There’s no going back to what your life was before a cancer diagnosis. I know this. Yet I struggle at times to find my place in this “new normal.” My young daughter was diagnosed a year ago January and thankfully is now in remission and thriving. My life post-cancer is equal parts enriching and depressing. I used to love snowy days, but now a snowstorm carries with it a subtle yet palpable undercurrent of gloom, given that she was diagnosed in the wintertime. By contrast, after what my family has been through, a customary dinner out together, in our beloved hometown, feels like a privilege and an extraordinary blessing.
This week last year, 7-year-old Chloe had just completed her first round of chemotherapy in a hospital 350 miles from home, and her hair had begun to fall out. I know this was our precise experience one year ago to date because my smartphone sends me photographic reminders almost daily. “Rediscover this day,” my photo app says. Today, her hair has grown back in, but my family is still in the fallout from having been derailed by cancer.
Our daily lives look normal to any innocent bystander. My husband and I both work, and our two vibrant, vivacious kids attend school. There are two cars in our driveway, and two dogs behind our fence. My kids attend soccer practice, choir, and ski lessons, much like their peers. We watched the Super Bowl from our living room, loudly cheering on our beloved Broncos, like thousands of our fellow Coloradans. But there are some things that are blatantly, inherently not normal in the wake of our recent experiences. At times, it is difficult to reconcile our medical-infused history with just being in the normal, everyday present.
Over the holidays, a new acquaintance noticed Chloe’s cropped hairstyle, innocently asking “So, your daughter has a cute, short hairdo?” as if implying that it were a personal choice. When I casually responded with, “Actually, her hair is short because she went through cancer treatment last year,” her jaw hit the floor in utter silence.
Our dinner table and bedtime conversations often gravitate toward memories from Chloe’s five-month treatment process. Several nights ago, the four of us gathered around the computer desk late in the evening to watch a video released by our beloved hospital. It was a parody song to Disney’s “Let it Go”, cheering on the Denver Broncos. By the end, I was in tears. I suppressed, to some extent, the torrent of tenderness that wanted to wash over my being. My kids have seen me cry plenty, but I knew they wouldn’t comprehend the freakishly intense level of emotion that was stirred here.
The video, which featured a cancer patient, brought us back to the heart of the silver lining from our hospital experience. Due to the nature of my daughter’s cancer, she spent a month at a time in the hospital. My family and I were forced to embrace the round-the-clock medical environment, for the sake of our sanity and our survival. We became so comfortable with our residency at the healing temple that it practically became a second home. The positive, uplifting culture, beautiful building, and amazing staff held us up in some of our scariest moments. And now here it was, all coming back to us in our living room. Seeing the familiar faces, happily clad in Bronco’s gear, and viewing the recognizable realms of that brightly colored building had an unexpected impact. When you so intimately find a sense of belonging and peace in the heart of a cancer treatment center, it takes some time to find your footing again back out in the world.
I do not miss my daughter looking skinny, bald, and pale. I do not miss her daily Broviak (central line) care, nor do I miss her formerly immune compromised status. I did love how simple and mostly routine my days were while we lived in Denver. My life’s purpose was stripped down to surviving and supporting her through this, and I didn’t have to think about much outside of my own experience and that of my family’s.
It was a retreat of sorts, one that allowed me a break from the craziness of everyday life to focus on Chloe’s health. I have emerged from that personal respite, but revisiting the feeling of it, especially from the throes of my currently busy life, brings up a lot that I have yet to sort out and feel my way through.
I filed my taxes today. On the surface, it seemed like a perfectly ordinary occurrence. But nothing I feel anymore can be described as “surface level”. As soon as I hit the final “send” button on the tax preparation website, I started to cry. I was overcome with grief as I vividly recalled the circumstances under which I hit that very same button a year ago. It was March, during my daughter’s second round of chemotherapy. I had to force myself to switch gears from caregiver to business owner to get the task done. I remembered the stacks of work papers spread hither and thither on the floor of the Ronald McDonald House. It seemed absurd to have to recollect and compile the logistics of my business experience while my daughter was in cancer treatment. I hurried through the tedious process with a nagging, biological need to get back to the more important job of being at my daughter’s side.
In those incredibly simple yet undoubtedly challenging times, my role as her caregiver filled me and grounded me. This year at tax time, I welcomed those tears. The stark contrast of my family’s very non-normal experiences during Chloe’s second grade year has its grip on me.
Ironically, I wouldn’t trade those tears for anything. In this new normal, I have fond memories, a new sense of gratitude, a little wisdom, and at times an inner peacefulness to carry me through the awkwardness and groundlessness that comes in the wake of childhood cancer. My daughter is healthy, and my life is better for having been irrevocably touched by that amazing place we called hospital.
Our guest blogger, Stephanie Harris, is a wife, mother of two, writer, and chiropractor based out of Durango, Colorado. For more information about her daughter Chloe’s healing journey, visit her blog at: healing with courage
See the Children’s Hospital Colorado “Broncos Go!” video here.