Driving back to Madrid from Asturias takes you first through the Cantabrian mountain range, lush and green and breathtakingly beautiful. Then you pass by massive reservoirs, constructed in the fifties and sixties under General Franco’s direction, picturesque with the boats sailing around.
Then begins the descent down onto the central plateau. The sky is azure, without a single cloud. The vegetation has suddenly become straw-colored, scorched and parched dry. The heat is visible in the distance on the straight motorway, not as waves rising, but as lakes on the horizon. This is central Spain, “nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno” – 9 months of Winter and three months of hell!
It reminds me of driving through Dallas as I did in the Summer of 2006. Not a full year married yet, Carlos was sent on his first overseas job and I, (instead of opting for correcting state exams as I so prudently should have, especially since we hadn’t a penny to our names, having just landed out a Celtic Tiger sized deposit for our first house), joined him for the summer in Addison, Texas, just north of oil country, Dallas.
We had no children then and adult life was still new and easy.
Pablo arrived in full vigor in 2007, during our year in Gran Canaria. Ellen graced us with her beauty in 2010 and my eternal baby Ana Maeve was our late Christmas present in January, 2013.
Life exploded into a torrent of milk and purées, nappies and teeth, sleeping and not-sleeping, birthdays and friends, sisters and brothers, laughter and tears, sharing and squabbling, singing and shouting, music and mine-craft, dolls and dress-ups, Christmases and presents, toys and a shrinking house, homework and concerts, swimming pools and beaches, Cathecism and prayers, breakfasts, dinners and teas, picnics and trips, baths and bed-times.
Now once again driving in the searing heat, not in Dallas, but back home from Asturias to Madrid, Carlos and I are alone with no children. Life has moved on and it is different.
We pull into a road-side restaurant for a bite to eat. A man sitting alone at another table is staring at me. Maybe he has spotted that my chest is lop-sided. An old enough girl is sobbing into her mother’s hands, who is drying up her copious tears with a tissue. “What could be the matter with her?” I wonder and begin inventing stories in my head. I go to the bathroom to fix my bra and when I get back, the man is now joined by his wife, perhaps, and another couple. The girl and her mother have left.
They continue on in their own reality and I sit down with mine. We look like a young to middle-aged couple with no children but nobody in that room really knows our reality. Nobody is aware that I am returning to Madrid for another session of chemotherapy and that I have three children, who I have left in my sister-in-law’s weekend house in Tiroco to spend the entire Summer with family.
And what of my children’s reality?
I, as their mother, feel responsible for creating the atmosphere of such a big part of their reality as I provide the safety of a home environment: regular meals, routines of homework, play space and time, bath times, exposing them to many activities in the hope that they will find and express themselves through at least one passion, put limits in place in order to assist my children in finding balance, plant seeds of values and faith in the eternal hope that they will blossom fully into loving adults. Tall order and I must admit that I find parenting very challenging. I am constantly doubting my efforts.
When Pablo, my first-born came along, my sister, by then armed with four year’s of mothering experience of two gorgeous little boys, equipped me with a dog-eared book about parenting and advised me to shelve it and not to bother with it! Judging by my birthing experience and the post-partum period, which didn’t look anything like I had read in my “What to Expect” book, which I had so diligently followed throughout gestation, I thought it to be good, sound advice.
So I decided to follow my wits and my instinct as I climbed up the very steep steps to the top of the parenting slide and take a blind jump down. I have been slipping, tumbling, rolling and jumping ever since.
When I found out about my illness, it was the first time in my eight years of parenting that I longed for a manual up on the bookshelf, which would contain the exact words on how to confront the children about it.
“This is what you say and this is how you do it. Step 1…”
I had no idea and very little instinct on how best to approach my children about Mammy’s funny illness. After all it showed none of the familiarly visible signs that children associate with being sick – no vomiting, no high temperature, no skin rash or no pink medicine. To be honest I stumbled between truths and half-truths and got it all wrong most of the time and a little right some of the time. My main concern was that there would be no bitter mark stamped forever in their hearts and that their bed-rock of security that I hope our home provides for them would be upset as little as possible.
In the end I followed all the advice I got from firstly the school nurse – be honest and open with the children because children have a way of fantasizing about their perceptions; from a psychologist working for the Spanish Cancer Association (Asociación Española Contra el Cáncer) who rang me one day and advised naming the disease “cancer” to my eight-year-old as he would more than likely hear about it in school, where I also teach.
When her prediction came true and Pablo, one night asked me if I had cancer and if I was going to die, I then followed my father’s advice and replied honestly,
“Yes I do have cancer and I hope I’m not going to die because the medicine nowadays is very powerful…your grandfather Noel had cancer and he has been cured and Belcha, that nice lady who gave you the green tractor when you were little, had the same kind of cancer as me and look at her now, she’s like a dancing princess. Next year when this is all over and my hair has grown back, we’ll all be on our way to Gran Canaria and we’ll be celebrating your tenth birthday.”
Throughout the summer, if my health and reaction to the chemotherapy continues to allow it, my intention is to come and go between Madrid and Asturias (where the weather is less harsh and I can rely on more family members to help out). Although I won’t be that person providing the meals and putting order in place, I hope just my presence will provide that sense of security that mammies give.
My children’s new reality is living with a sick mammy. I have no way of knowing fully how my illness really affects my children now and into the future. But I do hope that through my renewed awareness (and thank God for that, as I was becoming stale in my parenting due to sheer exhaustion), of the importance of open communication with my children and above all listening to them, that the memories of this time will remain happy and loving.