Months before my elder daughter was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, I started leaving brief handwritten notes at the bottom of her lunchbox. “I love you, Sweetheart, and I can’t wait to see you after school!”
When I retrieved her lunchbox after school, the note remained seemingly untouched along with remnants of a sandwich, tangerine peel and uneaten baby carrots. My lusty 7-year-old was in too much of a hurry to eat her lunch and join her friends for tag or tetherball than to respond to a message from mom.
Periodically I continued the lunchbox notes. Someday, I told myself, Natasha would grow up and remember those tender messages.
At age 10, when Natasha’s brain tumor had started to metastasize and her prognosis was very poor, she started to respond to my lunchbox messages. “I love you SO much and I miss you so much. You are my best friend,” she wrote on the back of my own message to her.
Her message was painful in its poignancy. I knew her closeness to me correlated to the severity of her diagnosis. In the last two years of her life while her healthy peers would accept a perfunctory kiss at best at school pick-up time, Natasha would put both arms around my neck. While they campaigned for weekend slumber parties with BFFs and mom-free time at the mall, my fragile child always wanted her parents close by.
At the same time, Natasha started writing letters to her parents, younger sister and other loved ones. These were fervent declarations of devotion, often accompanied by moody watercolors of rainbows, angels, vivid pastels of wild animals or warm family portraits with dad’s arms encircling the three of us. In hindsight those letter and pictures were her way of telling us that she knew her life was limited and she was grateful to those that she loved.
A week after Natasha had passed away, I realized that I had never written her a letter. It was overdue. I wrote of emotions that were too intense, too cumbersome for her to have heard when she was alive. I told her about the day she was born when I had placed my cheek on her soft head and whispered: My heart beats for you, Natasha. I told her that I had never experienced real fear until I had become her mother. (Sure I had been scared, but ultimately the worst that could happen was that I would die. As a mother, losing that precious new life incited far greater fear.)
I told her that I’d have done anything, anything to have saved her life. That I had wished so hard that the brain tumor bullet had hit me, instead of her; that my own rude health disgusted rather than delighted me.
And I told her that she had taught me to love without limits and that my infinite love for her would carry me through the rest of my life.
I placed the letter in a drawer where I keep her mementos. Inside is a manila envelope containing the golden brown wavy hair she had lost following full brain radiation. In another envelope is the blonde hair she’d lost two years previously due to chemo.
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At times I am drawn magnetically to these two envelopes; their contents cause anguish, but they are a tangible part of her that I get to keep.
Deeper in this drawer are other emblems of her life: her letter to Santa (“Please may I have an American Girl doll for Christmas. I hope you are doing well and are not too cold”). And a letter to the tooth fairy requesting that she wake her up so they can talk. There are journal entries recounting happy carefree times, princess birthday parties, trick or treating and beach vacations with friends.
As I mourn Natasha, I am learning that when the pain is acute, I need to focus on those items at the bottom of the drawer. They reflect the time before we entered Cancerland and the all-too-short period before she recurred, when the word “cure” would be tentatively mentioned. I need to remember that while her brief life is defined by disease, it is also defined by joy and innocence.
My surviving daughter is 8. A year ago, I started to leave messages in lunchbox. “I hope you are having a good time,” I wrote. “I can’t wait to see you after school.”
When I picked up Marissa, the message was still there, along with the detritus of her lunch. “Did you read my message?” I asked. “Yes, but I was too busy to reply.”
I hope that my surviving child with her pink cheeks and flawless health history will always be too busy to reply to the messages in her lunchbox.
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