Sunday at the Mall — Minus 1

By Suzanne Leigh

Veteran bereaved parents tell us that it will get better. That statement strikes a discordant note because it’s something I’ve been saying to myself since we started this journey in Cancerland.

It will get better after Natasha’s brain tumor has been removed, I told myself when she was wheeled out from the pediatric intensive care unit to the operating room. It will get better when our oncologist tells us that Natasha is cured. It will get better when she’s finished radiation. Oh, and make that chemo, too. It will get better when we’ve had three years of clear scans and we won’t need to go through the routine cycles of “scanxiety” quite so frequently.

It will get better when this recurrence is under control, I told myself when a new tumor appeared two and a half years after her first diagnosis. It will get better when we find an experimental chemo that will stop metastasis. It will get better when we find the right medicine to control the symptoms caused by the tumors: the headaches, the sleepiness, the overall debilitation.

It never did get better for Natasha and now it’s supposed to get better for me?

On Sunday our family of two parents and our surviving 8-year-old daughter undertook a common American ritual: we visited one of those bright, bustling, sensory-overloading, big-box stores in the mall. One that sells everything from chips and salsa to skinny jeans. It’s the first time I’ve done this without Natasha. My heart hurts. I am remembering the times I would carry infant Natasha to the toy aisles where shiny noisy objects would be grabbed with persistent fists. I am remembering Natasha as a robust 9-year-old, plundering the racks of clothing for the coolest T-shirt, jockeying for position in front of the change room mirror, sparring with her sister and riding the cart scooter-style.

And I remember her as a delicate preteen. She would weary quickly and we would wait by the check-out, her head on my shoulder, while the rest of the family finished the shopping.

“What do you want to eat?” we’d ask our daughters.

“Pizza!” said my younger daughter.

“Maybe a burrito,” Natasha would say. And we’d make our way to the Mexican.

Sunday’s shopping expedition is over. We have over-indulged our 8-year-old with flamingo-pink sneakers and high-heeled boots. We are emotionally exhausted but our younger child is eager to wrap up with a celebratory pizza.

We head to the Italian. And we ask the waiter, not for the table for four, but one for three to fit our newly reconfigured family.

It will get better, I tell myself as I look at a menu of unappetizing options. But what does that really mean? It used to mean that it will get better when Natasha gets better. Now it means it will get better when we get used to the pain of losing Natasha. It’s hard to see this as progress.
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