April 25, 2011
An answer to cancer
My mother, who for years dreamt of holding her own baby in her arms, beamed as she held me, her firstborn. My beloved late grandmother, whose diplomatic skills were on par with Muammar Gadhafi’s, took one look at me and proclaimed, “Now you have a daughter, so now you can worry.”
When we sign up to be mothers, we know that we are waiving our right to perky boobs and uninterrupted sleep. We implicitly consent to a wardrobe stained with spit-up, tantrums in the middle of Nordstrom, ear infections, backtalk, maybe a broken bone here and there, certainly broken hearts, mean girls, new-driver angst, and after all that, the heartbreak of an empty nest.
But my grandmother, who somehow overcame losing her son when his Allied jet caught fire and then plunged to the ground at the end of World War II, wasn’t referring to these generic parental concerns when she made her pronouncement. She was referring to the ultimate parental worry: that one day a mutated cell, or a disease that has a telethon, or a drunk driver, or a war, or a drug will take our child from us.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about sick kids because suddenly it seems like they are everywhere. There was news of a teenager at Chaminade High School who died suddenly from a rare cancer, and a girl at Calabasas High who died, possibly from meningitis.
My best friend from elementary school recently posted on Facebook: “Please pray for Sophie. She is having her surgery today.” Her daughter, previously a ridiculously healthy 6-year-old, was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
And then there is Kevin, who lives in Calabasas and has a type of cancer that is so rare that I can’t remember its name. I met his family briefly at a community blood drive and am kept apprised of Kevin’s medical drama (there is no other word for it) via a monthly e-mail blast his father sends to a long list of the concerned. I haven’t gotten through one without crying.
A few weeks ago, there was yet another. A Northridge boy with leukemia, who inherited his mother’s artistic talent, was selling drawings he made while in the hospital. I clicked on his Web site and there he was: bald, beautiful second-grader Nathan Lev. Nathan’s drawings were way beyond his years. The Web site included a plea to help Nathan’s electrician father find work. The combination of the recession and the time spent at his son’s bedside has made it difficult for him to earn a living. I called Ziva, Nathan’s mother, and asked if I could meet her family and share their story.
Nathan’s story began with a fever. Just a fever. After several weeks of hospitalization, numerous tests and a couple of brushes with death, it was finally confirmed that Nathan had cancer of the blood: leukemia. So this 7-year-old future helicopter pilot, who is “already married in [his] head to Salina Gomez,” is facing three-plus years of chemotherapy. A large drawer in the kitchen that once presumably held pots and pans is now a cancer bunker packed with syringes and medications.
But here’s the thing that struck me most about the Lev home. Considering that I was in a home afflicted with cancer, it felt like anything but. In fact, it felt like a home afflicted with life. Yes, an adorable tutor sent by a cancer support group was helping Nathan with his homework, and yes, Nathan has “cancer hair,” and yes, his sister carefully flushed out the PICC line that was installed in his forearm for treatments, and yes, his two older sisters dote on him beyond what would be normal. But Nathan himself is a powerhouse, a tornado of action and conversation. There was no “why me?” no “why us?” from anyone in the family.
So how does a mother cope with nearly losing a son? How does a mother cope with a future, once taken for granted, that now feels fragile?
“In the beginning, I was angry with God,” Ziva said. “But then I realized that it doesn’t help to be bitter. God doesn’t give cancer. It is man that pollutes the air and the water. It is man that needs cell phones and all sorts of electronics that emit radiation.”
“The reason that I got Nathan involved in making and selling his art,” Ziva said, “is because I wanted him to feel like he is part of the solution. It doesn’t raise a lot of money, but it makes him feel empowered. I want him to understand that he is not cancer and that cancer is not him.”
I asked Ziva how cancer has changed Nathan. “There is a major change in his personality. He is a lot brighter, smilier and appreciates things that you wouldn’t expect a 7-year-old to appreciate. He really appreciates life.”
The experience has had a similar effect on her: “I feel blessed every day. My kid is alive. I can’t ask for anything more than that. He is alive. He smiles. He is alive. He is at school. He is alive. He had a friend come over. My kid is alive.”
My grandmother turned out to be right, of course. My mother got the daughter that she always wanted, but she also got a lifetime of worry. And then I had a daughter, and then I had a son, and of course I worry now, too. But when my grandmother issued her prophecy, she should have finished the sentence: “Now you have a daughter, so you can worry. But when you are not worrying, don’t forget to rejoice, because you have a daughter and she is alive.”