Delayed Reaction





I thought I was ok.


I really did, maybe in part because I had been so crabby / bitchy in the immediate wake of our news. My bounce was initiated by the idea of a last friendly tumor engaged in a Midwest goodbye; and it got some extra spring as I was hit by a new idea I thought might help other cancer patients - maybe this was the why behind the spot, I thought to myself, feeling the selfless purpose of a martyr. I texted a new cancer buddy vigorously and tried to stay away from the political newsfeeds on social media, which were increasingly upsetting.


And then it was time to go home - where the twins had just returned from camp, and were waiting for me.


After a lazy morning, we started to pull the cottage together for my sister’s family, who would be staying there the following week. Each step took a little longer than expected; so by the time we left, our goal was to get home in time to make dinner for the twins as well as my mother and aunts, who were in town for a bridal shower they were hosting at our place the following morning.


Unfortunately, the trip home included some additional delays; so by the time we were entering Evanston, two things became clear:

  1. We could throw together a dinner, but it would be a push to get it done before camp-weary heads would crash into plates

  2. The twins would be in no condition to hear our latest news; it would have to wait until the next day

Had I been able to recognize this as my root of my anxiety, we may have been able to have a nice evening.


Instead, we walked into a home that had been taken over by three Handzlik women and almost as many vinaigrettes in various states of preparedness on seemingly every counter. One aunt had pulled everything out of our bookcase; another came into the cramped kitchen to ask if we had paint to touch up the nose of a plaster bust I had made in school.


“Is your family’s love language coming into homes and moving things?” whispered Per.


“Yes,” I confirmed, and reminded myself that I was usually happy about this.


I pulled dinner together amidst the shower food, now a race against the clock, while trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to keep myself from snapping at anyone who came within earshot.


Delaney gave us a quick hello, then left the scene; Jack stayed committed to his Nintendo Switch until wandering down to ask what was for dinner - which is pretty much exactly how you want to be greeted by your children whom you haven’t seen in a week and a half.


The first twin’s head crashed two-thirds of the way through dinner. I walked him upstairs while he explained to me all my maternal failings: Jack shares my tendency to blame others when he’s not feeling good himself - and after camp and a late dinner, he was exhausted.


Once the twins were in bed, it was nine o’clock and time for me to start arranging the flowers, which I had offered to do when I was feeling half a day more positive.


And onto this parched mess of suppressed tension and anxiety, someone tossed the lit match of a political debate.


Once it started, I was way too wound up to not be seriously triggered. I saw the alarm register as both Per and Nathan realized what was about to happen and tried to intervene, but I was not to be dissuaded: by damn, I had a right to come unglued in my own home, and I can assure you I took full advantage.


At some point, a much calmer Nathan took over the debate, and I shut up to process flowers. Per made a batch of Sazeracs, and everyone calmed down.


We managed to have a peaceful evening, until we got into bed a bit before 1 am, and I came unglued all over again at Per - because obviously everything that had transpired was HIS FAULT. Because had he READ MY MIND, it would have been obvious how important it was to get there early enough so that I didn’t have to wait FIVE DAYS to tell the twins what was up.


I’m not sure why exactly I expected him to read my mind; I had barely consciously understood it myself.


We told them the next day, calling them into the bedroom and letting them know what the scan showed and what we would do next. Delaney wanted to know how I felt; Jack ran to his bedroom for headphones and the playlist he used when he was feeling anxious in case I wanted to listen.


I don’t want to leave them any earlier than I have to; but in that moment I realized that they - now almost 11 and having spent the last few years growing through our family’s journey, surrounded by people who love them dearly - they would be ok.


This might be the hardest part of cancer.


I try not to think about it too much, because the weight of even the thought is unbearable.


“I can’t die - who would clip their fingernails?” I quipped in the wake of my diagnosis, and many times since then. But mostly, this is a fear I push way, way down, where it stays compartmentalized until some crack allows it to rumble to the surface with a vengeance.


In therapy this week, this is what I really want to talk about: but even still, I find myself talking about everything else until I go there, an immediate flood of tears rising as the first words spill from my lips. Even now, as I type from the seat of an airplane, I find myself weeping and snotty, trying to pull myself together with a paper napkin.


The depth of the emotion I feel is both scary and affirming: I am a mother, and a good one. I love my children, and facing my mortality provides urgent clarity on what they most need as they become tweens: a sense of safety and security as they navigate their own seismic developmental shifts in tandem with the twists and turns of everything cancer does to a family. And this demands I focus not just on my relationship with them, but with everyone who loves them, inclusive of our extended family and their father.


“What was the yelling last night?” they asked later that day, concerned.


“Oh, politics,” answered Per; and having lived in a home long enough to know what happens when Nathan and I debate, this answer settled them right down.


Now, we are on the tarmac at London Heathrow, awaiting our gate and our flight to Oslo soon to follow. We will spend the next two weeks with family, navigating jetlag, new foods, and variable expectations. Doubtless there will be moments of tension; but when it hits, I’ll try to remember that at its root is the yearning to connect with the family you love so much it’s scary.


And more than anything, I don’t want to be afraid of that.

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