To Survive My Daughter’s Cancer Treatment, I Left Her Behind and Flew to Ireland

In the early days of my daughter’s leukemia diagnosis, I felt in control. I was the single mom of two who always found a way to make anything work. No car in the suburbs, enormous loans for graduate school, years spent living on SNAP and public assistance—I worked it all out, and I was sure I’d work cancer out, too.

Everything crumbled within the first few months. I couldn’t keep up with pandemic e-schooling, solo parenting, full-time remote work, and cancer treatment. I monitored meds, negotiated claims with the insurance company, filled out assistance paperwork, ignored the dishes in the sink, but every time I checked one line off my list a dozen more filled its place. By the time an alert for a cheap flight to Ireland hit my inbox, we’d spent hundreds of days in the hospital.

Each stay on the oncology floor sent me into a spiral of anxiety. Our lives were condensed down to a single room full of medication drips and beeping monitors, and there was nothing to do but watch my child suffer. Sometimes Carolyn felt well enough to paint or watch a movie. Other times she could only cry, her head hung over a bedpan, heaving until her cheeks were freckled with clusters of burst blood vessels.

How long had it been since I looked out at the world with fresh eyes? I’d spent months staring out at the same view of the hospital parking lot, the old rail lines beyond it, the Philadelphia skyline jagged on the horizon. In Ireland, I could put the whole burden down. For one week I didn’t have to be a cancer mom. The guilt that followed this thought was manifold—I could take a break, but back home Carolyn would still be a cancer kid. I was living a privilege she would not be afforded, and what did it say about me that I stepped away, however briefly, from my silent promise to suffer beside her?

I didn’t know how to admit I was being pulled under when I was the one who was supposed to do the saving.

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