For the past several years I’ve kept a small Christmas tree reserved for the names of children who have passed away from cancer. Most of these kids died from neuroblastoma but there were some children who died from other cancers – children who became a part of my family in the halls of J-5 in Columbus, Ohio. I got to know these mothers as we wandered the halls at night, wondering how we found ourselves here, trying to figure out what to do with this beast named cancer. We’d stand in the hall in our slippers and pj’s, giving updates on how our children had fared the prior day. We’d cry, celebrate, mourn, and laugh together. We probably wouldn’t have known each other in the “normal world,” but here we were, forced together. Some of these ladies became my dearest friends.
And as some of the battles were lost, I’d watch my friends move on. Emptying their rooms of the balloons and stuffed animals and whatever comforts got their dying child through a day of treatment. We’d say we’d keep in touch. Sometimes we would. Sometimes we didn’t. But as each child was lost I’d write about it. Mostly for myself because I didn’t make a lot of sense. The anger. The heartbreak. And, yes, the guilt. I’m so grateful that my son is not only surviving, but thriving. And not that it’s a competition, but, well, I just don’t understand any of it.
I’m just now getting around to taking down my Christmas decorations because I’ve been sick since Christmas. It’s true that I am a procrastinator by nature but I normally get my decorations down in between Christmas and New Year’s. So, with my classic rock station blaring I got in clean-up mode. My Gold Ribbon tree was on a small table near my entryway, where I could see it every day and remember the sweet children I’d loved and lost. I kneeled before the tree and took each name off, remembering their faces and how their hands felt in mine. I remembered the laughter and tears I shared with their moms. I relived watching my friends walk down the hall of the hospital, hands filled with their children’s belongings but their hearts empty of their child’s presence.
I’ve never had to know that pain. The closest I get is this tree. As I sat with my hands full of names, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd came on the radio. A freezing breeze flowed under my door and mixed with the warmth of my tears. The sun shone through my window and I had an amazing feeling that all of these children were being taken care of. They didn’t need me to cry for them. They don’t need anything this earth has to offer. I got the feeling that they’re happy to not be here anymore. Most of them only knew cancer in the few short years they were here. Why would they miss that?
It doesn’t mean that I don’t miss them, though. But I think I learned today that it’s okay to let them go. I will always hold their memory dear, but I think I’m going to stop living in fear of what might be coming my way. The fact is we never know when our time will be up. Ben might develop a secondary cancer. I might get hit by a bus (although I tend to think I’m going to die trapped under ice). But I think I’ve been hanging on to things for the wrong reasons. There’s nothing wrong with honoring memories, but I’m going to quit wishing for things to be different. They aren’t. It is what it is. Being sad can be useful at times but I think I’m done swimming in it until I get pruny.
Cross my mind when you want to, sweet children. I miss you but am so glad you’re no longer suffering. I’m going to remember your sweet smiles. Your bald heads. Your laughter. And how your mommies looked at you as they were trying to burn your every feature into their memories.
I’m forever changed for the better thanks to all of you. <3