My daughter, Ana, loved to look at the sky. Her phone was filled with photos of sunsets, acres of clear blue vistas and feathery cirrus clouds that curled above the trees in our sleepy little neighborhood in New York.
Roughly 11 of the 90 or so photos on her Instagram feed feature the sky.
That’s why I burst into tears last week when, after two days of relentless rain, the weather cleared and the sky bloomed blue and white. I wanted Ana to see that perfect sky so badly that it took my breath away. A few seconds later, my grief turned to guilt at the unfairness of it all. I’ve seen many more skies than Ana did in her short life.
In March of 2017, the month she died, the sky was anemic, leached of color, grey as gunmetal. She took pictures of it anyway.
The darkest secret of my grieving heart
My secret? I am a failure. Don’t try and tell me otherwise. I couldn’t save Ana, couldn’t fulfill my single most important task as her mother — to see my child safely to adulthood. My survivor’s guilt is pervasive, destructive and often unexpected.
In a sadistic, martyred way, I sometimes hope I’ll die of cancer too. My daughter had to endure the disease for five years and she was just a child. I was supposed to die first, to pave the way for my children and grandchildren, but cancer doesn’t work like that.
I hate cancer as if it is a person — a drunk driver who mowed Ana down one rain-soaked morning on her way to school, a wild-eyed shooter at a movie theater or a mall, a predator who stalks children. It helps, sometimes, to have someone (or something) besides myself to blame.
In his incredible book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee likens cancer to a sentient, unstoppable force.
Dr. Mukherjee writes, “To confront cancer is to encounter a parallel species, one perhaps more adapted to survival than even we are.”
Cancer not only returns. It learns. Here is another quote from Dr. Mukherjee’s book:
“Cancer is a phenomenally successful invader and colonizer in part because it exploits the very features that make us successful as a species or as an organism. Every generation of cancer cells creates a small number of cells that is genetically different from its parents. When a chemotherapeutic drug or the immune system attacks cancer, mutant clones that can resist the attack grow out. The fittest cancer cell survives.”
In its way, cancer is a better parent than me. It is stronger, more persistent, and undeniably more clever.
From the age of 11 until the day she died age 15, Ana endured intravenous chemotherapy, multiple surgeries (including a liver transplant), radiation and targeted oral chemotherapy. Still, the cancer kept growing.
Cancer was the enemy, the doctors were the heroes, and I was just Ana’s mother, a bystander, powerless to help. Cancer stripped away the standard tools of comfort I’d once taken for granted — a hug couldn’t make it better. Nothing made it better.
When the March weather finally cleared, just several weeks after Ana took that last photo of the sky, she’d already died.
Continuing to live
I must learn to forgive myself, to let go of this guilt and of the many flavors of regret that cast a shadow on even the brightest of skies. But how?
I don’t know the answer to that yet. I’m only just now recognizing how pervasive my survivor’s guilt is. It’s the voice in the back of my mind that’s constantly yammering at me, telling me that I don’t deserve joy because Ana isn’t here to share it with me.
This guilt existed before Ana got sick. It’s connected to the oldest part of my psyche. Sometimes it wears the cloak of shame and that is the source of my deepest pain.
I am ashamed that I couldn’t save my daughter from pain and from death. Happy Mother’s Day to me, the world’s worst mother. Happy Birthday to me, the mother who gets to live another year when her child is gone.
As Ana’s peers turn 18, graduate from high school, and go onto college, I feel myself coming a bit unglued. “Look, their parents succeeded where you failed,” the voice in my head yammers, “What kind of mother are you?”
My sincerest hope
The irony of this train of thought doesn’t escape me. Ana would’ve been furious if she knew that sometimes I picture myself getting cancer as penance for surviving. I have what she always wanted — life, health, a future. She would’ve rolled her eyes and pointed out how stupid I was being (she wasn’t one to mince words).
The self-destructive power of my guilt is ruinous to everything Ana fought so hard for — to be normal, to experience life, to take pictures of the sky.
I don’t want to feel like this anymore. I need to examine this destructive line of thought, scrutinize it closely, and then discard it. Guilt can be a lot like cancer. It has the potential to consume all of the good parts of myself until there’s nothing left but darkness.
“Cancer is not a concentration camp,” writes Dr. Mukherjee, “but it shares the quality of annihilation: it negates the possibility of life outside and beyond itself; it subsumes all living. The daily life of a patient becomes so intensely preoccupied with his or her illness that the world fades away. Every last morsel of energy is spent tending the disease.”
I would offer up that grief — and guilt — have the same destructive potential.
My sincerest hope is in the simplicity of forgiveness. The brilliant physicians that treated Ana couldn’t save her, so how could I expect that much from myself? But we did buy her time, a gift that allowed her to learn to play the guitar, make friends, and truly live her life.
We worked as a team — her doctors, her family, my husband and I — we gazed at the sky together, seeing it through Ana’s eyes.
In my heart, I know that Ana would want me to look up at the sky and feel joy instead of sorrow. That was her final gift to me. I sincerely hope that, in the end, it will quiet my guilt and allow me to forgive myself.