Finding My Bella in Marbella
By Rebecca Timlin-Scalera
I shimmied over, ever so slightly and subtly, to Bella’s side of the bed. She was busy on her phone; with the six-hour time difference, it was “prime social media time” for her friends back in the States. I studied her in her mismatched t-shirt and shorts. She is 12 now. Gone are the days of her wearing matching pajamas, handpicked by me. I marveled now at her long, dark, wavy hair, and her delicate features – on the precipice of emerging into the grown-up version of herself, but from this angle – still bearing more resemblance to those I first laid eyes on.
We needed this trip. Seven months prior, I had gotten the call that changed our lives ? again. After just two years, my breast cancer had metastasized. I was now considered terminally ill with no real treatment options; just clinical trials to extend my life. Navigating these terrifying waters, on top of the expected landmines inherent in parenting any tween, was brutal. I missed the closeness we had effortlessly enjoyed when she was younger. I suspected she did too. We were inseparable in those years and had lauded our “cosmic twin status” whenever possible. Bella was, remarkably, born not only on my exact birthday – but in some celestial, super lottery, twist-of-beautiful-fate – at the same exact minute – 7:39 am, August 20th.
I fluffed up the pillows, “What’s going on in your world Bell?” I asked, ever-so-casually. I was afraid if I pushed, Bella would shun me from discussing any real details of her budding social life. I took my chances, knowing that under the circumstances she would feel compelled to answer. It was late and well past acceptable phone time hours for Bella here in Spain. Also, my phone had been either lost or stolen earlier that evening and, despite the late hour, frayed nerves and fatigue, I sensed a rare opportunity to connect with my daughter in this cozy setting far from home, without my own distractions. I was not about to let it slip away.
In an unprecedented act of sharing, Bella leaned in closer to me – so we were shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the bed, our heads and upper backs resting on the overstuffed pillows behind us. Restraining my excitement at this chance to peer through the window into my precious, yet often snarky, tween’s life, I shifted imperceptibly to ensure I could maintain my position for as many minutes or hours as it would remain open.
To my surprise, she launched right in and started going through her Instagram account with me. I was mesmerized listening to her descriptions:
“That’s my friend Lindsay, you know her from soccer. Oh, and that’s her new dog, so cute – right? They’re moving near us! That’s Adam…he has a crush on Lisa, but she thinks he’s annoying…This is Lisa.”
I was grateful for this chance to gain an entirely new understanding of my daughter through the lens of not only her social media accounts, but her narrative of them. Bella had felt so lost to me in recent months. She was pretty vocal about her resentment of how much my mom, “Mimi” had to be there instead of me on the days, and sometimes many nights, when I was in the hospital. She then became hyper-critical of my parenting when I was home:
“Paige’s mom has better fruit. These grapes are mushy. Ew…Why don’t we have any milk? You literally never go to the grocery store… It’s like literally your only job.”
Most days, I can’t do anything right in her eyes because everything is different now. She was angry, and scared…and 12.
“You can swipe to the right to see more pictures,” she offered, with a self-satisfied, yet sweet, smirk – savoring the realization that her advanced knowledge of the iPhone, and social media in general, far surpassed that of her middle-age, tech-deficient mom.
“I see,” I said, grateful not only for her instruction, but for her willingness to pull back the curtain even further than required. I couldn’t help but marvel at the contrast between this moment and a conversation that had taken place just hours earlier as we rode along the promenade to the Old Town for tapas. She had stopped her bike to capture yet another moment, the Mediterranean spanned endlessly behind her and her lithe arm stretched out purposefully in front of her:
“Bella, do we really have to stop and wait for you to take another selfie?” I had asked sharply, exasperated by the seemingly constant repetition of her need to document every three minutes of this trip, with her iPhone turned to selfie mode, face posed.
“Oh my god mom, stop! You’re so old. You just have no idea how social media works. My friends want to see what I’m doing,” she shot back.
I let it go, but I worried that this was a one-way ticket to a full blown narcissistic personality disorder. As we rode our bikes further along the promenade, I struggled internally with the interaction. Should I have said more, lectured her on being in the moment, and not so focused on her looks or social media? Or, should I have said less, realizing this was all pretty normal behavior for a 12-year-old girl on vacation, away from her peers, and not in fact the burgeoning mental illness I feared.
Under normal circumstances, most parents would have perhaps grappled with this momentarily before moving on. However, our circumstances were far from normal, and it was these moments that I felt the weight of my terminal illness upon me, upon us, upon her. I felt the pressure to condense a lifetime of parenting, guidance, protection and love into whatever time I had left with my Bella.
We had enjoyed an effortless and unbreakable connection throughout her childhood after her cosmic and dramatic birth. Bella was born with a heart defect that required cardiac surgery at just two days old. I remember, even then, marveling at her resilience and the ease with which she recovered and moved on. However, hormones and healthy individuation were at play now and things just hadn’t been the same of late. I was struggling with the painful, albeit necessary, separation that had begun to occur with the tween years suddenly and harshly upon us. Bella was pulling away, spending more and more time in her room, on her phone, and listening to music. Professionally, I understood the psychological need and rationale for this pulling away. However, the knowing did not make the enduring any easier. Especially these days when the pulling away involves the pulling in to the ubiquitous and alluring world of social media, not just the in-person peer interactions, landline phones, and mall “meet ups” we enjoyed in the “dinosaur days” of my youth.
By 2:45 am, between the jetlag and the fatiguing effects of my chemo pills, I could barely keep my eyes open. However, I willed myself to fight sleep as Bella was shockingly still chatting away happily. She actually seemed to be enjoying it. One social media exchange at a time, we navigated through the complicated online matrix that was – her life. I learned about when and why and to whom she gave and received “shout outs,” who was friends with whom, how each person was connected, and whom she had gotten to know best thus far at the new school she had bravely chosen to enter amidst what is often a hotbed of social stress in seventh grade. I reveled in being allowed to take part in this intimate nightly ritual of hers. A raw and vulnerable picture of her was unfolding before my eyes. I chose my comments and questions wisely and sparingly so as to not impede the intimate tour of her social and emotional landscape being offered, I knew, for a limited engagement only.
By 5:00 am I could no longer fight the fatigue and suggested we pack it in. It was, by then, 11:00 pm back in the States and things had wound down there as well. I knew better than to outwardly reveal my excitement about the time we had just shared. However, staying up all night for this one-sided social media fest and seeing firsthand how my rapidly changing 12-year-old was in fact navigating the complicated social dynamics of her life (well, it seemed) was worth every ounce of exhaustion I knew I would battle in the days ahead. Despite her often snarky, hardened demeanor with me, I was clearly able to see the thoughtful, sweet, concerned friend she was. I was relieved to see that the strategically placed “selfies” and “comments” were given and received in relatively equal measure. She was generous and loving in complimenting her friends.
“OMG I miss you Bella, you are SOOOO funny!”
“You too, I can’t stop laughing thinking about our last sleepover! Can’t wait to hang out this summer.”
She was kind, smart, funny and she seemed to have retained the resilience of her earliest days. Although I hope to outlive my prognosis by decades, when I finally gave in to sleep that night – I did so with a newfound sense of peace. My daughter is stronger than I knew, cooler than I ever was, or ever will be, and she really is going to be OK. No matter what.
The next day, tired though we both were, she hugged me when we woke up. Things were different. Maybe she realized she could trust me and it felt good. Maybe she just really needed that connection back, too. Maybe she needed to see that, despite the chemo and the fatigue and the scary diagnosis, I was still here. I could still be right there, right next to her, all night when she needed me. I may have lost a phone, but I found my Bella, in Marbella.
Dr. Rebecca Timlin-Scalera, former Neuropsychologist and Founder of The Cancer Couch, is also a wife, mother, writer, and recently turned stand-up comedian. She founded The Cancer Couch in April 2016 and has since helped raise over $1,700,000 in just the first two years. She writes from a place of humor and gratitude, but mostly – honesty. Rebecca and her husband are the parents of two kids and their controversial dog, Skye.