Of Joy and Chemo: I used to be tough. Then my daughter was born.


Matilda, a few days after birth, holding on to Dad’s finger. (David Larimer)

After I was diagnosed as having Hodgkin’s lymphoma, people kept saying: You’ll be fine, you’re tough. The first part of that reassurance is true, but not the second — I’m not tough anymore. I had my toughness surgically removed June 7, 2013.

I was 28 weeks and 5 days pregnant. I was in severe abdominal pain, and for the third time since having part of my small intestine removed two months earlier, we headed to the hospital. My husband and I knew the drill — I’d be admitted to the maternity unit, where they’d strap a monitor onto my belly to keep track of our daughter’s heart beat. Just like the other times.

This time, when I got to the hospital, the pain was worse than ever, but we got it under control and figured we were settling in for another stay of a night or two. But a few hours later, people started rushing into the room, worried and then panicked over the monitor. I remember being wheeled into an operating room. I remember loud voices and urgency. That was a little after 10 p.m.; I don’t remember anything until about 1 p.m. the next day. My memories of the rest of the day are fuzzy, but I do remember my husband telling me our daughter was alive.

I didn’t even get to meet Matilda that day. I met her the next one, when I was well enough to sit in a wheelchair and visit in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). It was as if someone was taking me to be introduced to my arm. Matilda was in a plastic box, an isolette, hooked up to machines that were helping her eat and breathe. It’s not how you imagine meeting your child for the first time. Capable nurses worked around me, fixing things and knowing when and how to react to the alarms that went off frequently. I could only ask if I could hold my daughter, please.

Matilda spent 13 weeks in the NICU. At first, I thought my new lack of toughness was temporary, caused by hormones and recovery from the C-section. I cried at songs on the radio, I cried when I talked about crying. I tried not to cry when I saw women in the late stages of pregnancy, uncomfortable with their huge bellies, their babies safe within. Matilda got bigger and stronger in the hospital. She started breathing on her own, learned how to eat. She would stay awake and watch the nurses from her bed. But I didn’t get tougher.

Today is the anniversary of her due date. She’s walking and chattering and nosy and noisy. The scary early days of her life and the difficult days near the end of her NICU stay when I couldn’t bring her home even though I had never wanted anything more are behind us.

And so I don’t have to be tough. Cancer sucks. Chemo is no picnic. But when my toughness was taken away, I learned that I didn’t necessarily need it. I learned that you can still be happy when bad things happen. My husband and I learned that we could rely on each other more than we had known before. I finally figured out the difference between sympathy and empathy. I learned about the sadness that can be inside people that you can’t see. I’m still not patient, but I learned that sometimes you can let go of things that you can’t control.

Having cancer feels like being forced to learn these lessons all over again. I’m not sure why I have to. But it doesn’t seem I have much choice. I hope I don’t come out of this more tenderized, but maybe in a year I’ll look back at the lessons on patience and empathy and think they’ve helped make me into a better version of myself, someone my daughter can look up to more.

In the meantime, I’m glad she took my toughness. It makes me smile that one of the sounds she’s making these days, in addition to shrieks and giggles and chortles, is a roar.

Rupar is a mobile editor at The Post. You can email her at terri.rupar@washpost.com. She’s on round two of six rounds of chemo.

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Terri Rupar is The Post's mobile product editor.
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