The Beast is Back

Natasha 020
By Suzanne Leigh
Published in the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation newsletter

It is a cloudless August day and we are waiting inside the clinic where we will learn the results of our daughter’s MRI. Natasha is 10 years old, olive-skinned, lean and vital. Her brain tumor had been resected two and a half years ago and her life has long since returned to normality: school, crazy playdates, running along the ocean trying to reach the two-mile mark, and sneaking peeks at Lady Gaga on YouTube when the parents are out of sight.

We are tense and hypervigilant as we wait for Natasha’s neuro-oncologist to show. I think Natasha is at ease, but I can’t be sure. During these past 31 months as she has morphed from little girl to almost-preteen, a part of her has picked up on our “scanxiety” as MRIs approach every four months.

When our doctor gently compliments Natasha on her hairstyle and asks her to leave us to talk in private, I sense that I am entering a new, uniquely tortuous chapter of my life.

Silent resignation

The radiologist saw something, she says. We shoot out of our seats; I gasp, sob and pace. The beast is back. There will be more surgery, radiation, and eventually chemo. Once again we will witness our vibrant girl transition to a limp, fragile wisp, whose eyes reflect silent resignation to a journey that she alone must take.

I turn to our doctor. “I love my child,” I mutter under my breath. It’s an irrelevant remark that represents a primal pleading scream from my heart.

I return to Natasha in the waiting room. I am wearing my capable mommy mask. I kiss the top of her head. It’s OK, Honey. A setback. We’ll deal with it. We walk out of the hospital, the same hospital where a decade ago, I had proudly placed my flawless firstborn from a crib into something called a car seat (car-free and child-free for so long, I’d never heard of such a thing). The sun had dazzled that day. Today the sun dazzles.

We go to the ice cream parlor with Natasha and her 6-year-old sister. A photo captures two smiling girls with their parents whose own frozen smiles contradict their stunned grief.

Cartwheels and giggles

In the weekend prior to surgery, we book a hotel in the suburbs away from the summer chill of our city. Natasha gorges on tacos and ice cream, cavorts with her sister in the pool, giggles and cartwheels. Behind closed doors, we exchange despairing whispers: “Our child had a brain tumor. And now the brain tumor has come back.”

Meanwhile something is happening to my own body while the tiny tumor blossoms inside my child’s brain. When I stand up, I black out. I find myself clutching walls, tables and people as I struggle to reach an upright position. I am not sick; I am robust. Months later, while Natasha makes a meandering recovery with many highs and many lows, I see that period of blackouts as the perfect metaphor for Natasha’s re-diagnosis. I could not stand it.

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