By Melissa Hart
I found the seven mangled manila envelopes on my bookshelf; someone had recognized them—with their crude drawings of flowers and birds—as repositories for a devotion strong enough, no, interesting enough, to ward off a 5-year-old’s fear of losing her mother. I’d received the bizarre diagnosis, a cancerous lesion on my tongue, by cell phone at the playground. My first thought after stepping away from the swing-set and determining in quiet hysteria that I wasn’t going to die: Would my daughter survive?
Maia had already been through a lot. Her biological mother relinquished her to the state at birth. Her foster mom cared for four infants synonymously. Our daughter finally knew focused attention and affection when my husband, Jonathan, and I brought her home at 18 months.
“I don’t want her traumatized,” I told Jon when oral surgeons informed me I’d be a week in a hospital, encumbered by a feeding tube and trach, unable to talk after they’d excised a piece of my tongue and replaced it with tissue and muscle from my wrist. “No one tells Maia. I don’t want her scared.”
I, myself, felt petrified. Tongue cancer, my surgeon explained, is affecting more and more middle-aged women like me who’ve never smoked and who limit their alcohol to a few glasses of red wine a week. It’s sometimes linked to the Human papillomavirus, but I tested negative. “You’re an anomaly,” the doctor concluded and snapped pictures of my poor besieged tongue while my husband distracted our daughter in the waiting room with Superwhy on his iPad.
At home, after a four-mile run to remind myself that no one had offered me a death sentence, I called in sick to work and baked muffins—zucchini and chocolate chip, sweet potato and peanut butter—more muffins than Maia could eat in my absence. And I bought the manila envelopes, one for each day of my hospitalization.
I’d been away from my daughter before. At conferences, I’m gone for days. But a week in the hospital felt dangerous. People die under anesthesia; they expire from infection. “She’s already lost two mothers,” I wailed to my husband on the couch at midnight. “What if she loses a third?”
He allowed gently that I might be veering into drama queen territory. “People have surgery all the time. I’ve had six, myself.”
“Yes, but . . .”
It wasn’t just the surgery that frightened me—we knew that. I’d received the dreaded diagnosis, the C-word forever linked with my name in medical records, and though doctors termed it Stage I, who knew what they’d find once anesthesia bore me under and they could go poking around.
To calm myself, I focused on creating care packages for Maia. I borrowed her markers and decorated each envelope with a drawing. Then, I bought seven picture books. One each went into the envelopes along with a tiny box of Junior Mints, a Tootsie Pop, a gold-foil wrapped chocolate heart.
I’d bought seven postcards at the bookstore, each with a picture of a cat or dog or pig in some comic pose. “Mommy loves Maia,” I wrote over and over, hoping—if disease spirited me away from this earth—that the repetition would burn itself into her brain, assuring her that she was a child adored.
For levity, I added toys: Slinky, kazoo, pipe cleaners to bend into animals. The night Jon and I headed for Portland to keep our 5:30 AM date with surgeons, I read Maia bedtime stories and handed my mother the envelopes with firm instructions. “Put one a day on the doorstep.”
For days, post-surgery, I lay in a fog and pictured Maia running up the porch steps to discover her care package. The image cheered me, inspiring me up and out of the ridiculous hospital gown. The moment I could swallow a sip of water, I demanded that surgeons remove the feeding tube from my nose, yank out the trach, and allow me to quit the hospital.
“Drive faster!” I urged Jon home, preparing myself for Maia at the door tear-stained or red-faced with rage. Would she hate me for falling victim to a random diagnosis I’d done nothing to deserve? Or would my gifts redeem me?
A Welcome Home drawing greeted us at door, but Maia herself wasn’t there. Through morphine’s blue haze, I saw the silly postcards on the mantle. The kazoo lay in a corner; picture books peeked out from under couch cushions. A pipe cleaner horse gripped one lamp.
“Where’s Maia?” Tongue throbbing, I scrawled on my whiteboard, bewildered. “Is she scared of me?”
Jon stroked my head. “It’s okay—your mom’s gone to get her from school.”
I collapsed on the couch, longing for our meeting, dreading it.
We can’t keep our children from life—I know that. Accidents happen and cells divide and our babies must deal with reality sooner than we’d like. All we can do is try, creatively, to lessen their fear. And here’s the surprise—in helping them, we sometimes teach them to help us, as well.
Maia ran inside that afternoon and pressed her forehead against mine with shocking tenderness. Her brown eyes looked into mine. “You’re back!” she said, as if I’d gone to the market for bananas. I saw then that my surgery was but a blip in our life together, akin to the toothpick arrow stuck into a ring in the cross-section of an oak on our favorite hiking trail.
“Mommy…” My child didn’t recoil at the bulky blue splint on my arm, at the bandages on my throat; she didn’t question my inability to speak. Instead, she pulled the books out from under the couch cushions, sat down beside me, and tucked a blanket around my feet. “Let me read you a story.”
Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches at the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon.
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Photo credit: Jonathan B. Smith