What We Choose to Forget
“Why did you just tell her that?” my partner asked me as we finished up a conversation with another mother staying at the Ronald McDonald House and sat down to dinner. “You made it sound so much easier than it was. Did you forget about the blood in her vomit?” He was referring to my recollection of our daughter’s recent stem cell transplant.
The truth is I have forgotten a lot of the details regarding my daughter’s cancer treatment. When she was first diagnosed I was determined to journal on a consistent basis so that years later I would have a record of all the minutiae. For some reason I wanted to keep track of all the details so I could refresh my memory. Why I would want to do that is now a mystery to me. Does the exact date of diagnosis matter? It’s not like we’re going to commemorate the occasion. Should we celebrate the anniversary of the first day of chemo or the last day of radiation? What possible reason would I have to remind myself or my daughter of such a difficult period in our lives?
I sometimes feel guilty that I haven’t kept better track. In the beginning I obsessed over other mothers’ blogs, particularly ones written by women with children who had (because, inevitably, the reality seemed to be that the kids no longer had the illness, not because they had been cured but rather because they had since succumbed to the disease) the same diagnosis as my daughter. I found an odd connection to these other women who had already experienced a journey I was just now beginning . For a brief moment I even considered starting my own blog on the subject. But I quickly realized that I would find no joy in such writing and would inevitably abandon the project, most likely after writing just a few posts and feeling no sense of relief. I was amazed at these women’s ability to write down every minute detail regarding not just the treatment but also how their child was feeling on a particular day, what their thoughts were, etc. Just thinking about the amount of stamina and commitment that must have gone into this effort was enough to exhaust me.
Then, ten months into the treatment stage, I inadvertently gave the mother of a son who had recently been diagnosed with a very rare and very aggressive brain tumor the impression that my daughter had cruised through a difficult experience while she had just lamented the difficulty her own son had. He had been in bed for an entire month, she said, and lost a lot of weight. I commented that he looked great now, and she responded that it had been a month since he was released from the hospital. In our conversation she twice stated that her son’s cancer is “very aggressive.”
And then my partner listed the things I had not mentioned about our daughter’s stem cell transplant, reminding me of all the things I had forgotten. It made me wonder about the differences in my perception and memory versus his and also mine in comparison to this other mother, in a similar position as me. My daughter’s cancer is rare and aggressive but it isn’t the type that is unheard of. It’s not the special kind of rare. There is a treatment protocol in place, and there are new options. There is hope. From the beginning I was certain she would survive but allowed for the possibility she might not. It was impossible for me to ignore that, what with all the blog reading and frank conversations with her oncologists. Her father refused to accept even the remote chance that she might not make it. While I was researching and wanting to learn as much as I could, he willfully tuned out any references to research and chose to remain blissfully ignorant. In the beginning he wouldn’t have even been able to tell the odds of her surviving. To him it didn’t matter what she had to go through because it is inevitable she will persevere. But have I chosen to perceive her response to treatment in a way that confirms my belief that she will beat this? Maybe I choose to forget anything that threatens this outlook. This other mother was in a different situation. She understood the reality of her son’s condition, and she does not forget the grim details.
Still, there are so many things I wish I could forget. But one thing I cannot remember is what it is like to have a healthy child. I forget what it’s like to have only the standard parenting fears, like of my child choking, drowning, or strangling herself on window blinds. I still have those fears. It’s not like the other ones go away when one comes true. I am now hyperaware that your worst fears can come true, that it doesn’t just happen to other people. But I forget what it’s like to just have those “normal” everyday concerns and ordinary days.
I recently read a Facebook post written by a mother whose son succumbed to the same type of cancer my daughter is battling. In his final days she was frantically trying to remember everything about him- his scent, his laugh, his spirit. It horrifies me to think I could be in her position one day. I know that I would forget my daughter. No matter how hard I try to soak up experiences with her, how many photos or videos of her I capture, it’s inevitable that I would forget the reality of her. My perception would change over the days, months, years, just as it has as I recall her experiences with treatment. While I have been concerned about remembering every detail of her experiences with cancer, what I should have been focusing on was jotting down memories and quotes that reveal who she is. Like when she walks away from someone she has just chatted with, saying, “That was nice of him.” She is so much more than her cancer, and that is what I want to remember.
The other day my supervisor asked me if I have been keeping a “mother’s journal.” I’ve never heard of such a thing, but I knew what she meant. There are so many phrases and personality quirks that young kids have for just a brief period of time and then grow out of. In the moment you think they’ll last forever and you couldn’t possibly forget, but they do go away and you do forget they ever existed unless someone or something is there is to remind you. These are the things I forgot to keep track of, and my lapse now haunts me. I am terrified of forgetting my daughter.
Gretchen Dreimiller holds a master’s degree in English from Boston College. She is a former English instructor and a current part-time library assistant and library student. Her primary role now is caretaker to a toddler, who has been battling cancer with a positive attitude for more than a year.