What do a missing child and metastatic cancer have in common? Unanswered questions. The unknown.
I am a person who likes to have information, and to have it now. I want to know what is happening, when, where, and why. Just ask my kids. They are all adults now — the youngest will be 27 this year, and the oldest besides Michaela will be 40! I have them on the Find My Friends app on my phone, which enables me to just look in and see where they are, and to know they are okay. They were not terribly resistant to this, because before I had the app, I was always calling them, asking where they were, who they were with, what they were doing. I mean, you have to grant me some leniency here, because I am the mother of a missing child. My kids sometimes call me nosy, but I just consider myself an information gatherer.
So you can imagine how hard it was for me to have a missing child, to not know where she was, or what had happened to her, and how hard I worked at trying to organize the information I had into some coherent answers. It turned out, however, that there were no answers to these questions. Eventually I found comfort in the quote by Rilke:
I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
I had no choice, really, but this gave my not knowing some meaning, which was a kind of an answer in itself. There was something about the not knowing itself that was important. I had to live it, to learn from it, and perhaps I would live my way into the answers. And in some ways, I think perhaps I have, although they did not come in the concrete way I had desired. They came in the value of the questions.
Of course, there was another side to this not knowing. It forced me to live through the days, into years, into decades, with every imagining possible. It wasn’t a purposeful exercise, and it wasn’t something I played out in dramas in my head, but I imagined my daughter alive and suffering, I pictured her terrified, I pictured her in pain, in grief, I pictured her reaching the point of giving up, of giving up the hope of rescue, of giving up her life. Honestly, the only pictures that gave me any comfort were of her having gone on to a better place that this awful world that would do to her what it did.
Every time there was a major lead, and there were many, I had to spend days, weeks, months immersed in that story, more imaginings, more horror. When a bone was found that they thought might be Michaela’s, I spent three long months planning a memorial service in my mind before I was informed that it was not Michaela after all.
I finally told the police department that I didn’t want to know what they were working on. It didn’t really matter anyway, because the only investigator that ever really talked to me retired and the new investigator was of the more traditional bent of keeping things close to the vest. But the roller coaster of possible answers was something I just could not take anymore.
And I settled into that. I settled into never knowing what had happened to my daughter, at least in this life.
Then came cancer. I knew when I was diagnosed that it was not coming for me at that time. I told my son-in-law, “I know it is not going to kill me now, but it will one day.” And sure enough, after surgery, chemo, radiation, and hormone therapy, it turned out that my remission had been an illusion. I could feel the cancer growing again just months after the completion of my chemo and radiation, and it was finally diagnosed this year.
And I’m going to tell you, this is not fun. I generally feel okay. I get kind of tired, and I get depressed. But physically, I have little aches and pains in my bones as a result of the treatment, and it’s livable. But I have an unusual cancer, lobular carcinoma. I have had different doctors describe it as “a sneak attack cancer,” or tell me that “it doesn’t behave itself,” it is “difficult.” It doesn’t follow the rules, so you don’t know what it’s going to do. It grows in rows of cells instead of clumps of cells. It doesn’t show very well on scans. The tumor that we know exists didn’t show on a PET scan, so how can we know whether it exists anywhere else? Unanswered questions. I reassure myself that it is slow growing, and also that it did eventually show up on a mammogram and ultrasound, so presumably if it gets big enough to do damage we will see that.
But my biggest questions revolve around the future. Metastatic carcinoma is a terminal diagnosis, but how? The tumor I have is not going to kill me. This is just wispy strands of cancer embedded in fat, and fat is not an essential organ. But stray cells are floating around in my body, and they will eventually take up residence in a more difficult place. As I found myself imagining all of Michaela’s possible fates, I now find myself imagining mine. And it is every bit as difficult, because what I am really imagining is not what I will endure. I mean, I can think of a lot of things that would be hard for me to deal with, but my biggest concern is how it will impact my family. I am the caretaker here. I don’t want to be a burden on them. I don’t want them to have to take care of me. I don’t want anyone to suffer, to grieve, to feel that ache in their hearts. Not even my dogs!
I tell myself it is stupid to think this way. I am 66 years old, so it’s not as though I have a whole lifetime ahead of me anyway. Even with a metastatic cancer diagnosis, I could easily live into my average expected life expectancy. I should put those questions out of my mind, live purposefully, enjoy every moment, accomplish something. Suddenly I want to go back to school and start a new career! I want to fight the good fight up until the end, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Eventually perhaps the questions will quiet themselves. I think of other people who are living with cancer, thriving, contributing great things to the world, from Kris Carr to Kate Bowler. I think of people who have died. I think of Chad Boseman, of how much he contributed to the world after his cancer diagnosis. And of course, RBG, who powered through a couple of cancer diagnoses while continuing to change the world. And oddly enough, I think of those who have died and they give me courage. Like, if they can do it, I can do it. The dumbest of thoughts, but nevertheless something that pops up in my head.
Perhaps this is why I have had to try to close off the questions about Michaela. Perhaps there is just a point of overload, where it is impossible to entertain two gigantic sets of unanswerable questions. Perhaps I need to feel peace about Michaela, to believe that she is at peace. It is comforting to me to think that when I leave here, when I leave my family here, that she will be there waiting for me, that the hole that has been in my heart all this time will be filled and I will hold her in my arms. And in my heart, I can tell you in all honesty that I believe this is the case.
Thank you all so much for being here with me, accompanying me on my journey. I have been grateful for the rich responses I have received on my blog. Some have said they have had a hard time figuring out how to leave comments. Apparently there is a big block of information at the end of the blog itself, and then they might put in some ads, but if you scroll all the way to the bottom, there is a “reply” box, and you can leave your responses there. I appreciate the facebook messages, but they disappear into the stream pretty quickly, and I would like to keep them.
By the way, do you like the photo accompanying this blog? This photo was on the tree at the market where Michaela was kidnapped. If you look at it, you can see my reflection on it. It feels to me like a photo of Michaela and me together.
See you soon,