I just want to start by saying I would never physically fight a second-grader. I know that it would be wrong on many, many levels and I’m a civilized, mature adult. A southern lady, in fact. Genteel. Graceful. Manners and polite restraint abounding. I know that “kids say the darndest things” and their particular venom of painful bluntness isn’t intentional. I could never raise a hand (or even a voice) to an eight year old. Heavens, no!
That being said, that doesn’t mean I haven’t really, really wanted to.
“My mom says you should wear a wig so she won’t have to answer questions about you having cancer.”
The words would’ve been like a bullet in normal circumstances, but my blood ran icy as my daughter whipped her head to look at me for confirmation, or an answer, or a reaction. We never used the “C Word” in our house so I wasn’t entirely sure she understood the severity or the implication of the comment but I couldn’t meet her eye line for fear of betraying my duty as a mom to shelter her from any wisp of uncertainty regarding my situation.
There are a lot of things about cancer that are not ideal. There’s the whole “you might die” bit that takes up a lot of your mental inventory. Treatment that physically takes over every bodily function imaginable. You’re literally broken down at a cellular level; navigating an uncertain future with a broken heart and a broken body. These are just some of the obvious byproducts of a serious illness. What I was most unprepared for when I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer five plus years ago was being the emotional fanny pack for everybody I loved. Just toting around other people’s fears and uncertainty. Feeling responsible for everyone’s valuable hearts and experiences around me being sick. The guilt is unbearable. Thinking of leaving parents, and spouses, and siblings, and friends. And leaving your children—my precious babies without a mom?! The mere possibility draws Herculean strength for survival.
When I was originally diagnosed, my kids were two years old and four months old. Now, five years later, they not only need their mommy to live, they need me to model how to handle the unseen monster that is wreaking havoc on their mommy’s body in a way they aren’t familiar with. When I found out I would be going on chemo again and would undoubtedly lose my long, blonde hair again, I had to consider their little hearts above my own devastation and vanity. We began talking about the medicine I would be taking and how we would have to shave my head. My beautiful, empathetic daughter cried, “I don’t want you to lose your hair, mommy.” In her shaking, tearful voice I heard how real the fear of change was for her. When you’re little, control feels like consistency and reliability. I was taking that blanket of comfort away from her. Again, the guilt we all face as moms when we have to rock their peaceful little lifeboats.
From that moment on, me going bald wasn’t about me. Not this time. I planned a head shaving party, photographer and all. I let my son use kitchen scissors to cut out my ponytail. I let them take turns running the clippers unevenly over my head. We giggled and hugged as the strands of hair and a simpler life fell to the ground. My heart ached with that drumming you always feel when you accidentally catch your kids somehow growing up in a single moment. The shift in all our souls as the outward started to reflect the sickness I harbored on the inside. Even though they don’t know to worry I might die, kids are intuitive and never more so than when it comes to their mom. They rubbed my now fuzzy scalp and their little hands lingered on the newness of a bald headed momma.
Now, that same little hand squeezed mine and brought me back out of a daydream of how good it would feel to tell a second grader exactly where her mom could shove that wig she was suggesting.
Instead, “Nah. Why would I wear a wig? I love my bald head! Wanna feel it?”
The truth was, she wasn’t wrong. Since losing my hair, I could feel every tiny human’s eyes bug out a little when they saw me. Not out of cruelty. Purely out of curiosity. Moms are supposed to have hair. Fact. Plain and simple. Kids only deal in black and white and my bald head was gray. Undefined. Uncharacteristic. Untrustworthy. I’m sure it is hard when their parents have to answer questions on my behalf. Nobody wants to introduce something scary like cancer or chronic illness to a child with no inkling of such an awful thing in their head or in their heart. I get it. I don’t want to be the catalyst for that conversation any more than you want to be the one having it.
In some ways it would be easier to wear a wig. I see people see me all day long. The double takes and split second between confusion and pity is fleeting but felt every single time. I could probably save myself a mountain of heartache if I stayed home more or rocked a head scarf sometimes, but hiding what’s hurting sends the wrong message to my very impressionable littles. It would send the wrong messages to yours, too, because there’s beauty to be had in being given the chance to love people who are hurting. There’s importance in knowing there are people out there that covet our prayers and our acceptance and our encouragement. We are out here shaping empathetic hearts, are we not? The next generation that will one day have to take care of one another?
More importantly, though, I want to be an encouragement that although we all go through hard times, there’s still smiles and joy and life to be had in tandem with our toughest battles. Most days I’m tired. Down to my roots tired. (A tired that words will never do justice.) But, we still do the things that make us happy. I help coach the cheer squad and PTO my little heart out. We plan nights out with friends and fill our social calendars with reckless abandon. We play soccer and basketball. I live my regular life with a blazingly bald head because I want my kids to know that we don’t disappear or make ourselves smaller when times get tough. We square our shoulders, lift our chins, meet people’s eyes when they stare, and smile. Even when it would be easier to ignore the tough stuff, we give it the space and the recognition it deserves. It’s true that sometimes I fake it. A false bravado that I’m A-Okay with what’s happening to me. But I would rather my kids, and yours, see me try. See me show up. See me smile despite the circumstances. Yes, cancer is awful. But, my life isn’t.
All photos used in this post are by Kristen Pender Photography and used with her permission.