May 28, 2001
Moms, Mets and Teenagers
Reverend Linda Yates
In my line of work you get to read a lot of spiritual stuff. Much of it has to do with death and dying. I remain unimpressed with the vast majority of it. For one thing, writers on this subject invariably speak of the wonderful opportunity to delve into the mystery of mortality. I already have way too much mystery in my life. I am the mother of teenagers. Teenage boys, in fact. I am steeped in unanswerable questions. Why, for example, after a childhood of being taught to pick up things, at the age of thirteen does no other shelf appears to exist in the house with the exception of the lowest one - the floor? Clothes, underwear, coats, dirty plates, chip bags, book bags, musical instruments, even money (which by the way I consider a tip for the maid - me) all end up on the floor. Another mystery - what can possibly be taking place in a shower that requires forty minutes and five large towels which are - you guessed it - always left on the floor? Once, in exasperation I declared to my son that surely having girls could not be any worse. He looked so wounded that I quickly said "Well, you're not that bad." The inner feminist in me cringes at the betrayal. I think that the offers of seniors to pray for me when I tell them I am the mother of teenagers should be my first clue that even the passage of time does not lessen the depths of dark mystery of the teenage years of one's children.
I think that being the mother of school age children, whether elementary or high school, and having cancer really sucks, (to employ a word which seems to be used a lot in my house). I notice that when I peruse the CLUB discussions the most heated, opinionated postings are by women who are mothers of school age or younger children. They are letters that vigorously defend difficult treatment decisions and challenge others to not challenge their choices. It is she-bear stuff. It is the defending of one's cubs. I think that having cancer brings out the deepest of mothering emotions in us. Suddenly, EVERYTHING takes on new importance. Not only treatment decisions, but everyday conversations and routine events seem to have existential meaning that might extend into the future past our own earthly lives. We know, when we have stage IV cancer that there is a real good chance we won't see our kids into adulthood, so we want the memories to be good and the lessons to be learned quickly. Therefore, the stress of the everyday is added to with all this meaning-making responsibility.
I was diagnosed shortly before Christmas with bone metastases. Our Christmas sucked, (to build on a theme). We managed to create some kind of routine back into our lives amidst the turmoil of treatment etc... One day in February, a snow storm had filled our very long driveway with snow. I had to go to town, an hour's drive away for radiation treatments. I asked my youngest son to shovel the walkway so I wouldn't have too far to struggle in the snow. When I came home I was dismayed to discover it hadn't been done. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth on my part he went out and scooped the snow. I was hurt. I remember thinking, "Doesn't he care about me during this difficult time?" A couple of days later I was complaining to a group of elderly ladies about my inability to get my sons to shovel the driveway and they nodded knowingly. They began to share amusing stories of their children, many of whom are now grandparents themselves, and their inability to get them to shovel snow or mow lawns. One of the women, old and wizened, looked up at me and said, "Uh-huh. Sounds pretty normal to me. Good to see." And suddenly I got it. My son was just doing what teenage sons do. "Justasecond" and "Inaminute" are the by-words around here just like it is in most other homes with complaining parents of teens. My son was the one who was okay. I was not. While it is a normal parent kind of thing for me to want to spit nickels in frustration at undone tasks, what is not normal is my interpretation of his resistance to leave his Nintendo game as not caring whether I die from cancer or not. This is the insidious and evil thing about dealing with advanced cancer and having children - our need to overlay meaning runs a danger of removing true meaning.
As I think back to all my psychology courses and personality theory I remember that the main task of the teenage years is that of egocentrism and a psychological separation from one's parents. The separation aspect is painful because as parents with cancer we want to be bonding in an even more intentional and intense way now that we know our years are limited - at a time when to be seen in public with one's parents represents the worst kind of geeky nerdiness possible in the teen ecosystem. The egocentrism can be painful because as teenagers they can barely comprehend that they will die, (hence the high accidental death rate of teens), let alone contemplate the death of a parent. On the up side this ego-centrism means that, for the most part, they are able to get about their day not worried too much about Mom's cancer, which after all, is what I truly hope for them.
As I remember my personality theory courses, I also remind myself that my main contribution to my children's personality formation and ability to attach to others and to cope with frustration was given years ago - somewhere between birth and seven years old, the experts say. I already like what I see - two handsome, intelligent, vibrant young men with strong social consciousness and active faith. They are very different from one another but I am proud of both - a she-bear mother's pride. I remind myself that I have done a good job of mothering. Not perfect, but pretty good. Because I have done a good job, I have given them the tools to be able to survive my death and take what was good from my life to inform theirs. One thing we share in our family, all four of us, is a sense of humour. It's helped a great deal in coping with this cancer. I can't remember what my youngest was doing, suffice it to say he was tormenting his brother or the dog, when I blurted out, "You know, I have a new goal for living. I am determined to live long enough to see YOU have a 14 year old!" We all laughed a lot. For a moment, cancer didn't suck - that much.
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