Notes & Essays

How This Mother's Dreams Changed As Her Child Battles Cancer

How do you tell your child, who does not know how she holds your heart in her hand, that she has this most terrible of illnesses?
ILLUSTRATOR Warren Espejo
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Thrice in the past week, my teenage daughter Raissa said to me, "It's Mother's Day on May 10."

I was puzzled why she mentioned it. First of all, it's not like we could make a reservation at a restaurant in these uncertain times, and second, I'm the Mom in this household.

But Mother's Day to us isn't all about flowers and celebrations.

There was one year when God seemed to have forgotten me on that one day of the year when mothers are unabashedly honored. It came three Mother's Days before this weekend's red-roses occasion, and three days after we received the biopsy results that changed our lives forever.

How do you tell your child, who does not know how she holds your heart in her hand, that she has this most terrible of illnesses?

You don't. You tell her, "the doctors saw some irregular cells."

She didn't appreciate that. When we finally came clean and used the "c" word, she said, "I KNEW it!" with a look of almost smug disapproval that would have been quite apt for a young teenager, except that we were talking about an opponent that overwhelmed people five times her age.

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She told me never to lie to her again.

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And so I didn't.

Not even on the day when we received the report that said metastasis, and she was eager to welcome us home because she had just received her very first First-Honor-level report card from high school—after two years of frustration—and couldn't wait to show us.

She welcomed us home with dinner and dessert she'd made, and a stellar report card she'd earned, while we came home with very bad news.

It could not wait. The oncologist felt that since it was only one nodule, there was the chance to get it out before it made others, and there was no time to waste.

So we told her.

And she was devastated.

But later on, she said she appreciated that we hadn't lied to her.

Raissa's Battle

She was only 13 when she was diagnosed, and although she was still a little girl in many ways, she was not naive about the diagnosis. She knew fully well what she was facing.

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Seeing me crying one evening, she told me, "Mom, if I don't win this battle, I will be with Jesus...what's so bad about that?"

What's so bad about that? It would mean that she wouldn't be with US. With ME. She *should* be with ME. She is MY daughter.

And that's when I realized: before she "became" my daughter, she was His.

She always was. From the moment everything aligned and she started her journey, her cells formed in a way that He planned as His great hands molded her, formed her...and now, with the most devastating of diagnoses, guided her.

Yes, guided her.

It's a rare child who would feel joy at being told by a parent, "No, don't do that...do this, instead..." "Go this way, not that..."

Studies have shown, though, that it is loving discipline and guidance that makes children feel secure (and, I suspect, valued and loved), even if they don't know it for several decades.

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So He did—and is doing—with her. Even if I don't know why, won't know for several decades, perhaps will never know.

To many who have emerged to tell the proverbial tale, cancer was just an unfortunate chapter, and then they get to go back to their old lives.

Others carry wounds much deeper, such that "going back to the old life" just isn't possible.

And then there are those who recognize, in the midst of the battle, the Voice of the Great Teacher. For even when the fearsome opponent is mightiest, the Great Teacher never leaves the battlefield, is never beyond an arm's length away from the frightened warrior.

Sometimes, when one's eyes lock on the fearsome opponent, one forgets to look away. But when one does, one will see the greatest ally was always there, side by side in the toughest battle of all. It takes great courage to listen to the Teacher, greater strength to learn His lessons, and even greater fortitude to use them.

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A Work in Progress

Which type of patient is Raissa?

She's still a work in progress, but looking back now, I see the footsteps she's made along the way.

In the beginning, I was too numb to do much more than get the schedules in order, bring her to this hospital for this scan or that test, spend the nights at the hospital with her.

We had her bone scan—an exceedingly long process—done in Makati, and my mother volunteered to take over when the waiting time ran over lunch break, so I could go to the office to finish some things.

While they were waiting for their turn, Raissa noticed that her fellow patients—all senior citizens—talked loudly about their ailments, and she whispered, "Lola? Why do they try to outdo each other with their sicknesses? Aren't they happy that their situation isn't as bad as the other person's?"

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My mother noticed that the whole time, the senior citizens were looking curiously at the 13-year old, almost on the verge of asking right out why a young girl would be having a bone scan, but not daring to.

Raissa politely kept silent while waiting for her turn. She knew why she was there, for the biopsy had told us what we hadn't wanted to hear, but the doctors wanted to see how far along things were.

And the staff—they saw, and they knew. Raissa came home not only with her bone scan results but also a little note a young man working at the nuclear medicine unit had handed her, a beautiful wish of encouragement for the young girl who had said little about herself, just waited for her turn, knowing things were not good.

Chemotherapy, especially the terrible drug called cisplatin, made her feel like her head was being squeezed until it was about to burst, but she never gave us a bad time about the weeks and months on end that she had to spend having this brutal treatment.

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Another Side of Her

Somewhere along the way, Raissa started making food for people she met on her journey, often going out of her way and spending her own money to give them these gifts she made herself. She wasn't like that before all this, not this way.

She was still quick-tempered—that's part of her nature—but there was a soft spot emerging: toward the nurses in the hospital who cared for her, toward fellow cancer warriors, toward the weak who could not speak out for themselves.

There is even a side of her I don't recognize, a side that emerged when she told me after accidentally been hit, "I feel sorry for the guy who knocked me down, Mom. He felt so bad. Mom, I hope people don't bash him. Please don't be angry anymore."

Confession time: it unnerves me when she speaks in that preternaturally good-hearted way, because the preternaturally good often get called Home preternaturally early.

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But then, when her bandages were being changed, my little former athlete now in crutches after multiple surgeries—she used to be a competitive archer and gymnast—howled with pain and said, "Argh! WHY did he have to bump me?!", and I felt better (St. Maria Goretti she is not...). And then days after that, when a priest who is a family friend asked if he could call to say hello, she answered the phone exclaiming, "Father, guess what! I got mowed down!" So bits and pieces of the old Raissa are still there, and maybe always will be, to help build the new one.

Pretty in Pink

When my husband and I first learned we were having a girl, after years of presuming God had given us two sons and that was it, my mind immediately went into overdrive planning all the mother-daughter activities I think a lot of expectant mothers do upon being told they may be carrying the long-awaited “mini-me.”

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I bought pink-edged cloth diapers, pastel-colored pillows, pastel-colored blankets, pretty clips and bows in all sizes, tiny dresses, everything pretty and dainty.

I looked forward to welcoming my mini-me, basking in the happiness of planning all the fun we would have together: taking her to ballet classes, baking together, chatting together, dressing like “twins."

I decided, she would take the best of me and make it even better. She would scale heights I could only dream of, and wave lovingly at me from the top of the mountain, as if to say, “Mom…this is for you!”

And then Raissa was born.

From the time she learned how to say no, she said no, and meant it.

She hated fussy dresses, preferring T-shirt and jeans, and as for ballet, after lesson #3, she begged to quit because what she really wanted was to be upside-down, or fly through the air high above everybody, that is, gymnastics, not ballet.

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She liked stuffed animals, but not dolls, which I'd been collecting for years.

From the beginning, it was clear she was her own person, not my “mini-me.”

And then she turned 13, and I found out He had plans for her quite different from my own.

Since she got ill, I kind of instinctively pushed myself into the background. I don't know if it was wrong, but it was no longer about me, or the rest of our family. it became all about her.

Later she told me she didn't like that. She didn't like that we adjusted our plans and dreams to accommodate hers.

But we can't help it, we still do.

I had dreams of us watching musicals and ballets together, not sitting together in a hospital room watching with dread as the black-covered bottle containing the poisonous chemotherapy drug is hoisted over her head.

And yes, I admit there are times, seeing her mangled body, noticing how all her friends are growing up and enjoying life, while she is practically tied to a hospital bed, when I question Him, why He allows this, when this is no way to live.

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This illness, this cross, has turned inside-out everything I ever thought being a mom would be. Especially a mom to a daughter.

All my preconceived notions were thrown out the window. And I felt like I was destroyed, down on the ground, with everything I had ever thought would be so cruelly disproven. It was like all my life I'd been dreaming of a fairy tale, pretty, but still fiction.

Nowadays, when I attend reunions where people talk about their beautiful, healthy daughters in glowing terms: their awesome achievements, their high-flying lifestyles, for life is brightest and prettiest for young girls, I say...nothing. There's nothing to say.

It's so difficult to love with all your heart someone whose future changes backdrops without warning. One day she's ok, then the next day something else comes up. It's painful to love someone you know could even leave anytime, without warning.

And yet I do.

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I love her even more than I did the amusing youngster, in spite of the fact that doing so could break my heart, if He calls her home before He does me.

But at one point you just have to trust that He knows what He's doing, and that it's good.

Even if from where you stand it doesn't exactly look appealing, and you don't understand it

More than being my daughter, she is His.

 

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Maloy Gan
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