My boy lost his first tooth yesterday. He’s almost 6 and a half, and his friends started losing their teeth at the start of last year, so he has spent a long time waiting and hoping, pressing at his teeth with his fingers to see if any of them were loose. Finally, on the weekend he pressed at a tooth and it did wiggle, and he worked and worked on it until last night, when he bravely grabbed a tissue and yanked that sucker right on out. The tooth fairy left him $3.50 in coins (because she knows he feels like a millionaire if he has lots of coins) which made him declare that ‘this is the best day of my life’.
He has lots of best days of his life as is the way of six year olds who want for nothing in terms of love, time, attention and care. He loses a tooth and his parents laugh and clap, and the little red and white speck is gathered up in a tissue and placed in a special box. He has his photo taken. He speaks to his grandparents on the phone, telling each of them in turn his big news. The milestones of his life, however insignificant they may be in the grand scheme of things, are celebrated with great joy. It is a charmed life.
However this child is also growing up in the shadow of his mother’s cancer diagnosis and ongoing struggle to stay alive. Mostly, he is happy and carefree, but if I have a day off work sick with a cold, he looks at me with fear in his eyes and asks me repeatedly if I am feeling better – it is not really a question, more a bleak search for reassurance. The medication that is, we hope, keeping me cancer-free also makes me sore and cranky and sometimes just totally fucking fed up, and he is attuned to this, trying too hard to be chirpy, wanting to sit close to me, kiss me and hold me. I wonder if sub-consciously he thinks that if he is holding on to me, then he won’t lose me. When he was four, and I was in the middle of chemo, he asked me if I was going to die. I told him no (a lie then of course, and still quite possibly a lie) but I felt sure – because I wanted so very much to be sure – that he believed me. But sometimes when I look into his eyes (which are the exact colour of cool, bush creek where we once camped) I see that maybe he knew I was lying, and just pretended to believe me because that was easier for both of us.
As well as constantly looking for signs that the cancer has returned (headache = brain tumour), I also look for signs that I am going to be one of the ones who gets to survive. The problem with cancer, is that despite all the percentages and numbers and formulas that the medical teams use to come up with your chances of long-term survival, sometimes those who are given a good chance end up dying, and those who are given little or no chance survive. Cancer is unpredictable; that’s its great power and its great mystery, and why the search for a cure goes on. For every three patients whose cancer behaves in the way doctors predict it will, there is one whose cancer does whatever the fuck it pleases, with absolutely no acknowledgement of the millions dollars and hours that have gone into research.
Sometimes I see survival signs within myself – I am happy, I am annoyed, I am laughing, I am snoring. These are all things people who don’t have cancer are and do, so sometimes the mere fact that I am just a bloody average human being makes me sure I will survive. Other times, the signs are around me – my elderly parents increasingly needing my care, my husband so close to taking off in his new career direction, my friend relying on me to help her through her divorce. I must survive to take care of these people, to be the person they need in their life, to show them my particular love. I must survive to see all those baby teeth fall out and the big teeth grow down, and to earn the money to pay the orthodontist bills, because man my kid has some crazy teeth!
Today, I did the ‘Which song was written about you’ quiz on Facebook, the quality of which is attested to by the fact that the word ‘chocolate’ was misspelt in one of the questions. I answered all ten questions with complete honestly (because everyone knows that these things are only accurate if you are truthful), and waited with bated breath as dozens of highly-trained psychologists worked on analysing my responses. And then, before my eyes, appeared the name of my song. Fuck you cancer, I got my sign.