Three virtues entwined

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Julia Hayes shares on how she comforts her daughter who had cancer with honesty, integrity and courage.

I was in our library at the computer trying to write some words acknowledging the slow brutal death of a 7-year old boy I knew. Words that extended beyond the same ol’ worn out, “I can’t imagine. I don’t know what to say. I’m keeping you in my thoughts and prayers. It’s so not fair.”

For months, I had been writing about death so present in the lives of friends that it was inevitable that it spilled over into my own. My children were constantly asking about my little friend, wanting to see his pictures that his parents willingly posted on Facebook. They wanted to talk about death. Aria especially. She knew she could have died from her cancer. She knows that lots of children do. But she was off treatment and on her way to being cured so death was, fortunately, starting to fade into the background a little. Or so I thought.

My concentration was suddenly broken when she came into the room sobbing. “Mama! My head hurts! Does this mean my cancer is back? Do I have to take the yellow pills again? Am I going to die?”

I took a deep mindful breath and said, “Aria. I love you. Catch your breath and then let’s talk about it.”

Now, it must be said that it is so tempting to react out of fear, of which I have done my fair share. This situation is particularly scary and the natural inclination is to dismantle the crisis, offer comfort, and promote a positive outlook. Typically the response is something like, “Honey, you have a headache. No, your cancer is not back. You will never have to take those awful yellow pills again and no, you are not going to die.”

But upon deeper inspection, none of that is true. Aria was genuinely frightened and she has reason to be, but she wasn’t asking me to offer her the comfort she can get from a stuffed animal. She was asking me for the truth. She was speaking to me from a place that knows how old her consciousness really is.

The hands of a child and parent touching.

Challenges are an opportunity to teach honesty, integrity, and courage.

We took three deep breaths and I stood her directly before me so we could see eye to eye. I said, “I’m so sorry you have a headache. Those are scary for someone who has just finished chemotherapy because sometimes it means that cancer is back. So I’m so glad you told me and we’ll watch you very carefully.”

She cried openly at this truth and I let her as I contained my own tears. I asked, “Are you ready for more?” She nodded yes.

I said gently but firmly, “Let’s come back to right now. This moment. You-me-here. Let’s talk about your cancer in this moment. Right now we don’t know if your cancer has come back. It is doubtful because of everything you’ve already done, but nothing is promised or guaranteed. Still, right now as far we know, you don’t have cancer so you don’t need to take yellow pills.”

She smiled and then said, “But am I going to die?”

I smiled and said, “YES! Of course. Someday. When it’s your time. But right now you are alive, so it seems to me that your time to die isn’t now.”

She stepped in close and said, “Mama. It’s so sad that Max is going to die. He’s my age.”

“I know, darling. It is sad. But we’ll honor him by doing a better job at living.”

I took a moment and noticed that we were holding hands. I realized that “Honesty” was flowing through our right hands and “Integrity” was flowing through our left. In that moment, we wrapped each other in these virtues and together, created “Courage.”

This article is available in Spanish: Tres virtudes entrelazadas.

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