When I was four my mom was diagnosed with melanoma.
It was discovered when a mole on her ankle started changing size and color and her leg swelled up like a water balloon. I remember I would press on her leg and make it into funny shapes not knowing that she was possibly dying.
I was so little and very hooked to my mother’s hip. In almost every picture of me at that age I was clinging to my mom—her skirt, her purse, her lap—wherever she was there you would find me.
I wasn’t quite sure what was happening except that one day it seemed my mom’s bed was replaced with a hospital bed and my aunt was taking me to nursery school, ballet and the occasional ice cream shop.
I had no idea how close my mother came to dying. I only knew that when she had to go to UCLA for her experimental treatments I was by her side walking down the long hospital corridor, sitting on her lap and sucking my thumb as needles with serum were being pressed into her chest leaving marks that looked as though a waffle iron had just burned her.
My mom survived. She had to have all of her lymph-nodes removed, extensive treatment, but she survived. She is a miracle.
I bring this up because I was cleaning the house this weekend. I mean, seriously cleaning. The kind where you go through every drawer, every shelf, every box and make those hard calls as to what to keep and what to toss out.
I have a habit of saving every single drawing, art project and school assignment my daughter has ever done. From her first happy face on a piece of paper to oodles of napkins from restaurants where she learned how to write her name—it’s all here. I tell myself, Susan, you can’t keep all this stuff. It’s crazy. She’s not going to care about this crap when she’s older — and, yet, I can’t throw it out.
So, there I was cleaning, putting all of my daughter’s Mother’s Day cards, stories, sketches, All About Me projects in files when I found something that took me by surprise.
It was a very old, orange cardboard paper with a small photograph glued to the left side of it. The photo was of a little girl with dark hair and big green eyes with circles under them. A thought bubble was hand drawn starting at the little girl’s mouth and extending onto the cardboard as though it were floating over her head.
The little girl was me.
It was an art project I did in nursery school when I was 4 years old. And in the thought bubble, written in pen, was this hope,
I wish there was no disease in the world.
Obviously the project was supposed to show what our 4-year-old wish was. While I’m sure others in my class had wished for bicycles, rainbow unicorns and trips to Disneyland mine was a desire for the world to be rid of disease… or at least for my mom to be.
I can’t help but think about how that wish seemed to stay with me throughout my life. From mom’s battle with cancer to her long battle with alcoholism, I don’t believe there was or has ever been a time where my 4 year old wish changed.
But today I can look back at that child and say,
She beat cancer and she is sober… go play, little girl. Go play.
I’m thankful for this random art project that my mother thought to save. Knew not to throw out.
That’s why I don’t throw away my girl’s things.
Maybe one day when she’s a mommy and cleaning out some drawers she’ll come across the drawing she made for me when she was 8 years old. The one where she drew an otter swimming on his back in the ocean with seaweed secretly floating underneath him. The one where she wrote,
To mommy love, no matter how much seaweed traps you, you will always be free in my heart. Love Hannah.
The one she gave her mommy during a really rough year of unemployment.
And maybe, like me and my orange cardboard art project, it will remind her of the kind of soul she had as a little girl… and, even more important, the kind of soul she probably will still have as a grown woman.
You’re mommy got out of the seaweed, baby. Go play, little girl… go play.
(this column was first published May 2012)