My daughter won’t have a mother to help her choose a university, find an apartment, get her first car loan, or celebrate her first big promotion. She is going to have to do all of that without me.
Cancer will take me from her long before any of those life events happen. She will navigate her transition to adulthood with the advice and guidance of the rest of her village, but the voice of her mother will be silent no matter how loudly she cries out for me. When she needs me to help her become a strong and resilient woman, I will be reduced to nothing but a pile of ashes in a discreet urn on the family mantle.
I am not unrealistic about my chances of being around in five years. Cancer is nefarious and stealthy, which I found out when I had only a few weeks of minor headaches and suddenly I had stage four cancer with brain tumours.
A lot of brain tumours.
I lie awake in my bed and try to feel where it will pop up in my body next. Of course, I can’t actually tell, but I listen for it and drip with sweat, my heart beating like a military march. It is a bit like living in a bad movie filled with monsters; you never know when one will grab your ankle from under the bed.
The reality of living with a fatal condition, as many humans do, is that we know what is coming. The rest of you are kind of surprised when your number is up.
But I appreciate being allowed time to be deliberate about my life. Part of knowing my time will be up soon is that I am living like I bloody mean it. I think about what needs to be done before the clock runs out. If there is one thing that I mean to do before I’m gone, it is to install life skills in my children as quickly as I can.
I spend a lot of time with my younger boy to try to prepare him for the world, but I will just have to trust that when I tap out, his most incredible father will make him into an exceptional man.
Instead, I obsess more about my teenage daughter. She has so many woman things to experience as she walks her journey. She will navigate love, hate, sexism, corruption, betrayal, success, and challenges. She will have people try to tell her what to do with her reproductive choices, her weight, and her sexuality.
I have so little time to teach her how to wend her way through life’s guideposts.
I want so badly to be there during all her crises and achievements, but I know I won’t. To try to prepare her, I have been making sure I keep a running list of skills she needs and then weave them deliberately into conversations. We lie under a blanket in her messy room, surrounded by laundry, homework papers, dirty dishes, makeup and sports gear, and we talk about life stuff. Important life stuff.
I know that I can’t replace the long term slow seeding of her resilience garden with a hastily delivered wheelbarrow of sudden wise words, but she is just going to have to take it in faster. Before I can no longer speak.
When you have limited time, how do you decide what your girl will need to know? She will never realize how important it was to me to prepare her for life, but I try to cover the most significant items.
She is a teen now, so I started with boys. I advised her about love, and sex, and violence. It is wrenching to have had to explain that boys who smile at her may also try to force her to have sex. I am teaching her to fight. But also that if the worst happens, it is not her fault.
I let her know that she will have her heart broken, and that sometimes she will have to let boys go as well. I asked her to be kind and not break them when she has to set them down. I also tell her that she should look to how her father treated me as a blueprint for her own relationships. It makes me sad to think of her loving somebody I will never know.
Maybe having babies that I will never kiss.
We talk about how to build a reputation… how to be known as reliable, honest, hardworking and ethical. Be a keener, because those are the ones who achieve. I hope as she enjoys success that she’ll be generous with her knowledge and lift up the people around her.
I teach her to critically question anything that can’t be proven by hard evidence, and to trust her gut.
There are so many small lessons as well. She still asks me if her hair and makeup look good… I am always honest. She dresses tastefully and loves her body—not for how slim it is, but for how strong she has made it. When I see her dressed and ready for her day, I ache from her beauty and try to picture what she will look like as she ages, since I won’t be here to see it.
There are still so many conversations to be had in the time left. I am wracked by thoughts that maybe I will miss something critical.
But she is already so resilient. She has had to take on so much more of a role in our family, beyond her years really. She has a mother who sometimes needs her to be the caregiver, and she does it with a generous heart.
My girl will go on to be a strong woman; I know this to be true. She will be gutted at the loss of her mother, but she will stand strong, hold her brother and father close to her heart, and they will recover together.
Most importantly, she will have seen me fight against the darkness and be brave in my brutal journey. I will not lie down and die without doing everything I can to stay beside her.
She will always know that I was courageous. I believe courage is contagious, and when she has to stand on her own, she will know what it looks like.