The second Sunday in May is the day we have set aside to honour mothers. The flower shops gear up for a massive uptake in orders, restaurants will either be packed with reservations or have online orders peeling off their printers like windblown paper in a tornado. Mothers will smilingly choke down breakfasts made by little hands who put a little bit too much jam on the toast or sugar in the coffee. Media will be flooded by ads showing little people running to their mothers will a fistful of flowers picked from a field they have just walked by and the joyful, closed eyes face of the recipient as they embrace the child they love with all they have.
I will watch these ads and see my history in them. I was pregnant eight times to have the four daughters I have so I know their existence is a little bit more miraculous than I might otherwise had I not experienced so much loss. The first Mother’s Day after I lost a set of twins was heartbreaking as I sat there with empty, aching arms as the flower truck past by my window several times that week. I know what it’s like to wait for the results of a pregancy test to see if it’s positive. I know what it’s like to feel any cramp and feel my heart sink that it’s happening again. I know that I am blessed beyond measure that I got to hold babies in my arms four times.
Two of my daughters have children of their own with no challenges and I live with one of them so this year I will be able to watch their little ones colour homemade cards and say “close your eyes” as they tiptoe into the bedroom with breakfast on a tray. And it will fill my heart to see such joy in all of their lives. And despite all the pleasure in these moments, cancer will invade my thoughts. Cancer always hovers on the edge of my life like a fleeting wisp of something that makes you turn your head to see what is there.
One of my daughters had breast cancer at 27. It was a very aggressive form of cancer and the oncology team treated it as such. In one of the initial meetings about what was to come there was a very brief and clinical discussion about the fact that chemotherapy can cause infertility in cancer patients and that the system could offer my daughter fertility preservation so she could protect her eggs for future use. I remember sitting there beside my child in his office thinking…
What? Whaddaya mean what? Wait a minute what? Please stop talking while I wrap my head around this, what…? She has breast cancer and it will stop her from having children WHAT?
At that point in her life Adrienne was not even sure if she wanted children. She had been processing it for a while, looking at the world and wondering if she wanted to bring another person into it. She was thinking maybe adoption to take in a child who wasn’t wanted. But through all of those thoughts there ran the thread of choice. And this (expletive) invader was going to not only threaten her life but take that choice away if her treatment was successful.
We went back to her apartment that day in a bubble of disbelief. Once we were home and having a glass of wine we talked it through and she decided that if she went ahead with fertility preservation the choice to have a biological child using in vitro if cancer took away her ability to do it on her own would still be hers. Cancer takes so much, leaves you feeling so helpless and she needed to take back some control over her potential motherhood options.
And here’s the plot twist that’s part of every good story. The only reason she had time to do a round of fertility preservation treatment was because she had to have a second surgery to take out more breast tissue because of a questionable margin so her chemo had to be put off for four weeks. I helped her get up and get dressed in the mornings, carefully choosing clothing that would be easiest to get off when she was in the fertility clinic because she was dealing with changing into gowns and to get up and down off a gurney while protecting the incision. The timing of this type of process is extremely delicate and we had one chance to get it right and that meant military precision in our transportation options and one of us going in one direction and on in the other to make sure we could have all the drugs we needed for her to inject at exactly the right time. Our ability to be dedicated to the job at hand meant that her egg retrieval was a success and for $300 a year they will save her eggs until she’s ready. She has a friend who was not so lucky. I can’t imagine being 27 years old watching the Red Devil being pumped into my veins knowing it might be taking my ability to have a child away and not screaming at the top of my lungs at the unfairness of it all. I saw a news story recently that featured a mother crying because her daughter’s last chance before chemo had been cancelled due to rising COVID cases. I think about what that must be like for them and I simply can’t even.
There is a Plan A, B, and C for Adrienne to have a baby when the oncology team deems it safe for her to go off the ovarian suppression drugs she takes every day to prevent recurrence. I love all my children equally. I love my grandchildren equally as well. But I already know that there will be something different about the whole experience when it comes to Adrienne having a child if we are lucky enough for that to come to pass. Because of my own experience I will understand what it’s like to have her days filled with anxiety to know if it worked, to cross off each week as she moves forward in the first trimester knowing if she gets to the second she might just go all the way. Having been with her through all the treatment I will be keenly aware that the damage done by the chemotherapy may threaten her motherhood at any time. And I will hold her hand through all of that as I did when she was dealing with cancer, being her person as she crumples on the floor when the waiting becomes too much to bear.
To paraphase George Orwell, all babies are miraculous, but some are just a bit more miraculous than others. If after all the hoops are jumped through and I get to hold Adrienne’s baby in my arms, I will weep with a gratitude that will defy description. And I will raise my middle finger in the air and silently scream “You lose cancer. This time you LOSE!” But behind the baby’s back, because I don’t want his or her first memory to be her Grandmaman flipping the bird.
Mother…Grandmother…Librarian…Military Spouse…Caregiver…Family Life Educator…take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California. She has been married for 36 years to a Canadian Air Force Veteran and credits him with filling her life with adventure. When Debbie Legault’s children look at family photos they often comment on how many different hairstyles she has had and that pretty much is her story, that her life has taken as many turns and led her down as many paths as her hair has changed! Her latest role is as the author of Mom…It’s Cancer, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Click here to read what Dory would tell her struggling-to-conceive self.