My Daughter’s Cancer Illness Shifted How I Look at Clutter

During her treatment, her things became precious artifacts. Now I embrace a different way of looking at the artwork and the floating baby socks.

Jessica Phillips Lorenz
Apparently
4 min readJul 29, 2019

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Two children drawing pictures with their mother
Photo: Hoxton/Sam Edwards/Getty Images

“This guy is doing his splits!”, my 4-and-a-half-year-old says as he points to a beloved drawing. Sharp black lines eek out a figure with a circle-shaped head and leg lines shooting out at right angles from a black-lined-torso. The eyes have pupils (for maybe the first time in his short artistic career) and the figure’s hair is poking straight up. Apparently, my son has discovered that when a person is coming down from a jump, their hair goes up.

A little detail about gravity becomes the centerpiece of a perfectly imperfect little drawing that I can’t bring myself to throw away. It goes in a “keepers” pile. I have a few of them. The piles migrate from the dinner table to my desk to any other horizontal surface in our small dwelling. And, I know, I could take a picture of it and store it forever in the cloud without sacrificing any physical space. But my son’s chubby, sweaty little hand held a fresh marker when he drew this, and now that passing moment has been time-stamped forever.

I don’t want to necessarily hold onto the past. And I don’t want to freeze time. I know too many families who have had their children’s lives bookended before their eyes.

In 2017, my daughter — who was just 6 years old at the time — was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma called Burkitt’s Lymphoma/Leukemia. On a summer’s day, we went from a doctor’s appointment to the ER to the PICU to many months of in-patient treatment. Somehow, in spite of it, we have made it to the miraculous now.

My daughter’s cancer illness shifted how I look at the clutter.

During her treatment, her things became precious artifacts. Her toys, clothes, shoes and books carved her out of the negative space, like some unknown girl. Someone who read the “My Weird School” books and loved “Heidi”. Someone with several small bottles filled with glittery potions and a well-curated “fancy stuff” collection of gems and single earrings she found on the street. Her little treasures could make my knees buckle with grief.

I’m not going to read the book about letting go of your stuff in order to find peace. I’m also not going to cry about my babies no longer being babies. Because I’ve realized that growing up is the real gift — a gift that I know not always promised.

I have a baby sock that floats in and out of various drawers. Just one. It’s so tiny, with a little yellow patch on the heel the size of my pinky. It stops me in my tracks with a sense memory of a time when we swirled in tiny socks. I can’t donate it to someone who needs it. I can’t throw it away either. The way it transports me back to those very moments is so visceral. So I put it back in my drawer, a time capsule of the lives I’ve lived.

I embrace a different way of looking at the artwork and the floating baby socks.

I’m sick of the sticky sweet, oh-so-precious, “they grow so fast” lament about the passage of time. Instead, what if we were to open our arms wide and embrace it? The aging. The growing up. Everything we are unsure about. Every choice that doesn’t land exactly where we hoped it might? What kind of rebellion might it be, if the not knowing is actually the knowing?

I hover around the words afraid to say them — because of some deeply rooted Judeo-Christian guilt, a fear of hubris, or the other shoe dropping or somehow creating a curse — but I am (shh!) happy. We’ve been blessed with impossible amounts of joy, even though I don’t know how it’s all going to work out. Even though dread lurks just off stage in my mind at all times.

My daughter is doing great today. She’s going to theatre camp and falling in love with Shakespeare. And I’m looking ahead. Arms stretched toward what’s to come, even though I don’t know what that might be. I have to live here, less I surrender to grief and worry.

But I’m going to keep the piles.

Keep the reminders.

Keep the mess.

As a medical mom, I have no choice.

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Jessica Phillips Lorenz
Apparently

Writer, educator, cancer-mom. Real Simple, Parents, MUTHA Magazine, and a theatre festival for babies in Northern Ireland. jessicaphillipslorenz.com.