(NOTE: After you read this post, a comment would be the best gift –for a wonderful cause. Please see below.)
We’re standing in the parking lot where Daniel is about to board the bus that will take him to sleep-away camp for the first time, for a month. I had urged him to have this experience; but now that the moment is here, I’m struggling not to cry.
My 10-year old son pats me gently on the back as he hugs me goodbye.
Then he stands back to look in my eyes, and says seriously, “Don’t worry, Mommy, I’ll be fine. I can take care of myself.”
By age 6 his life experience included divorce, my remarriage, and a move 500 miles away from his dad and the home where he’d lived his whole life. The day after his 7th birthday party, I found out I had cancer.
I never signed up for this….not for me, surely not for my two kids.
I wanted their lives to be perfection; and painless. Before cancer, I already hovered close to helicopter parent status, maybe to compensate for the loss of my own mom to cancer at 41. Now I was certain my kids would grow up without me; not an unreasonable presumption with a stage III diagnosis and a poor prognosis.
So I was in agony; not from cancer but from an aching heart. For a mom, no pain of your own hurts with the intensity of the pain (or even imagined pain) suffered by your children.
Daniel, the younger of my two kids, was my prince, my baby. All I wanted was to give him safety and security and sweetness. But I was helpless to protect him; even worse, I had been the cause of his exposure to life’s cruelty and uncertainty —both inadvertently and intentionally.
He didn’t complain about all these challenges; but he noticed.
One night as I tucked him into bed, he ticked off his list. ”I’m the only kid whose mom has cancer and wears a wig. No one else lives in a different city from their dad. Why isn’t life fair?”
“First world problems,” you can’t say flippantly to an 8 year old. Plus I wasn’t feeling flippant. The truth was, I was asking those same questions myself.
Slowly and surely, life settled into a new normal. Howard, my ex-husband, came to visit frequently and maintained a close relationship with our kids and with me. My hair grew back and Daniel grew up into a normal, happy, well-adjusted kid who loved normal things like football and fart jokes.
Yet those early years left their mark. Ironically, in a good way.
Daniel was the life of every party; but he was also mature, caring, gentle, instinctively the peacemaker in every group. He appreciated the simple precious gift of having parents; even one who lived far away.
No longer did he mention that life wasn’t fair; he knew he was blessed, and very lucky. And he had an extraordinary sense of perspective and compassion for those who weren’t.
I gained perspective, too. I saw that living through challenges didn’t devastate him; instead, it was the opposite. It developed his adaptability and his character; deepening qualities that were already so much part of him —sensitivity , kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity of spirit – all qualities he could and would call on when he had to face challenges in the future.
After college graduation, he planned to work while studying for the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test). He relocated to Los Angeles to be near his dad, who had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS )which he developed, like Robin Roberts, from having chemo treatment for cancer.
Soon after Daniel arrived, Howard’s condition worsened. Because their dad lived alone, and our daughter lived too far to help on a daily basis, Daniel became his dad’s main caregiver.
He didn’t sign up for this; but he took it on.
Anyone who’s been a caregiver knows that this taxes the patience and emotions of people with far more life experience than a 23- year -old fresh out of college. Instead of the carefree LA life Daniel imagined, his was consumed with long hours in doctors’ offices, monitoring medications, hiring caregivers, mediating between family and friends, being his dad’s emotional and physical support; even sleeping overnight in a chair by his dad’s hospital bed while studying for the LSAT exam. Most difficult was witnessing the daily deterioration of the dynamic person he had depended on.
As I always do, I ached for his pain. But I knew he would emerge even stronger than he was.
And he did. Honestly I don’t know how Daniel managed; but he handled it all with wisdom, kindness and grace.
24 was the year Daniel embarked on his career path, and started law school.
24 was his first year of life without a father.
Though some define his age range as emerging adulthood, 24 was the year Daniel cemented his evolution from boy to man.
Being able to see that, simply to be here to see Daniel and his sister Alli grow up, is my life’s most profound and precious gift. And they both have given me an equally precious gift, the truth that Daniel knew when he was just 10: “Don’t worry, Mommy, I’ll be fine. I can take care of myself.”
In honor of all those children who aren’t as lucky as Daniel, this post is inspired by Shot@Life, an initiative of the United Nations Foundation which helps get vaccines to kids as a cost-effective way to save lives in the world’s hardest to reach places.
A child dies every 20 seconds from a vaccine-preventable disease. We can help change this reality. During Shot@Life’s Blogust, 31 bloggers, one each day in August, are writing about moments that matter. For every comment on this post and the 30 other posts, Walgreens will donate a vaccine (up to 50,000 vaccines).
And there’s also a wider initiative: the “Get a Shot. Give a Shot.” campaign. From September 3 through October 14, when you go to Walgreens to get your flu shot, Walgreens will donate a vaccine to the Shot@Life campaign! (See pharmacy for details.) Walgreens has committed $500,000 to donate up to 3 million vaccines for those kids who need them most.
Sign up here for a daily email to quickly and easily comment and share every day during Blogust! Stay connected with Shot@Life at www.shotatlife.org, join the campaign on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.
So please Comment!! It matters. Whatever you write, however short, will save a life.