I have heard the expression “it takes a village to raise a child” countless times, probably more so as a result of my occupation. It is true in the sense that as a teacher you partake in the raising of children and often wear many ‘hats’ in order to do so. But aside from acknowledging that sentiment, I never really gave it much thought until recently. The second I was diagnosed with cancer, a village magically appeared – rising from the abyss and settling in around me (or something to that effect). This village consists of my parents, Jax (my sweet Golden Retriever), family, friends, next door neighbors, colleagues, doctors, nurses, Hillcresters (people at the cancer center), former and current students, and members of my community.
If one were to conduct an anthropological study, each villager would assume a unique role in the overall well being of the ‘child’ – in this case me, the cancer patient. Anthropologists study kinship which is the relationship between people based on family, marriage, or other cultural arrangements. These studies conclude that in many cultures children are not raised by their parents alone, but that the community in which the family resides also takes some responsibility for that child’s upbringing. However in the modern era, the extended family tradition was replaced by the nuclear family model, leaving parents the sole responsibility for their dependent children. Illness changes that regardless of the age of the ailing party. People graciously rally and offer support for the sick individual as well as the frantic immediate family and thus a village is born.
Admittedly, this village model has taken some getting used to for me. As a very independent young adult (early thirties), it has been trying at times to accept the help and sometimes watchful eye of my parents. I have a very close relationship with both of my parents and have always spent a considerable amount of time with them. My mom and I sort of have that Lorelei and Rory Gilmore Girls thing happening. For example when I moved off on my own, we created a Friday night dinner and a movie night to ensure that we always had one night a week to really catch up. And my dad and I are very similar so we sometimes butt heads, but are still very close. As an only child, I have always had the full attention of my parents and have always been their sole focus. I think in some ways that may have been the result of my shocking entry into the world, two months early, causing them to fear for my life almost immediately. They had to be watchful over the incubator for nearly two months after I was born. My mom claims that she bargained with God to let me live and she would never ask for anything again. And well it worked with the help of modern medicine and apparently it will have to work again as I fight my Hodgkin’s Lymphoma nearly 32 years later on the dot (my first treatment was the week of my birthday). Since my treatment started my parents have been there every step of the way- doctors’ appointments, treatments, etc. My mom stays with me during treatment, for me and for her own peace of mind. Once we got into the routine of the regularly scheduled programming it was easy, but now with my new refractory status, intense treatment and soon to be followed transplant, everything seems magnified. My mom has to move in with me for the 100 days and while I love being with her I also love my independence. And I think as a young adult this is the hardest part. You have to accept the fact that to your parents you are a child, their child. So we all try to compromise some and it works. After all, they are the center and foundation of my village.
My village is also made up of my family, both blood related and life related. My grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin have been incredibly supportive. In some ways, this has been a blessing because we all make more of a concentrated effort to see one another. I now have monthly luncheons with my aunt and cousin, when before it seemed we only got together on birthdays or holidays. My second mom, Nancy, has also been a Godsend throughout this. She is a constant support for both myself and my mom. She too has been with me since day one, she and my mom have been best friends for over 50 years, so she is most definitely part of my family and so is her son. He is the closest thing to a brother that I’ll ever have and I am his daughter’s godmother, an honor I cannot even begin to explain. I just love that little girl to pieces. I love spending time with my ‘brother’ and his amazing wife. This experience has led us to also spend more time together. In many ways having cancer has reset my priorities, I work less and spend more time with my family and friends. I have to admit that I think I enjoy my life now more than I ever have.
My best friend Steph has also been an instrumental member of my village, she has been my support system through all of it. I consider her family as well. When I was diagnosed, she ran the gamut of emotions that I did. After her google search on what to do when your best friend has cancer, she vowed never to treat me differently or force me to take walks in nature (which the website) and everyone else suggested. She stayed true to her word. We do what we always have and have tons of fun in the process. Every once in awhile sh” gets real when we have heavy conversations about the reality of all of this, but it’s nice to have that person to go to with the heavy stuff too. In some ways, I feel worse for her because everyone we knows asks her how I am or what I need. Takes some of the pressure off of me, but she ends up having to field a lot of questions and navigate the offerings of support. I greatly appreciate her taking one for the team (or our really small gang of two).
My other friends have been equally amazing in a variety of ways. Tammy and I keep our monthly get togethers, which we started one New Years several years ago. She is also my fashion consultant. My friend Jaime, both friend and colleague have fabulous dinner dates. Matt sporadically pops in to harass me as he has done since I was 13. My high school and college friends have been awesome and offer unconditional support anytime and all the time. We go to painting parties, have kitchen table talks, and catch up for old time sake. Some of my high school friends have taken my diagnosis harder than others because back in September we lost one of our closest friends (he was more like an overprotective brother to me) to Stage 4 Melanoma. That unbearable loss led some of us to try harder to reconnect and stay connected and with my diagnosis too, it feels even more imperative that we do so. I have to admit that having all of these people in my corner has helped me stay positive throughout.
My colleagues and administration at school have been wonderful in supporting me in whatever I need. I couldn’t ask for a better school community to be a part of. I am fortunate in so many ways. You also realize the impact you have had on your students over the years. Some of my former students check in frequently over coffee, dinner, or skype (now that they are all in college) and my current students ask how I’m doing when they see me. These relationships have also been a motivating force behind staying positive.
The part of the village that one never expects is your team of doctors and nurses and other personnel. Prior to this experience, I liked my doctors but not enough to commit to seeing them weekly. Z changed all that. As my oncologist, he has to see me and treat me, but he is not forced to invest in me personally. But he is invested and he does this with all of his patients. He takes an interest in truly getting to know you. He even reads this blog and comments on my fashion sense and just randomly checks in. I knew he was part of my village without a doubt when I saw him in attendance at a memorial race for the friend of mine that passed away in September. All I can say is he really shows up and that is so important! He isn’t the only one, the oncology and IV nurses I have met are equally as incredible. In many ways they have become my actual friends. Some on facebook, some via texting and phone calls, others just when I see them. They know about your life and you about theirs. They cheer when your blood counts are good and they are just as disappointed when things go awry. Julie may have been more upset about my refractory status and stem cell plan than I was. I can’t even tell you how much that means to me that I feel so comfortable with all of them and know that having them in my village gets me through this. And the doormen who claim I make their day with my smile also make mine. It’s the little things.
My community overall has offered support and words of encouragement that are appreciated more than they know!
And lastly one of the most important members of my village is my Golden, Jax. I got Jax three years ago as a way to curb my workaholic mentality. He is my first dog and my first real commitment. For the most part it is just he and I in the house, so we have to take care of each other. I admittedly was more worried when I thought Jax had a cancerous tumor recently than I was about my own cancer status. Luckily his was a rare benign tumor, thankfully. He is like my child and to my parents a grandchild. So I can’t even express how thankful I was when the stem cell transplant coordinator told me I could keep him in the house during my 100 days of house arrest. He may not be the type of dog that picks up on the fact that I am sick, but in many ways his energy makes me better. So I’m glad to have him running around in my village.
From anthropological stand point, my village is pretty impressive and has certainly helped me get this far!! So thank you villagers!