Monica Marcelis Fochtman is a coach, consultant, writer, speaker, and advocate. She was born and raised in New Jersey and attended Boston College in the town that stole her heart. She earned her Ph.D. in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education from Michigan State University in 2010. Her consulting & speaking interests are focused on: mid-career women and work-life negotiation, the MBTI, and advocacy for childhood cancer patients and increased research funding. Learn more at her blog: musingsfromthemiddle.com, or on Twitter at @monicamfochtman.
Adjusting to life after my son’s cancer treatment has been slower and harder than I anticipated. I should be grateful for every day, and I should quit worrying that tomorrow won't come. And most days, I am grateful. But that gratitude carries weight. And guilt. As a direct result of all that we endured, my tolerance for bullshit is zero, while my empathy and compassion for others’ suffering—especially children—is on high alert.
My heart is like a scab that I can’t stop picking. Just as it is close to healing, I scratch it open and bleed again. I am raw and prickly. I feel as if there should be a neon sign above my head that flashes a warning to others: “Slippery road ahead! Proceed with caution!”
On paper, we are the lucky ones. Statistical outliers. Some of my friends buried their babies. The science worked for our son and he is, so far, almost unscathed from the experience. But, I know different. We are just starting to get into long-term consequences of chemotherapy, radiation, and sedation drugs.
Luke and his fellow third graders learned the recorder this year (too many Hot Cross Buns). When we went to the local music store to buy the instrument, the high-schooler behind the counter asked if I wanted to put my name in a drawing for free lessons. At Luke’s urging, I dropped my name in the clear fishbowl on the counter, paid for the recorder, and drove home.
A few weeks later, we got a phone call that our family had won two free music lessons. Luke decided he wanted to learn drums. What the heck? My husband played sax in sixth grade band and at twenty-six taught himself to play guitar. That is the extent of the musical talents in our gene pool. But drums? Aren’t those really hard? I silently cheer for Luke and his willingness to take risks while praying that his teacher is kind, patient, and doesn’t move too fast.
The music store is located on the grounds of an old farm. It is a shared space with a dance studio and a church. The barn is now a café where parents can sip on lukewarm coffee and check Facebook while their kids are in lessons. I love repurposed things. They give me hope that something useful can be born from a broken past.
The night of the first lesson, we go into a soundproof shed. It’s cold and musty and there are egg cartons stapled to the walls. Covering the egg cartons are sheets of that rubbery foam stuff I used in college to make my bed softer. In the center of the room, there are two huge drum sets facing each other. There is no way my little boy will sit behind those monstrosities and make music.
To the outside world, Luke is a bony, gangly nine year-old boy with holes in his jeans and tussled hair.
To me, he is fragile, like the eggs that were held in the cartons now lining the drum shed walls.
Luke is a cancer survivor.
At age three, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Our verbally advanced toddler who loved to draw and sing had a seven-centimeter tumor in his leg and metastases in both lungs. “Too many to count,” the oncologists told us.
So when the drum instructor, Ed, walks in, I hold my breath. Did he hear me suck the air from the room with staccato gulps? If Ed sees that I’m nervous then Luke will, too. I don’t want to be nervous. I want to be normal.
“Here we go. Tread carefully with us,” I think to myself.
Trauma changes how you remember things and skews time in its favor. It doesn’t matter that Luke has been a cancer survivor for six years, longer than he ever was a cancer patient. When he sits down behind those drums, I see a bald three year old boy with no eyebrows or eyelashes. I see the central line tube that hung from his chest. That tube made him vulnerable to infection, but was also a lifeline to blood transfusions, to chemotherapy, to healing.
I also see a fighter. Luke listens carefully and tries hard. He wants to please me and impress his new teacher.
Ed is smart and talented. He doesn’t coddle Luke. He moves quickly and uses terms that neither Luke nor I understand. Ed treats Luke just like his other students.
I cannot tell if Luke liked the lesson or not. His scared face is the same as his concentrating face. I do not exhale until we are in the car and Luke tells me he wants to go back. He wants to keep learning drums even after the free lessons are over.
In theory, I know more than my son. I am older and have more life experience. I am learning, however, that I am not nearly as wise as him.
At the beginning of the school year, the kids colored “all about me posters.” What is my favorite color, favorite food, what I want to be when I grow up. The question in the bottom left hand corner was “something unique about me.” Luke had written about his cancer, “When I was three I was diagnosed with cancer. It was called rhabdomyosarcoma.” Then, he erased it and wrote over it. In his third grade penmanship, he had pressed too hard, so even though the writing was gone, you could still see the imprint of the words coming through the new identity he had chosen to share on his poster. “I am left-handed. I love to play with Legos.” Maybe on his fourth grade “all about me poster” he will add that he is a drummer.
I need to take my cues from Luke. He doesn’t want to talk about cancer. I see Luke as a CANCER survivor. Luke sees himself as a cancer SURVIVOR. Cancer is part of who he is and it shaped him, but he actively chooses not to let it define him.
Driving home from church today, I sat in the passenger seat. Luke was behind me. Luke stared out his window in just the right way, and I could see his profile in the side-view mirror. His hair is getting darker, I think. Someday a girl will fall in love with his curled eyelashes and sensitive heart.
Luke says, “Ed says that drummers have to ignore distractions. He plays one beat but I can’t pay attention to him. I have to focus on the beat I am playing.”
Life might be unfair, but it is also achingly beautiful.