Looking back now, I’m not sure how I managed parenting before cancer literally knocked me off my feet. In an earlier blog I mention that my favourite quote has always been “Life has to be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards”. But I never thought it would become quite so apt in my own parenting journey…
Can any other parent of teens relate to a scenario of early alarms set in order to cope with the to-do list of family life each day? A constant air of anxiety and pressure, as you tread a really delicate path to keeping the household peaceful and all doors on their hinges, whilst fearing you may lose your own mind in a weird grown-up version of adolescence – irrational hormonal swings and frustrated rants?
Ever felt overtaken with secret fear of the mind-numbing monotony of food planning to suit the masses and the 2am additions to online food orders? With dreams (unfortunately no dream, a definite reality) of never-ending washing, overloaded coat hooks and shoes left randomly for the dog to chew or run away with? Head ringing and brain trying to find solutions to resolve all arguments over whose turn it is to unpack the dishwasher or which box set would be best for some ‘family’ time?
Yes? I’m sure you can relate. But if you’re hearing only scary negatives, it’s ok, I promise! Keep reading – because something truly amazing happened.
When the unexpected happens
This is all about the discovery of how life with teens can move forward spectacularly but for the most unexpected reason and how I learned (and I have to add, the easy way) that we can all look forward to a light shining at the end of this parenting tunnel.
Fit as a fiddle, I was strolling (with, she cringes, a bloody great conceited chip on my shoulder) into my 50s, partying alongside my teens. Raising an egocentric bar that I could set up a business while at the same time being their rock, their endless support (that is, personal shopper 😂) and sounding board whilst also matching their fitness, energy levels and zest for everything that came their way.
Then, oh my goodness, one February day last year, like the arrival of a tsunami it was all to change in one big wave. It was as if I had opened the bifold door of the kitchen and water had drowned me.
Never one to run to the surgery, I managed a growing pain in my abdomen and secretly swallowed paracetamol and ibuprofen while robotically continuing with my chores of creating this haven of a home.
I’m going to fast forward this bit, so please stay with me.
Three weeks in the local hospital, wrongly treated with various antibiotics. And, with the pandemic devastatingly causing body bags being carried from the side wards. I was discharged, only to make my way straight back to the hospital holiday camp before my 17-year-old was even up to realise I had fleetingly come home in the first place.
A paramedic resembling a member of ZZ Top gave me the gas and air contraption and I soon found myself shouting ‘pain’ on a triage bed like something out of a war movie. It’s ok – Dr Kildare, or at least a definite Greek hunk, arrived and the morphine drip kicked in. I thought, I’ve got this and will be back to do the tea.
That was not to be…
I said I’d fast forward so now I will…
The radiographer had missed a tumour. Vital organs were shutting down and sepsis had kicked in. Cue an emergency op, an enforced coma and a further 5 weeks, in the hospital holiday camp, largely in ITU.
But, more significantly, at home what was happening?
I was not as indispensable as I thought, that’s what!
A level of maturity I could neither have taught or imagined was being born in my kids. Em was just out of her teens, but I still feel it’s important to include her in this, and Jack was 17. They found bravery, calmness and intelligent assessment. They regrouped and reorganised like an incredible army to support their grandmother and father and each other in every practical and emotional way.
Washing miraculously made it to the basket. It didn’t initially make it back to the wardrobes in its original size or colour but that was only a matter of time…
Jack turned 18 (I had extra drugs and tuned in, propped up, over FaceTime). Em put together the most amazing video milestone tribute to the birthday; it will remain with us forever and cancelled out with overriding pride any heartbreak that tried to invade me for being absent.
I made it home for Easter 2021 with a stoma bag. I will spare you the details of that (but there is always Google!). However, I mention this because I no longer was the same parent that had left with that big chip on her shoulder, I can tell you.
Jack said to me as he tucked me into bed that night, “Mum, remember not all disabilities are visible”. A realisation happened right then for me. It wasn’t just me who had to accept my incumbrance. He, this treasure, my youngest, wasn’t aware only of Fortnite and Dairy Milk. He was incredible and empathetically aware of every dimension of my fears and fight.
Rising to the challenge
This was a realisation that transferred me to another level of parenting. My teens were not my property and no longer my children. They were totally bloody amazing young adults. And that was also nothing to do with me. It was a beautiful and natural occurrence of growth from their golden hearts that had incubated on the inside, ready to blossom on the outside. And that happened when I suddenly found myself at the bottom of a big black hole.
I promised you I would fast track. And I’m trying, honest!
Life at home settled into a new norm thanks to community nurses, physio and a genius consultant called Mr Younis. If the truth be known, I was loving it. I had a new figure 😂 , that looked all right covered up 😂 , thanks to my restricted stoma diet. My tremendous teens had totally got themselves and life covered. I was suddenly and selfishly free to spend my days brainstorming ideas for Equipp and recuperating. Win win!
Em had been instrumental in helping Jack choose his uni and first year accommodation. My role of taxi driver and taker of the dog to the vets had gloriously been reassigned. My unbelievably patient and supportive husband had taken a sabbatical, and over thirty years of domestic duty was now well and truly being shared. The roles had reversed and I was supported and cared for by others.
A true insight into parenting
Everything was on this slightly imperfect but ‘up’ pathway until I went crashing into the next CT scan. It showed that cancer had spread to several other locations. The planned reversal of my stoma would not be happening anytime soon, and a course of strong chemo was waiting in the wings for September. Em bought me a crystal necklace and assured me I was the ‘strongest motherfxxxxer alive’. I found myself thinking – no sweetheart, that’s what you are!
Still the sun shone, both literally and poetically, in this upside-down storm.
In true teen-tastic style we pub crawled through my August birthday and Love Island watched our way through a break in Cornwall. Then we got to the delights of September and the new regime of chemo, pumps, injections and steroids.
My false sense of reprieve from motherhood and duty was to be short-lived. A renewed ocean of emotion swelled inside me behind a smile and hobnail boots (my cancer defence weapons). It was worry about the implications of all of this on my teens. I felt unbelievably guilty, helpless and restricted as I looked my now 18-year-old in the eye. Jack was making such major transitions in his own life, and I sensed the fear as he said to me, “but Mum, cancer only grows, it eats what’s good and grows”. I didn’t want them as carers or to be the reason for their stress. I wanted to care for them and be the antidote to their issues.
Jack didn’t say those words in a negative way. But you can’t always just say to a teen “Don’t worry babe, it’s all going to be ok”. That mum hack has an expiry date and I had hit it. Like pounding myself with an internal thunderbolt in my own face, I found myself thinking. ‘Get a grip you stupid woman. You are talking to a deep-thinking individual who may be distressed but is facing things practically and positively and you need to put your brave pants on, stop fake parenting and listen’.
But still I smiled
I smiled because I got weaker on the chemo, but Em and Jack only got stronger.
I cried my way pathetically through a chemo cloud. But I gave up trying to turn the tap off because it was as if the valve had gone! I supervised the uni packing from the kitchen sofa and ticked items off my list, not actually strong enough to help physically. Then still more life-changing elation engulfed my heart as we dropped Jack off. I melted with pride, positivity and excitement as we set him up in his room and I realised how wasteful tears other than happy tears really are to all of us.
We reached December. I didn’t lose my hair. Big bonus. Just before Christmas, I organised a black tie event. Em’s beauty from both within and without sparkled the night away as she re-wore her prom dress of several years earlier and Jack came back early for Christmas to be with us. We were memory making. Living with dignity and empowered with diversity in our relationships. I chair-danced with some sort of hilarious and uncoordinated elbow dance that evening, and both my teens and their partners were with me on an elevated level. I felt on top of the world watching them interact as sophisticated and joyful, capable people. My physical fatigue was far weaker than my family dynamic and I will never forget that evening.
My wonderful children rising to the challenge
The chemo worked. It shrunk the cancer and now I just had to wait for major surgery to remove anything we don’t really need. I still don’t really get how as humans we have such a complex construction but don’t need half of it, it seems!
During those months the conversations I was able to have with both Em and Jack were literally that, two-way conversations. I had learned through forced restriction that I did not need to parent, I simply could listen and ‘discuss’.
Em sat at the end of my bed on bad chemo days, and we worked our way equally through plans in life and things dear to our hearts, but the difference was big. These conversations were now with mutual respect for each other’s often differing perspective.
Jack would come home periodically and each time he sat on the kitchen sofa, a voice of reasoned openness would just calmly and eloquently relay all his new discoveries and his evident wonder at a new, fresh and independent existence in life. He would ask and offer advice. This was a comfortable place. One of parenting pleasure. A new phenomenon and I felt almost grateful to my cancer for bringing me to it.
My body may have been diseased but my heart was fuller than ever.
I made it to that op. It wasn’t plain sailing, and I was very glad for the wonders of a Fentanyl patch! But you know what, how boring would life be if everything was easy?
We made it through together
As I write this, we have celebrated Easter 2022 and I’m at home again. I no longer am totally responsible for creating a ‘haven’ for my family. We share that job. I have a crucifix on my midriff to remind me to step back, enjoy and cherish. My life lesson has closed with a cancer-free conclusion.
One of my children is totally cooked and well on her way to the next stage of life. And I’m savouring every moment and determined to delight in even the messier moments as Jack finishes his teenage road.
If you are still with me at this point, thank you for making it this far through my ramblings on cancer and parenting. If you and your teens have been faced with something similar, I hope my story resonated. I hope that if you haven’t, you can find salvation and advantage and sheer selfish pride in stopping and looking deep inside. Not questioning what we as parents need to do but celebrating and embracing the magic of what our teenagers, given the space to figure themselves out, will gift richly beyond any material wealth right back to us.