Once upon a time, I was a power mommy who had everything under control. That fairy tale imploded in 1994 when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a virulent blood cancer. I was 32 years old. My son Malachi was 7; my daughter Jerusha was 5. As my husband Gary and I muddled through the physical, emotional, and financial devastation of chemo, we struggled to keep our kids’ world from falling apart, and we learned three key lessons that made us better parents in the long run.
Our kids were smart. We knew if we weren’t open about it, they’d know only two things: 1) Something’s wrong. 2) Grownups lie. Better to have them know that, through all life’s uncertainties, they could always count on straight answers from us. When they asked, “Are you going to die?” I answered truthfully: “Not today.”
Create opportunities for empowerment
On my seriously sick days, Jerusha stood outside the bathroom, yelling, “Joni Rodgers! You stop that!” When I couldn’t stop, she just cried, feeling helpless. As much as I wanted to protect her, I had to open the door. Holding a cold cloth against my forehead made her feel trusted and capable.
Find tangible ways to honor fear and loss
It was scary for my kids to see my appearance change dramatically during chemo. When my hair started falling out, I let them help me divide it into ten long braids and cut them off close to my scalp. Malachi and I used them to make a dreamcatcher with a metal hoop and yard treasures. Jerusha always loved to brush my hair, so after I went completely bald, I let her “tattoo” flowers on my head with watercolor markers. These little rituals helped us sort through some big feelings.
Fast forward 25 years
Our kids grew up to be kind, creative adults who tell me that this difficult part of their childhood made them stronger and more empathetic. Gary and I learned to accept ourselves, each other, and life in general as perfectly imperfect. Ultimately, this difficult time of turbulence and growth made us better parents because it made us better people.
NYT bestselling author Joni Rodgers lives on the beach in Washington State. Her memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair (HarperCollins 2001) is available on www.jonirodgers.com and wherever books are sold.