15 Sep

Isa, three days before her diagnosis of leukemia. I had put her in the sink for a cool bath to bring her fever down.

Security is when everything is settled. When nothing can happen to you. Security is the denial of life.
–Germaine Greer

I’m standing in the grocery store aisle, staring at the myriad of canned goods, trying to figure out which brand of stewed tomatoes offers the best deal, when I hear a voice next to me.

“Oh, my goodness—isn’t she adorable!”

I turn and face an older woman who has a bemused smile on her face as she looks at my daughter in the shopping cart. I’m used to people making comments about Isa, because she’s a beautiful child with big brown eyes and skin the color of caramel and cinnamon, so I turn toward Isa, expecting to see her flashing a toothy smile at the lady.  I’m surprised to see that Isa has fallen into a deep sleep, her head resting on her shoulder at an odd angle, like one of the floppy cloth dolls from the toy box in her bedroom.

“Look at that sweet girl, sleeping like an angel. She’s all tuckered out!” the woman exclaims. “Did she stay up too late last night?”

“Uh…” I stammer, not sure of what to say. “I guess so…”

“Well,” she smiles at me, “You are so lucky! I wish my kids would’ve slept like that in the grocery store when they were little. I would have gotten a lot more shopping done!” She walks off chuckling down the aisle.

My chest feels heavy. Isa is completely out.  Why is she so tired? She slept over twelve hours the night before.  And now it’s only 9:30 a.m.

I try to put the fear out of my mind, but as much as I want to deny it, I realize something is seriously wrong with my little girl.

I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a perfect childhood. All of us carry baggage around with us from our past that influences how we behave as adults. Because of my own past experiences, I tend to shy away from conflict and I’m likely to hide from confrontation and anger. But my closest relationship is with good, old-fashioned denial.

I’m sure it’s because I was raised in a dysfunctional family in the 1970’s, complete with an alcoholic father, who when drinking, would send our household into a frenzy of fear and anxiety.

As the middle daughter between two brothers, I became adept at putting on a happy face, running around trying my best to make everything all right so my father would choose us over alcohol. I thought that if I was good enough, I could influence his behavior. Sometimes I thought it worked; he would stay sober for two or three days and I could pretend we were a normal family. It never lasted, though—he would always fall back off the wagon. On those drinking nights, I would hang suspended in a bubble of anxiety, filled with a sense of foreboding while I waited for everything to explode into a horrific scene of drunken, irrational behavior.

I loved my dad so much when he was sober, and I hated him more when he drank. My child’s brain believed my actions influenced whether or not my father drank, so I did everything I could think of to prevent it. I cleaned the house without being asked, was an exemplary student in school, and practiced the piano for hours so that my parents would be proud of me. I tried to make my dad laugh so he would not get annoyed with me or my brothers and use his irritation as an excuse to drink.

I became the pleaser child; the one who put my own feelings aside in my attempt to create a façade of a normal family life. I learned to pretend that my reality was an acceptable one, and that I could control it if I tried hard enough.

Because these feelings of anger and hate and disappointment that I had toward my father were so intense and painful, I subconsciously tucked them all away, and put them into a locked box so they couldn’t hurt me. I’ve carried that heavy thing around on my back throughout my entire adult life. It’s been so much easier not to feel.

When I look back on when Isa first got sick, I can see how I let my coping mechanism of denying anything painful prevent me from facing what I must have known in my heart: that my daughter was extremely ill. All of Isa’s symptoms were laid out in front of me like a detailed road map, but I was unable to follow it because of my inability to accept that bad things can and will happen to all of us.

I stood still in fear and denial, when I should have leaped into action.

I’m Isa’s mother—I should have known how sick she was: she had absolutely no energy; she could barely walk up the stairs without getting winded. She had dark circles under her eyes and was sleeping more than usual. The worst part was that she had recurring fevers of at least 102 degrees for almost a week and a half with night sweats so severe that the sheets were often soaked the next morning.

Rene knew that something was seriously wrong with our daughter. He told me repeatedly to get her to the doctor, but in my stubbornness I kept brushing him off, saying, “Don’t worry—it’s just a virus. She’ll be fine in a few days.”

But she wasn’t fine. One evening at bedtime, her gums started bleeding spontaneously and didn’t stop for at least an hour. I thought she had cut herself with her fingernail. The blood-soaked tissues I used to try to stop the bleeding had sort of an orangey color. She had thrown up in the morning and wouldn’t eat any of her dinner.  I was potty training her at the time and her urine was the color of apple juice. You’re probably thinking: “Get a clue, Lady—your kid is really sick! Get her to the hospital! IT’S LEUKEMIA!”

It never even crossed my mind that she had cancer. Twice, I ended up taking her to the local clinic because her pediatrician was out of town, and both times, the doctors there reinforced my own diagnosis of a virus and sent us home with instructions to give her Motrin and come back if her fever didn’t subside. I never questioned them, because I wanted to believe that it was just a virus.

I never imagined that my child could become catastrophically sick.  Many times, my other three children had fevers and acted listless; I’d worry a little, give them medicine, and put them to bed. A few days later, they’d get better. But Isa didn’t get better.

My good friend denial is a tough contender, though. In the recesses of my mind, I knew it was something serious, but I was just so damn afraid to admit it to myself.  I sharpened my denial like a knife on a wet stone. She will be all right! I waited and waited for Isa to wake up in the morning, jump out of bed and once again act like a normal two year old, but she never did.

By the grace of something magnificent in the universe, my own good sense finally got a foothold on my denial, and after we got home from the grocery store that morning, I called and insisted that her pediatrician see us immediately.  He took one look at her, and said, “This child is extremely pale, and she’s not acting like a normal two year old. Let’s get some blood drawn.”

That afternoon, Isa was admitted to the hospital with severe anemia.  Her bone marrow was extracted from her hip and sent off to the lab for analysis. Two days later, we found out she had leukemia.

Denial went down and reality won the fight. This was very bad indeed. No matter how hard I tried to prevent it, the bubble had exploded once again.

The difference is that now I can’t possibly deny my reality, because there’s nothing I can do to change it. I have to accept that very bad things happen sometimes, even to very good people. The trick is that I have to use this ordeal of my daughter’s cancer as a chance to learn something pivotal and enlightening, because that’s really what life is meant for: big lessons and little lessons. It’s about what you learn from your experiences.

I’m also learning that there really is no such thing as security, and that’s all right.

It’s better to feel afraid than to feel nothing at all.

7 Responses to “Denial”

  1. Leah September 15, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    Crying at work – “it’s better to feel afraid than to feel nothing at all.” *chills* So good. I love you!

  2. meleinsb September 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    I love these little windows into your soul….I see myself reflecting there in some of the things you say. Keep it up 🙂

  3. nancy September 15, 2011 at 11:07 pm #

    Oh Jess! So much to say. So well said.

  4. Becky Green Aaronson September 16, 2011 at 3:17 am #

    Simply beautiful…no denying it!

  5. Kristin Schwartz September 16, 2011 at 3:49 am #


  6. Betty Pierskalla September 16, 2011 at 6:33 am #

    Jessie, I am crying as I read your newest blog. Funny how I have known you so many years, and yet not known you..Be gentile and kind to yourself as you go through this process. Your writing is beautiful.

  7. babyangel1213Marilyn September 16, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Jessie, you have written the words that I have know for many, many years. Toward the end, you dad not only affected your life but mine as well. I know the terror. I love you so much Jessie for putting down the words. I know how it is dealing with a very sick child. I acted the opposite when Nicci was 16 months old and his doctor wanted to send him home with a yeast infection. I said I was not going anywhere until he confirmed what I already knew. Nicci has Type 1 diabetes and can easily die very quickly unless treated.
    You are very strong my dear friend and know life is very precious.
    Always with love your ol…ol buddy

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