A few weeks ago, I was profoundly honored to be a member of the final cast of Listen To Your Mother, a storytelling on stage series Chicago has joined in with for the last six years. This was my second time on the LTYM stage, and it was as humbling and beautiful as my first.
The people I have met through the LTYM community are remarkable writers, performers, and human beings, and I am profoundly grateful to call them my friends. I am constantly astounded by their compassion, their insightfulness, and their grace. Not only my cast-mates, but people I have met through other performances of LTYM have become the closest of friends to me, and to my family. The experience of participating in LTYM isn't merely the meeting of creative minds, or of finding a kindred mothering spirit.
Listen To Your Mother is an event that draws people of a specific emotional depth, and humor, and bravery. It is a community that generates care and affection and meaningful relationships like nothing I've ever known. That LTYM must come to an end as an organization may have been inevitable, but the relationships it created are forever.
This year, the volume of stories in the LTYM was staggering. Dozens of cities, each with a dozen or more performers, meant that the task of filming and editing each individual story for youtube was nearly insurmountable. So, I'm sorry to say, I don't have video of my performance to share with you. However, this is the text of my performance.
I hope you enjoy it. I hope, despite the dissolution of so much of Listen To Your Mother, you find a community as strong and beautiful. And I hope you all find a stage from which to tell your story, as well.
There truly is nothing like it.
“I can’t do my homework. I have a headache.”
What I wanted to say to my seven year old was, “This is the world’s tiniest violin, playing a sad song just for you.”
Or, “Maybe we should amputate.”
Or, “If that doesn’t get me out of kinky sex stuff I promise your father, it’s not getting you out of arithmetic.”
Instead, I smiled. “Where does it hurt?”
She slowly raised her hand, fingers dancing in the air, choosing the right spot.
“Here,” she said, finally, a finger on the top of her head, her voice grim.
When it comes to headaches I’ve had ‘em all— migraines, cluster, sinus, TMJ, vertigo, concussion… I get them when all three of my kids stampede upstairs ten times an hour, one screaming, “I’M SORRY I’M SORRY I’M SORRY DON’T TELL MOMMY!”
She did NOT have a headache. She didn’t know I knew, and until she knew I knew she knew she DIDN’T have a headache, I’d play along.
“Smile as big as you can, like this,” I said. “Now squish your face up small, like this.”
She tried not to giggle.
“Close your eyes and touch your nose with your pointer fingers.”
She grinned as she flailed around.
“Wag your tongue, like this.”
She laughed so hard she drooled, and I nodded gravely.
“If it still hurts when you’re done with homework I’ll give you some Tylenol.”
Her half smile reminded me of her father. “I’ll try.”
This was her third “headache” in two weeks. I know because I wrote them down. I write them down because her father has brain cancer.
To the best of my knowledge, he’s never had a headache. But lots of brain cancer patients do.
The first time I asked a doctor about the possibility of a genetic predisposition, my husband and I had been engaged fifteen days, and known about the cancer for fourteen. The doctor said, “I don’t think it’s genetic.”
My husband was supposed have eighteen months. I pretended he wasn’t dying, and it worked. He didn’t. When that eighteenth month came I was pregnant with twins. I asked our pediatrician, “What are their odds of getting brain cancer?”
“We’ll keep an eye out for anything neurological and treat it like a red flag, but I don’t think it’s genetic.”
In July, it’ll be the ten year anniversary of my husband’s survival. For the most part, everything is as I pretended it was. We had kids, moved to the ‘burbs, got boring. We named the tumor “Fluffy,” and it behaves itself. We talk with his oncologist about life stuff. Fluffy hardly comes up. Cancer is just another thing we live with.
Then my daughter started getting “headaches.”
The idea you’re going to go through diseases with your spouse is terrifying, but expected. “In sickness AND health,” you say, not “or.”
Caring for your child is supposed to be easier. I don’t mean parenting’s easy— it’s hard. It’s nonstop. You spend your whole life managing crises, readjusting expectations, molding tiny people into full sized adults who eat vegetables, and know long division, and don’t pee in public.
You make them do homework and teach them to ride a bike. You know what your role is— to be in charge of everything, every minute, forever. Your job is to love them, try not to kill them when they drive you crazy, feed them every fifteen minutes, and hope they remember your birthday.
I slap bandaids on imaginary scratches like a boss. I take temperatures in my sleep. But I can’t imagine how I’d explain to my child she has cancer.
I write, “Three headaches in two weeks. Asterisk- Probably fictional.”
Then, nothing. No headaches. No behavioral changes, no hemispheric weakness. No complaining about homework even, the only red flag in the bunch.
I watch my children with something between clinical detachment and paranoia.
Is she ignoring me, or can’t she hear?
Did she lose her shoes because she’s four, or has she been forgetful?
Why’d she stumble? Is she losing coordination?
I’ve never blamed myself for my husband’s cancer. But my kids aren’t even sick and I blame myself constantly. My maternal guilt is as deep as my love, and it cuts.
When they say, “I have a headache,” I want to gather them in my arms and weep.
I want to say I’m sorry for every moment of heartbreak. Sorry I can’t protect them. Sorry I knew before they were conceived they’d someday suffer the understanding of what looms over our family. Sorry it’s not fair.
Someday I’ll teach them to call Daddy’s tumor “Fluffy,” and pat him on the head. I’ll teach them to roll their eyes when he makes a bad pun and tell him he’s brain damaged. When they start driving I’ll teach them to say, “At least it’s not brain cancer!” if they bust a taillight.
But I know if they get it themselves, I won’t be able to pretend it’s normal.
I’ll hope they watched me pretend long enough that they can teach me, instead.
Read more about my family's life with brain cancer here: Yes, Daddy has Cancer in His Brain, Now Eat Your Dinner
Read my latest post here: Standing Up For My Family
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