The Many Other Victims of Breast Cancer
A father shares what helped him and his child survive the loss of his wife.
The image is etched in my memory. It was the spring of 1992 and my wife, Nahid, was bottle-feeding our son, Sasha, born in January. He was sucking happily, and she was smiling at him with great love and tenderness. Strands of her beautiful long black hair wafted down and settled on his face. Her chemotherapy treatments were taking effect and her hair was falling out. There it was in living black and white -- the innocent and awesome beauty of new life, coupled with a sword of Damocles hovering over us. My life had already changed in ways I could not even have imagined.
Nahid had been diagnosed with breast cancer when she was five months pregnant and soon thereafter had to undergo a mastectomy with Sasha in her womb. Delicately balancing the needs of mother and child, the doctors allowed our son one month of breastfeeding after birth. He then had to switch to the bottle because his mother could no longer delay chemotherapy treatment.
Cancer is the only terrorist I have personally known. Caring for someone you love who has cancer means constantly waiting for the results of tests that push you either away from the cliff or toward it. The terrorist in our family seemed to go away as my wife settled into remission. Then, ferociously, it came back four years later, in August 1996, leading to multiple operations and constant pain management for Nahid. Our everyday normal life disappeared as I found myself consumed with visiting doctors, researching treatments and special diets, caring for my wife and son, and working as a partner in a law firm. My schedule was a blur, and the blessed life we once knew appeared like a mirage in my memory. It came to the point when I could not even listen to music anymore because it was a painful reminder of the elusive notion of a normal life.
This November will be the eighth anniversary of Nahid's death. I remember her extraordinarily sweet smile -- so warm, welcoming, and loving. She was an ocean of courage and beauty. Like a fog lifting, my son and I have gradually returned to normal life. Our son was 6 years old when Nahid died. This year, Sasha -- a healthy, athletic, typical teenager -- is starting high school. As for me, I not only love listening to music again, I recently started piano lessons.
Steps Toward Healing
How did we go from there to here? I've given this journey a lot of thought, and here's what helped us move beyond our grief.
- The night before she died, Nahid lay in bed. She could no longer speak, but her eyes locked into mine. She dug her fingernails into my arm the way she used to when we sat together in a plane during takeoff. "S-a-s-h-a, S-a-s-h-a, S-a-s-h-a," I heard her barely whisper with all the strength she could muster. I told her I would always take care of him and raise him the best I could, and I would always remind him how much she loved him. We held hands and I told her that I loved her. That was our last conversation. The next day she was gone. I was alone. I felt alone. But I wasn't. I had Sasha and he had me. Just as our son had been the greatest medicine for her through all her pain and kept her alive longer than anyone expected, so he would give me the strength to cope and focus on life. He was my reason to get out of bed in the morning. Our bond helped us both to survive.
- Although Sasha had been sleeping in his own room for many years, the night my son lost his mother, he came into my room to sleep in my bed. This continued for more than a year and became his new routine. When I asked his pediatrician about the behavior, he said that my son needed to sleep with me to comfort and reassure himself that I was there. He told me it wasn't a problem unless it became one for me and assured me that Sasha wouldn't be still sleeping with me when he was 15. It was helpful to hear this long-term perspective.
- Know that some people will step forward unexpectedly and others will disappear. Throughout Nahid's illness and after her death, people in my neighborhood whom I had known only casually became my angels. They picked up my son from daycare when I had to stay at the hospital or work late, brought us food, and visited. The Sisterhood of my Temple plugged us into their program of home-cooked meals, and our two rabbis were with us, side by side, every step of the way through the periods of illness and grief. Friends and community can be more helpful than therapists.
- For those of you who know someone who is caring for a loved one with a serious illness, perhaps the most important piece of advice is this -- don't wait to be asked. Don't even offer to help "in some way." Just do it. Whether it's cooking a meal, going grocery shopping, doing a specific chore around the house, or providing childcare, just call and say what you intend to do. Many people are uncomfortable asking for favors. Also remain in contact. Drop a note a few months later to let the person know you are thinking of him or her.
- I read a wonderful book, When a Parent Has Cancer, by Wendy Schlessel Harpham, MD. I found it very helpful and reassuring to read advice from a doctor that paralleled many of my own instincts. I also read books to my son. My favorite was Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. This book showed how all living things -- from plants to insects to animals to people -- go through the cycle of life. It made death seem more normal and less scary to my son.
The Breast Cancer Research Foundation has an ad that says: "Breast Cancer Doesn't Just Affect Women." It's true. The disease affects the entire family -- most immediately, the partner and children. The partner -- who juggles emotional, logistical, medical, and financial support for the ill person; cares for the children and his own mental health; and holds down a full-time job at the same time -- is also part of the disease picture. In the Bay Area, I found a multitude of support groups for caregivers, women with breast cancer, and widows, but I found no support groups for single widowed fathers. Our needs, the way we relate to grief, and how we cope are not exactly the same. In some ways, the hurt, pain, anger, fear, worry, stress, and grief are universal. In other ways, they are unique, such as figuring out how to parent as a solo dad. Yet to my eye, this group of widowed fathers seems almost invisible. More institutional support and resources need to be directed to help surviving fathers with children.
Loss and death are an integral part of life. I have experienced directly the tenuous and transitory nature of our existence. The loss of my wife also made me find in myself the ability to survive, raise my child, and face anything life throws at us with an inner strength I never knew I had.
Kip Evan Steinberg is an immigration attorney. He lives in San Rafael, California, with his son, Sasha, and their two cats.