The wisdom of elders

February 17, 2010 Maia 7 Comments

This is a bit of a roundabout story to explain a little something about what lead me to the Special Needs adoption program in the first place, so bear with me. This is a story that begins with a moment between my own mother and I, just after I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 29. It bears mentioning that my mother had suffered from the same kind of cancer at about the same point in her young life, and had survived it. I had been in fourth grade when she was diagnosed, and after watching her go through surgeries and chemotherapies, the poisoning, the wasting and the hair loss, I had come to believe that this was the worst and most barbaric manner of thing in all the world. All through my childhood I secretly swore to myself that if I ever found out I had cancer, I would just let my life end, rather than suffer through anything like what I’d watched my mother go through. (But, oh, when you are very young, you fear death so much less).

On the day that I was diagnosed, I really couldn’t believe it. I felt the bottom dropping out of my world. I felt trapped. It’s one thing, after all, to think in the abstract about a diagnosis like this, and about the possibility of just letting your life come to an end with that diagnosis. I sat at my mother’s table and I felt that, meteorlike, I weighed several tons. Like I might just drop right through the crust of the earth and out the other side into the stratosphere. I felt like I might spontaneously combust, or just drop dead on the spot. But none of these things happened, and there I sat – just me and my life sentence, my worst fear made real.

What I did, of course, was start to cry.

“But what…?” I whimpered. “But how…? But, I can’t DO this!”

My mother, sitting across the table from me, didn’t get up and hug me, or even take my hand. Instead, she said four sharp words: “Snap out of it!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. She might as well have slapped me in the face. I felt like I had just experienced the ultimate betrayal – as if at the moment of my greatest need, when I had hit bottom and all of creation had abandoned me, my own mother had turned the cold shoulder to my grief and panic.

Let me just say that this is not at all like my mother. She is a loving and gentle person, a person who will do anything for anyone. Yes, she is strong and athletic and independent, fearless, practical, adventurous. But my mother wouldn’t hurt a fly, and has the habit of apologizing whenever someone is angry with her, even if she would be better off standing up for herself. So it turned my world upside-down when she said those words to me. I was deafened by them. I could hear nothing else for weeks. Those words made me angry. They sparked a thermonuclear rage in me. They ignited a firestorm of self-righteous fury which hardened my skin into a carapace and honed my mind to a sharp and deadly point. I had no mission left in my mind but to show her that I was too tough to be hurt by her belittling words.

Can you see where this is going? Naturally, the anger that my mother had stirred in me was the one and only thing that made it possible for me to make it from the day of diagnosis through my first dreaded chemotherapy treatment without losing my mind with fear and panic. It got me through my first couple of chemos, determined to show that I could be as cold and tough as she had been at that moment. By the time I began to simmer down and agree with my then-boyfriend who had tried to reason that maybe, just maybe she had a point, I was in the swing of treatments and realized that not only could I survive this, I already had begun to do so. No point in turning back now.

There is a survival instinct that comes into play at the darkest of moments, and this carried me through the year of treatments (which become worse and worse as you go along). And before I knew it, as things happen in life, my year was done and I was set free from my shackles again, astonished to discover, as the months passed and my hair grew and my skin lost its chemical pall and regained some luster, that I was capable of rebirth.

It was only much, much later that I got over my anger with her, and realized that those four sharp, seemingly heartless words: “Snap out of it!”, were the only words that could have carried me to a point where I had the necessary will to survive.

Ultimately, though it took some time (maybe two years after the end of treatment) to find my feet and my confidence in life again, my experience with cancer changed me for the better, and drastically so. I also think that without that experience I would most likely not have considered applying for the Special Needs adoption program. (and I think I should mention that Special Needs adoption relates to the adoption of any child with medical needs, surgical, medical, therapeutic etc) With everyone around us saying that we wouldn’t be wise to take on a child with medical issues, I probably would have given in to the fears of others were it not for the fact that I myself, an unusually hearty and healthy child with no medical conditions whatsoever, had turned out to have an indicator for cancer in the prime of my life. No one could have predicted that, certainly not my parents (no study has proved that our type of cancer is genetic or transferable in any way). So I figured, even if I had given birth to a biological child, or adopted a seemingly healthy child, I would have run the unknowable risk that that child might have an undiagnosed and potentially life-threatening condition. Why, then, would I want to reject the adoption of a child with a known quantity of medical needs? What made me think that the choice of a “healthy child” was mine to make? In my experience, it was not.

I am endlessly grateful for that early experience, then, no matter how traumatic. Without it, there is every chance that I would never have had the privilege, the unmeasurable joy of having the Q as my daughter.

footnote: I fully believe that my survival instinct would have kicked in, even without my mother’s very wise and well-timed wakeup call. I do not believe that I really would have let my life end at the age of 29. I am an optimist to the core, and the base instinct for survival is built in to the human condition. We are capable of suffering so very much more than we can ever imagine in our rational mind (as has been proved time and time again in the aftermath of the Haiti quakes). That said, I shudder to think how I would have made it through those first few weeks without the anger that my mother gave me from the depths of her own experience. Having been through it herself, in an era when the cancer treatment was far more barbaric, random and unrelieved than it is now, she knew in some part of her what I most needed at that moment. She must also have known that I would react with anger, and that she herself would have to suffer through my wrath in addition to her own fear for the life of her only daughter. Her act, albeit instinctive, was one of the greatest and most unexpected gifts that she has ever given me. I can only hope to repay it by giving my own understanding of the world, and how to survive it, to my daughter as the years pass.

– Maia

7 responses to “The wisdom of elders”

  1. Stefanie says:

    Wow. What a testament to your strength and courage, as well as that of your mother. And it sounds like QQ has the makings of being as strong, as gentle and as loving as her mama and her grandma.
    What a beautiful legacy 🙂
    Thank you for sharing what must have been one of the hardest times in your life… what a blessing that it ultimately brought you to your precious girl!

  2. Eileen says:

    I think what brought the possibility of special needs adoption into our life was an illness my now 8 year-old daughter had as a toddler. While we were in the hospital I kept thinking, "This is wrong. I have HEALTHY kids!" Knowing that my daughter was just as perfectly wonderful with or without her illness helped us to accept a child with a known special need. Yes, our adopted child might have health issues in her life, possibly even very serious health issues, but my older daughter's sickness instilled in me the knowledge that I have no guarantee on any of my kids.

    And I'm thrilled to say that both girls are thriving and are healthy and strong and living life to the fullest.

  3. The Wanderers' Daughter says:

    Thanks, Stefanie! Your words are always so eloquent and loving. And yes, it is a blessing, and I believe that one is guided gently in the right direction, even if the guiding hand doesn't feel so gentle at the time. All is revealed in good time. And I am forever thankful.

  4. The Wanderers' Daughter says:

    Aileen, I am so delighted to know that someone else had a similar experience. I hope that your older daughter finds that the experience strengthened her as well as you, in the long run. My mother has survived cancer not once but TWICE (two different kinds) and now, in her 70s, is one of the most athletic, adventurous people I know. She is a fly fisherman who travels the world season to season experiencing some of the wildest places on earth. She hikes every day and could not be fitter or more creative.

  5. The Wanderers' Daughter says:

    Sorry, Eileen, I spelled your name wrong 😉 Got it now.

  6. Kris says:

    thank you so much maia. i knew this story but this is the first time i've read the intimate details of that time in your life, or what came before it. you are such an amazing writer, and i appreciate your candor. working in this field especially, it's pretty amazing to "see" things from the other side of the bed. and i love that it transformed you for the better and made you into the kind of person who would one day be mom to that rockstar of a daughter.

  7. Mom to Willow and Two Dogs says:

    Dear Maia and QQ,

    You are amazing–I knew there was something very special about you as I've followed your journey from time to time (we adopted a cleft affected little girl too). Alas, though … you never know someone until you've walked in their shoes. Like I said, you are amazing, with big shoes to fill. Wishing you blessings in abundance.
    Meryl & Willow, in Minnesota

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