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Alicia Garey Headshot

The Beauty of a Bad Situation

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Alicia Garey
Alicia Garey

I breastfed child no. 1 for about eight months and child no. 2 for about five months. I was glad to breastfeed, although it can be isolating. It can be an intense time for a mother, but rewarding nonetheless. I worked on and off. Mostly, though, I was home with our kids during their early years. I loved being a mom (I say this with nostalgia and convenient memory loss of all those diapers and messes, thank you). My hair was in a ponytail for years. We read stories together, painted in the kitchen and sometimes in the front yard, picked flowers, played with clay and danced to music. These are the wonderful memories I get to keep. The crying, whining, cleaning, chasing and negotiating all take a back seat to the joy of watching these miracles grow into their own unique personalities.

Little did I know that my breast would betray me all these years later. The same breast that sustained the life of both of my children would develop this horrible, life-threatening disease. It is hard for me to even write the word "disease," especially when it is associated with such a delicate (and important) part of my body. Still, I am blessed. My body served an incredible purpose; to carry life, and to sustain it.

My maternal instincts want to shield my children from the awful trauma of watching me go through this ordeal. Now in their teens, they will remember these days. My cancer will be part of their story. It breaks my heart. They know I'm a feisty do-it-all little lady and I think they know I've fought hard. Still, I am so saddened that after all the years of giving them the best I had in me, they have seen me torn down, tired, bald and sometimes sad. Thankfully, teenagers are so self-absorbed, they didn't see much of that as they were busy with their own lives. I'm glad. It is my hope and belief that the years I shared with them when they were silly, adorable little kids, dancing in our living room, have paid off and that they are secure in their hearts and minds to navigate the difficult times.

I hope that many years from now I'll be able to talk with my grown children about how they really felt. We are all too close to it now. I am still healing and so are they, and so is my husband. Someday, we'll look back and express to each other what is, at this moment, too dark, too unimaginable to unravel. In emergency mode, there is no time to really think. And that is OK because in emergency mode, all energy must be focused.

I never leaned on them especially hard during my ordeal. Instead, I wanted them to know that I am still here for them. We still watched our favorite shows together and laughed. We still talked about something really funny and enjoyed each other's company. I never felt it right to express my darkest fears to them or even much beyond the frequent updates I give them on more of a factual level. They knew I had weekends of rest and that I am getting better each day.

I found other outlets for the harder stuff, attending a support group at the Simms/Mann UCLA Center. I have met amazing women there. When I had down days during chemo and surgery recovery, the kids knew I was resting. Being the mini-adults that they are, they have done an amazing job taking care of their things. Of course, my husband deserves a mountain of praise for being the most grounded, patient person I know.

I wish I could forever shelter them from illness and tragedy. I know I cannot. Instead, I can only offer tools to help handle what life deals us. I wish my kids didn't have to know this kind of pain and fear -- their own mother being treated for something so scary. That the treatment itself practically feels and looks like a disease. I didn't know this would be part of their story. Perhaps it makes us closer. Perhaps they will learn from it. Knowing that I will survive certainly helps. Perhaps they will later understand that even on the precipice of loss there is still hope, ability, beauty and vision. There are gifts even in bad situations.

Sometimes I get lost, muddling my way through the aftermath of what it took to save my life. All I need is to picture those two teenagers I live with and I am back on my path. Thankfully, there are other pieces of my life that are coming back together. The puzzle pieces are matching up again. I am just so sorry that nature is so cruel. I didn't know that our family would have to learn this hard reality close up.

Our kids have seen family and friends support us through this unbelievable time. I hope that these are some of the memories my kids will take with them as they grow and mature and remember what mom went through that one crazy year. The election year. The year my daughter started high school. The year my son went to Israel. The year my niece was born. The year we all had a chance, perhaps, to acknowledge how blessed we are, despite the unknown, despite the fear, despite the hats and wigs and quiet days of pulling together all of the necessary strength.

Despite it all, they have been loved. I guess I couldn't ask for anything more than for my beautiful teenagers to feel loved. One day, without breaking down into a fit of tears, I can explain to them how much they helped me and gave me strength, just by being themselves. The sheer joy it gives on my worst of days, watching these two kids come home from school, get cranky around dinner time and multi task -- texting while doing their homework with music and maybe even TV on in the background while eating cookies. These beautiful teenagers I get to live with are the greatest gifts and have fueled my fight each and every day. This is what they can know. This is all they need to know.