I Don’t Want to Leave You

3

“We’re going to change your treatment.”

Stunned silence. Mouth open. Questions flooded my brain and fought to be the first out of my mouth. “Why?” Was all I could manage. 

“There’s a small spot on your lung. The cancer has come back.”

Back. It’s back. It’s back in my body. I have cancer. Again. Here we go. Again. 

The first time I found out I had cancer my daughter was two and a half and my son was only a newborn. Knox was only four months old then and now he is almost three and into tractors and cranes and weed eaters and Gatorades. Presley is almost five. A whole hand. Her imagination is not only active but impressive. Her affection is constant and when it’s targeted at you, hold your breath because there’s no feeling like it. I’ve made it two and a half years as the poster child for metastatic breast cancer. I’ve crushed every treatment, every scan, every obstacle. What’s a little cancer when your blessings are this impressive? My life is amazing and full and wonderfully balanced. Until she says those six words, and then it’s not. 

My grandparents lived in Illinois my whole childhood. It might as well have been another country, considering the twelve-hour car ride it took to get there. But after the hundreds of miles and the thousandth inane narration of the trip from my little brother, pulling into that two-story house in Moline was always worth it. My grandfather’s gorgeous white hair that he was so proud of. My grandmother’s miniscule kitchen that she fed us all out of. The sun porch. The creepy sewing room I was terrified to sleep in. The pond my grandfather had hand dug for the love of his life. The claw foot tub. The copies of Reader’s Digest stacked next to the toilet. The way the smell of homemade breakfast came up the stairs and running down to greet that smell meant a waterfall of whistles and a predictable “Hey, good lookin’” from the dreamiest grandpa that ever lived. It was magical. It was always magical. And when the time came for the pilgrimage home, I remember thinking, “I don’t want to leave you.” 

After four years of friendship, football, date parties, and cheap alcohol, I stood in the backyard of my best friend’s house in Tuscaloosa, confidently karaokeeing, as we prepared to say goodbye to college. I was surrounded by the people that had pushed me (repeatedly) out of my comfort zone and been there through the ugly process of figuring out who I was going to be. The ones who were there for all the bad decisions that make good dinner party fodder and the life-altering good ones that made me confident that the next chapter of my life would be the best chapter of my life. I had worshiped the town I would be leaving, but my heart ached for the next thing. We had come, we had conquered and now, we had graduated. That night I held my friends tight, swayed to the music, drank in the humid, incoming summer sky, and cried. A lot. I had never had friends like the ones in that backyard and soon we would be forced into a new normal that didn’t revolve around Corner Cokes and swap dates. Real life waited just outside that bubble of friendship that night and I remember thinking, “I don’t want to leave you.”

At twenty-four, I was a grown up. {Insert sarcastic eye roll here.} I had my very own apartment, which unfortunately meant my very own rent. Office hours. Business dinners. Dates that included conversations about marriage and babies and 401(k)s. You know, all the sexy stuff. Being a grown up meant that I was responsible for making and keeping all kinds of appointments that my parents had always orchestrated before I entered the cruel, cruel world of adulthood. It also meant that I could afford the $16.99 bottle of wine instead of the $6.99 bottle, which in turn made me as cultured and bougie as I’d ever aspired to be. I was independent. I was woman. Hear me roar. (But not too loudly because the family upstairs will complain to management.) But every Sunday, after another hard week of “adulting,” I traveled home for Sunday night dinner in Helena. My mom would cook my favorite foods. My dad would ask all the dad questions. I would smell the smells of home and relish being a “kid” again. Their kid. That house was still my home and when it came time to go back to the apartment where I was responsible for keeping the lights on, loaded down with leftovers and my heart full of what it needed most, I remember thinking, “I don’t want to leave you.”

A few years later, I met a chicken farmer. Edit: I met a hot chicken farmer. He was kind and sweet and quiet, and he let me be feisty and over-confident and loud. After years of men treating me less than, the way he looked at me made me feel wanted and worthy. The way he looked at me made me want to be the best version of myself so he would have something to be proud of. He was responsible and retired from kid-like shenanigans. I was in the awkward in-between stage of late night bar hopping but still wanting to make it to church on Sunday. Bobby was an anomaly to me. A frightening mixture of stability and fun, adventure and promise, laughter and seriousness. With only a few dates under our belt, a double wide trailer and adopting 120,000 chickens was looking like a pretty sweet deal. I knew it was love when he picked me up one morning and asked to take me for food and didn’t bat an eye when I requested McDonald’s. He was at my place early to spend time with me because they were catching his chickens that night. As he paid the $5 for my delicious sack of oily goodness, he was detailing what “catching chickens” actually meant to my novice brain, and I knew then he’d be mine forever. When he dropped me off at my apartment and I had to walk back in and spend the rest of the day without him, I remember thinking, “I don’t want to leave you.”

I remember the nurse telling me I should leave my fresh baby in this plastic tub next to my bed mere hours after I had given birth. I refrained from telling her where she could stick that opinion and chose to just let my horrified expression tell her how I felt about her recommendation. I’d waited for almost ten months to touch, hold, kiss, love, talk to, feel, explore, hug, bond with, and cry over this tiny human being, and every second I wasn’t doing those things felt like a waste that would alter the universe. I say ten months but really a momma’s heart waits her entire life to meet her baby, so for twenty-nine years I had been waiting for this moment. Forget the little plastic tub — I was going to hold my baby. I was exhausted, didn’t know what I was doing, and, quite frankly, terrified . . . but holding my baby felt right. That’s why, a few short weeks later, when the cruel reality of the end of maternity leave threatened to tear us apart, the devastation was physical. How could I be separated from you for the entirety of a work day when every cell in my body longed to be with you? When I dropped you off that morning in exceptionally capable Grandma hands, I remember thinking, “I don’t want to leave you.”

"I don't want to leave you" - a devastating thought for a mom of young kids who is facing the return of breast cancer.But of all those moments where my heart didn’t want to go, none is worse than hearing, “The cancer has come back,” and having to face the far-off possibility that this cancer may separate us permanently one day. Please know, I’m not afraid of dying. I know what’s on the other side. The other side is good and beautiful and perfect. What’s not perfect is leaving you. What’s not perfect is the hole it will leave in your perfect little hearts. I would never want to hurt you, and me leaving would be a pain I wouldn’t be here to fix. Double whammy. There’s such guilt when I think about leaving you. When I let my mind go there, my will to live becomes Herculian and I’m sure I can live forever if it means shielding you from a life without a mother. Of course I want to stay for me. I want to be there for all the big moments. I want to be there for the million tiny moments. I want to be there every time you need me. I want to be there every time you don’t know you need me. There’s so much ahead that will be a little less shiny if your mommy isn’t there.

But I’ve come to promise you, it will still be amazing. Even if I’m not there to share it with you, it will still be wonderful. Your lives are going to be extraordinary because you’re extraordinary. With or without me, there will be adventures and love and hope and memories and a life built that you will excel in and through. Hopefully I’ve loved you so well and so completely that even if I have to leave you, you will be so full of joy and possibility and anticipation at what’s ahead that you won’t let my absence darken the blindingly beautiful colors I created you to be. Let my absence be a motivator and not an excuse to enjoy every little thing. Make the big things bigger and let the small things be a celebration. Carry my love close to your hearts but not so heavy that it prevents you from living everything God has in store for you. If I have to leave you, I have to leave you knowing that I’ve wished and prayed for lives for you that are so full that my absence will be a footnote and not a headline. That you’ll remember me and smile, knowing how much I would’ve loved to be there. And when it’s amazing, remember that I told you it would be and smile. I know everything about you. All the things you’re too young right now to realize about yourselves I see played out in this incredible line and I see so clearly that it’s almost tangible how incredible you’re going to be. Always. You will always be incredible. Do you hear me? You will always be incredible.

Don’t worry. This isn’t goodbye. It never will be. I’m going to fight. I’m tough. Really, really tough. Make sure everybody tells you how tough I was. But know this, if we are ever apart, be it from cancer or for me to run to Dollar General, I want you to know that all I’m ever thinking is, “I don’t want to leave you.” 

 

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Haley is an Alabama native who swore she would never end up back in Birmingham after college but has fallen in love with her city all over again since she graduated from the University of Alabama in 2007. With a degree in Advertising and Public Relations and a double minor in Marketing and English, Haley has always had a passion for helping the companies she's worked for grow their brands and make a positive impact in their communities. Haley is currently the Marketing Director at GrandView Financial Group and also does independent marketing consulting for causes she feels passionate about like the revitalization effort projects in downtown Birmingham. Haley is the proud wife of ten years to her chicken farming husband, Bobby. They have a seven-year-old daughter, Presley, who is as wonderfully affectionate as she is athletic, and Knox, five years old, who will undoubtedly have his own Netflix comedy special one day if he doesn't decide to follow in his dad's hardworking, farmer boots one day. In December of 2016, Haley was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer which has colored her life with a beautiful appreciation that most people don't get to experience. Don't count cancer a hobby, though. Haley is into sports talk radio, always playing hostess for friends and family and capturing life's precious moments with pictures and words as often as possible.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I am sitting here with tears streaming down my face. The last three paragraphs of this article are a gift. I’m sure they were a gift for you to put your thoughts on paper. Some day- hoping and praying not for a long, long time- those words will be gifts to your cihldren. But these words are also gifts to those of who who have already lost our mothers. My mother passed away in 2006, but I swear she could have written these exact words, and it feels like a special note from her. SO thank you. Thank you for bearing your heart to the world, it is going to be a blessing for many. Praying for peace and healing for you during this new journey.

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