And We Laughed…
Filed under | Living With Cancer
Winging it Through Parenting with Cancer
I didn’t want to go to Back to School Night without eyelashes. My eyebrows I’d learned to fake, carefully penciling them in where they used to be before chemotherapy made my hair fall out. But I’ve never been cut out for wearing fake eyelashes. I feared that they’d end up falling onto my cheek while my son’s third grader teacher pretended not to notice. So I put on thick eyeliner, tightened my headscarf and headed to school to try to pretend that I was strong enough to once again take on the job of Class Mom. But I wasn’t fooling anyone.
Funny—they don’t tell you how to deal with this in parenting books and magazines. They don’t tell you how to parent with cancer. So, throughout six months of chemo and radiation, I winged it. I just followed my maternal instincts.
First, I told my kids I had cancer. Well, I didn’t use the word “cancer” when I broke the news. I left that up to my husband after he had brought our sons, Nicholas, then 10, and Christopher, 8, home from the hospital, where I had shown them the x-ray of the 15-centimeter tumor in my lung, the result of an aggressive form of lymphoma.
“See that blob?” I asked, pretending not to notice the horrified look on my mother-in-law’s face. “The doctors are going to help me shrink it down,” I explained, taking care to sound upbeat, like I was trying to sell them on drama camp or cauliflower. “But the medicine that will shrink it will make my hair fall out. Imagine that—Mom’s going to be bald!” I chuckled. And, luckily, my sons chuckled too. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to let cancer keep us from laughing.
While in the hospital for my first five-day chemo infusion, hopped up on steroids and fear, I cooked up an idea: the Wacky Wig Contest. I encouraged friends and family to recast my darkest moments into a vaudeville show by sending me the wackiest wigs they could find. When I got home from the hospital, the wigs started coming in – 20 of them in all.
My kids loved them.
I’d lie on the couch watching yet another show about kitchen design on HGTV when I’d get a glimpse of blue whooshing by the window – my son in a Marge Simpson wig. Then my son in a mullet. My son as a troll. My son in a blond afro nearly as tall as he was.
And every time he passed by, I pictured the neighbors driving by my house – which was undergoing major construction the entire time I was enduring cancer treatments – as they spotted my son in a Goldilocks wig throwing a ball up in the air. And I laughed.
One Saturday night, we invited the entire family over for a ceremony to photograph me in each wig. But I really had no business acting so silly, not with how lousy I felt. Just an hour before everyone was to arrive, I was knocked to my knees by excruciating bone pain caused by the white blood cell-boosting medicine I received after each chemo treatment. My husband waited for me to get back up on my feet before he asked, “You gonna be okay?” I had to be okay – for my kids.
So when the whole gang arrived, I sat in a chair, took off my headscarf and began the ceremony. For each wig I modeled for the camera, my brother played a corresponding song. For the blond mullet, he played “Achy Breaky Heart.” When I put on the Elvis wig, he played “(Hunka, Hunka) Burning Love.” And for Marge’s big blue beehive? The theme song from “The Simpsons.” Naturally.
Then I posted all of the photos on my website and several hundred people voted for their favorites. The winner? The Heatmiser, a character from a holiday movie from my childhood, “The Year Without a Santa Claus.” So, the kids and I rented the DVD – in August – and watched the whole thing while my son wore the winning wig.
And we laughed.
A few months into remission, I put the wigs into a big plastic container and placed it in the attic until one of my friends asked for it. Her sister-in-law had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and they were planning a head-shaving party. Everyone was required to wear something silly on their heads. So I dropped off the Marge Simpson, the Elvis, the Heatmiser – all of the wigs – at her house. And then I hugged her tightly before I turned and left the wigs behind.
I’ve signed up, once again, to be Class Mom. This time, though, I look forward to Back to School Night. This time, I have my eyelashes and my hair, and I don’t have to draw on my eyebrows. My sense of humor? I never lost that.
Jen Singer is the creator of mommasaid.net and the author of You’re a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad, Either), which she completed while on the oncology floor at the hospital. A non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, she’s the Parenting with Cancer moderator for Planet Cancer and aspires to be the loudest voice for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, their sons and a giant container of wacky wigs.