Anaïs perfume behind them, but I didn’t know what else to do. Those kids were all going home to their moms when the week was over and I was never going to see mine again. For me, wearing the things she put on every day that made her look like her and smell like her was the closest thing I could find to having her love and not being alone. And when you’re a child, the thing you want most is to have your mother’s love and to not be alone, and maybe for love song sing-alongs to be real.
Whether the children who attend Camp Kesem will go home to a parent who is still battling cancer, or will go home and try to figure out how to be a grown up in a little kid body - for a week, they get to feel like everyone else. The fact that there is a place full of people who understand is something I truly wish I had had and something I wish I could give to every child affected by a parent with cancer.
I’d like to help as many children as possible have that experience, and I’d like it if you would help me do that. Whether you are a friend of mine, a friend of my mother’s, or just a friend of someone somewhere who maybe had to grow up a little too fast, who lost a battle a little too soon, or maybe is still fighting that battle today, I hope you’ll take a moment to share and donate to this relay and help a child have a chance to be a child for a little while, even if they have to go home to a grown up world.