Splendor in the Grass and Glory in the Flower

In the first 24 hours after my diagnosis, every time I thought about my children, unrelenting sobs racked my body. I had often speculated about the type of women my girls would become one day. The thought of not being there to see whether Mia would indeed grow into a bright, sensitive, aloof beauty and Belle into a gregarious, charismatic spitfire made my already pained stomach hurt even more and my heart ache as nothing else could. The image of them crying inconsolably and in futility for me, for me to lie with them at night and kiss their boo-boos away, for someone — anyone — to love them as much and as well as me, tore my insides into a million ragged pieces.

So, for my own self-preservation, I stopped thinking about them. I told Josh to not bring them to the hospital, and when he did anyway, I kept those few visits very short. Invariably, they were unpleasant events, with Mia rushing to leave minutes after arriving because she was no doubt frightened by the tubes coming out of Mommy and with Belle being forcibly removed from my room as we were all subjected to her heart-wrenching screams. My babies became someone else’s children. I knew that they were being well cared for by my parents and sister and entertained by an army of relatives. That was enough for me. I had nothing to give them during those days I spent in the hospital as I continued to reel from the shock of the diagnosis and worked to get myself ready for, and then recovered, from surgery.

In those early days, I could only see my children as casualties of the war I had begun fighting, a war I hadn’t chosen. We were all victims of cancer with them being the most undeserving.

Then my sweet, crazy, naughty Isabelle — this child who literally had grown inside my body at the same time the cancer was growing — began making me see things in a different light.

After I was discharged from the hospital, we stayed for an extra two weeks in a furnished rented townhouse near Beverly Hills, rather than returning to New York immediately. I wanted more time in Los Angeles to follow up with doctors, recuperate and spend with family and friends I normally didn’t have much opportunity to see. My parents’ house was too inconveniently located on the east side. The rental was cheap and served its purpose but it was old, dirty and badly in need of renovations. And for better or worse, it was haunted.

Two nights after we moved in, while making our way through the usual traffic on Olympic Boulevard back to the rental, Belle declared suddenly in her baby-like voice as she looked around , “Mommy, I’m afraid of the dark.” It was the first time my unusually articulate, not-quite two year old had ever talked about being afraid of the dark. But truthfully, I’ve stopped being shocked by the things that come out of her mouth, having concluded that many of her precocious statements were the result of being the younger sibling of a 3.5 year old who is pretty perceptive herself. “Belle, there are lots of lights. So you don’t need to be scared of the dark,” I reassured her.

Then, that night the girls insisted that I lie down with them, especially Belle. So I lay down on the edge of the bed, with Belle next to me and Mia on her other side. After a few minutes of silence, Belle sat bolt upright and told me, “Mommy, I’m afraid of the dark.” Indeed, the room was dark but it was lit by the faint glow of street lights. “Belle, Mommy is right here. I’ll keep you safe. There’s nothing to be scared of. Now lie down and go to sleep!” She obediently lay down and then seconds later sat bolt upright again, looking around the room with those dark piercing eyes of hers, “But Mommy, I see ghosts.” Now, that was definitely a first. Mia said she hadn’t been talking to her sister about ghosts and I believe her. In the past, months ago, they’d played games that involved throwing blankets over their heads and going around in broad daylight, moaning “Booh!” But for Belle to talk about ghosts and associate them with fear of the dark was a bit more than I could expect of even her. Chills ran up and down my arms. I was definitely creeped out. Having just had surgery a week earlier and realizing how close I was potentially to death, I wondered if the Angel of Death was in that room and somehow my clairvoyant child could see him. Could she see or was she being told my future?

The next 10 days passed with Belle occasionally stopping whatever she was doing in that house to stare at a spot with the look in her eyes that told us she was seeing something we couldn’t see. Once, she asked whatever it was she saw, “Why did you come back?” Once, when our long-time babysitter put the phone to Belle’s ear for her to say hi to the babysitter’s sister as she had done a dozen times before, before the sister could even speak, Belle told her, “I see a ghost in this room.” Since we’ve left that house, Belle hasn’t fixed her stare on a spot nor spoken of ghosts, neither at my parents’ house nor in our home in New York. I have no doubt that my child saw something in that rented house. Whether it was the Angel of Death, a guardian angel or some other random spirit, I don’t know. I do know that my Belle is special, that she has magic within her.

Ever since I left the hospital, Belle’s behavior towards me has changed. She became unusually clingy for awhile. I chalked that up to our long separation due to my hospital stay. The frequency of the clinginess eventually eased. Now, she will suddenly come up from behind and put her arms around my neck and hug me for a good ten seconds, which is indeed a lot of time for a 2 year old. Sometimes, she’ll come up to me and plant a big wet kiss on my mouth and then throw her arms around my neck and hug me fiercely. Then, I’ll look into her eyes in that single second before she wants to run off, and I’ll ask her, “Is Mommy going to be okay, Belle?” “Yes,” she always says. This is when I usually take the opportunity to ask her if she sees ghosts, to which the response is always “No.”

Belle is too young to understand that Mommy is sick, but yet I believe that some part of her ageless spirit understands what’s going on. When Belle hugs me now, I feel as if she’s giving of herself to me — her life force, her hope, her joy for life. This child, whose spunky spirit so reminds my parents of me as a child, inspires me. It’s not just that I want to “live for” her and Mia as so many people have told me to do. It’s much more than that. I feel like Belle is giving me mental and spiritual weapons, reminding me of my own spunky, stubborn, fiery spirit, reinforcing my own inherent strength. Rather than being a casualty of war, she and her sister are part of my arsenal of weapons. Rather than me giving to them in answer to their incessant demands for snacks and entertainment, they now give to me too. In the days leading up to Round 3 of Chemo, which begins in two hours, I have focused on allowing my children’s touch, their embraces, their very presence to envelope me in a shroud of protective and pure love that I know can shield me from the worst that this war could ever inflict on me.

When Belle started seeing ghosts, I remembered parts of a poem I had read in high school, “Intimations of Immortality” by romantic poet William Wordsworth in which he expressed the idea that children are born “trailing clouds of glory”, with the innocence, purity and knowledge that comes from having just come from God. It is the process of growing up and the corrupting influence of society and life that strips them of all their innate angelic goodness, what Wordsworth called their “hour of splendor in the grass and glory in the flower”.

And what about we adults who are long past our moment of trailing clouds of glory and our hour of splendor in the grass and glory in the flower? What of those of us who have been indelibly scarred by our broken dreams and who face the threat of being swallowed by our own bitterness in the face of illness and loss? What are we to do? This is what Wordsworth tells us:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
.
Indeed, we will grieve not for what is lost but find strength in what remains behind, through the bonds of human sympathy born of common suffering and in our faith in something greater than we can conceive of. And no doubt, finding strength in what remains behind includes rediscovering the magic and wonder of our powerful children and letting them help us walk through our darkest hours.
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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Paula Roberts
    Sep 09, 2013 @ 21:37:46

    This one is even more magnificent than before. I love your words, and the voice you give this disease, and it is not because of my cancer experience, but your version is so poignant. Your writing is so lovely. Thank you, thank you.

    PS. I shared this on my Facebook, I never do that, I’m like your mother.

    Reply

  2. June
    Sep 10, 2013 @ 02:17:38

    Julie, I found your blog through the forum. I am not the patient, it is my mother. You are a wonderful and powerful writer. I will be keeping you in my prayers and thoughts… Sending you all my best, June

    Reply

  3. Gretchen
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 12:40:55

    This is something we as parents should all read! Thank you for sharing it with us!! You truly are a gifted writer and amazing woman. I have no doubt you will fight this.

    Reply

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