Tonight's picture was taken in May of 2005. Mattie was three years old and enjoying his trip to the butterfly garden at Brookside Gardens in Maryland. Brookside Gardens is a hidden gem in our area, which houses some of the most spectacular gardens in the spring and summer and then around the December holidays, they have an absolutely AMAZING and unforgettable garden light display that you can walk through. A light show, like I have never seen before or since. Mattie saw this garden during both memorable seasons and LOVED it.
Quote of the day: The better part of one's life consists of his friendships. ~ Abraham Lincoln
My dad sent me this quote today, and it seemed quite timely given the conversation Peter and I had last night as we went out to dinner with our friends Christine and James. I do believe that one of the greatest gifts in life can be found within the friendships one develops, cultivates, and nurtures over time. However, what happens when the friendships that seemed so important to you and survived what you perceived the test of time fade away? Well, what happens is you mourn the loss of that connection and bond and try to understand what happened that caused this unforeseen demise. But in essence, the death of a friendship, is a form of grief. It has been my personal experience that childhood cancer severs friendships, even long-term one. I wish I could say I cornered the market on this problem, but unfortunately this is a commonplace experience for families who battle childhood cancer. Regardless of whether a child survives or dies, friends disappear, and what you are left with is the grief associated with the cancer itself, and the multitude of other griefs that ensue from the aftermath of the disease (such as losing friends for example). What this means is you are left to contend with one of life's worst tragedies (the death of a child), as well as contend with this loss without the friends you perceived would always be a part of your life to support you.
As I was discussing the loss of friendships with Christine and James, I could see that what I was expressing was not something they were aware of, or would have even expected had happened to Peter and I. This is not a subject matter I talk about often on the blog, but I guarantee you if you ask ANY family who is or has battled childhood cancer, they will tell you about the surprises and shocks they had regarding their friendships. The people who you think will be there for you, many times are NOT, and those who you may barely know, step up to a process you wouldn't want to sign your enemy up for. In addition, families who battle recurrent cancer diagnoses (meaning the cancer goes into remission, but then months or years later, the cancer comes back) will also tell you that the friends who helped them through the first cancer battle, may not be there during the next one. Many things can explain this drop off, such as friends can burn out after the first battle, the notion of going through this again with the family is too much to handle, or worse some families have told me that their friends think that round two of cancer will be easier than the first round, and therefore support isn't necessary! Which of course is NOT true!
I bring this up because Abraham Lincoln's quote captures the richness and meaningfulness of one's life, friends. As I have had to come to terms with Mattie's death, I have also tried to understand the fading of friendships. From my perspective it is abundantly clear that my life versus that of my friends (especially those who are parents) are VERY different. We no longer have the same interests and commonalities, and more specifically, we no longer have the activities that bring us to the same geographic locations (such as school, soccer, playgrounds, etc) where we would typically connect. One thing is true about friendships however, and that is they don't just happen or endure time. They require attention, investment and nurturing, and without the commonalities that draw people together, it is very hard for even the best of friendships to survive. After Mattie died, I had friends who literally stopped all communications with me. One friend even told me she could no longer be my friend (after over a decade long friendship) because my situation made her physically ill, and for her own health, she had to sever the friendship. I have been told other things as well, and the best I can do is put this into context, try not to take it personally, and realize, seeing Mattie get cancer and die, is traumatic for my friends who knew him and us.
Yet I always had this notion that one's closest friends would remain with me through the ups and downs of life. I suppose childhood cancer illustrates to me that my notion is foggy and perhaps unreasonable. Either that, or perhaps these people were really never my true friends to begin with. What I do know however, is some times accepting the reality of Mattie's death is too painful, it reminds people of the fragility of life, and particularly how life and its destiny are really not in our control. These are all things we as human beings do not like accepting or reflecting upon. In some ways, I know when people see Peter and I, all these emotions are running through their heads, and I can't blame them. I suppose if I were in their shoes, I too, would want a reprieve from this as well. Unfortunately though for Peter and I, there are NO reprieves. This is our daily existence and the test we have is to figure out how to survive this.