Home News A Mother’s Day wish on cancer’s pain

A Mother’s Day wish on cancer’s pain

This Mother’s Day, as she struggles to manage her cancer diagnosis and parent her children, the Princess of Wales is still the focus of unwanted media scrutiny. As someone who at the age of 6 learned that his father had leukemia, my Mother’s Day wish for the princess is that the press grants her and her husband the kind of privacy that allowed my parents, especially my mother, to get through the toughest period in their lives free from prying eyes.

From the start of my father’s illness, my mother made it clear to me that his increasing thinness and frequent trips to the doctor were different from just being sick. We had entered a world of changed expectations, a world we would cope with day by day. There were no long family talks about medical treatment, no what-ifs on what might happen if the leukemia progressed.

“You can come with us to the doctor’s,” my mother said in the summer my father’s treatments began. It was OK to be fearful, even sad, during the year and a half that followed. My mother made no effort to hide her worries.

The adjustments I made without being told what to do never felt like burdens. I quickly realized that I should no longer ask my father to let me ride on his shoulders and that feeding the cat was now my job. In the last weeks of his life, when he chose to die at home rather than in the hospital, I adjusted again to what had become our new family normal. I understood by watching how my mother entered and left his room when I could sit on my father’s bed and talk and when I should let him sleep.

My father died early in the morning on a school day. My mother realized what had happened as soon as she awoke, but she did not want to alarm me. She quietly went downstairs and made breakfast as usual before I walked to school with our neighbor and her son. Only after I was gone, did my mother call the police and my father’s doctor.

It was not until I returned home late in the afternoon that my mother told me Father had died. “He always talked about how much he would miss you,” my mother said. I did not feel deceived as I sat on her lap and cried, and years later, when I learned all my mother had taken on by herself, I was filled with awe.

At the funeral for my father, he lay in an open casket. My mother wanted me to understand that he had not “passed away.” His death was permanent. A different life now awaited us. Looking into the casket, I was struck by how healthy my father appeared, but seeing him there was like staring at a photo. I would, I knew, never see him again. My last goodbye to my father came a week later when I helped spread his ashes in our backyard garden.

I have already outlived my father by over a decade. If I could turn back the clock, I would willingly give up the extra years I have been granted so he could have them added to his life. But that is the extent of my magical thinking. Longevity does not by itself seem nearly so important to me these days as a life shared with those I love. That’s the legacy my parents made credible by trusting their own values when cancer struck.

By all accounts the Princess of Wales is facing a far more treatable cancer than the one that took my father’s life. All the more reason, I think, for steering her own course. All the more reason why she should never have been put in a position in which photoshopping a picture of herself for the benefit of the media seemed like the only way to guard her privacy.

My mother never spoke to me about what, if any, advice she got from friends or family on how to deal with my father’s illness, but I can imagine the conceit behind such advice would have angered her. Weeks after my father’s death, when my mother gave his suits to my one uncle his size, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. She had retained what mattered most about him by trusting her own feelings and mine from start to finish.

Mills is professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of “Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.”


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