At the end of December I learned I had a brain tumor. In February I had surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. In the time between those two events, and since, I’ve had an intellectual and emotional path to travel.
As I wrote about on Girl With Pen, one of the initial traumas of learning about the tumor was learning that it was located in the language center of my brain. The neurosurgeon was fairly certain that removing part of the tumor would affect my language skills. Numbers were tossed around: I could lose 10% of my language functions, or 20. I found myself agonizing over what those numbers meant, trying to connect them in some meaningful, concrete way to my own life. Could I write an academic article with 10% less language ability? Could I read the research written by my friends if I were 20% deficient? Would I be able to respond effectively to my students’ questions and comments in the classroom? One subtle undercurrent to this questioning was, Is it the right thing to do to have this surgery?
And then at some point in January, a plank I’d been standing on–let’s call it denial–dissolved beneath me, and I realized that the questions I’d been asking were important, but they were distracting me from the most important implication of this brain tumor: it’s fatal. If I didn’t have the surgery, I would die, and my daughter wouldn’t have a mother.
This realization quickly became all-encompassing. Maybelle is twenty months old–a baby, someone who still needs active parenting all day, every day. I started thinking ahead to other parts of her life: her first sentences, her discovery of what activities she loves, her best friends, her dating life. I want to be there. I can’t imagine not being there. But more importantly, she needs me there. The ambiguity disappeared. It became very clear to me that having the surgery was the right thing to do.
As I moved forward through this whole process, the intimate exposure to my own mortality made a number of things about parenthood clear to me. Before the diagnosis I might not have known this about myself, but I can’t tell you how grateful–powerfully, viscerally grateful–I was and am that I have the tumor and Maybelle doesn’t. Even pre-surgery, when all the fear was hanging over me, this realization was enough to add some buoyancy to my day.
I also discovered that I identify parenthood as a role–a commitment, a passion, a series of actions–and not as a biological category. It doesn’t matter that Maybelle is genetically related to Biffle and me; she’s our daughter because every day we are her parents. This was comforting, because I know that she is loved by many, many people, some of whom love her enough that they would step in to become her parents if she needed them to. It was a realization that also helped me to dedicate myself even more fully to my choice to be her parent. In the early post-surgery days, I could often only stay awake for a few hours, but I wanted those hours to be spent on the floor with Maybelle.
And yet recognizing my own mortality didn’t make my love for language disappear. In those early post-surgery days, if I had any awake time after Maybelle was asleep, I wanted to read and write, and I did: two days after the surgery I read my own blog, and two days after that I wrote a post. As it turns out, my language skills have emerged from the surgery almost just like they were before, and this is a great surprise and an unending source of joy for me.
So I’m not arguing that parenthood is the only thing that matters in my life. As I’ve told Maybelle many times before, and as I even told my neurosurgeon, I’m a much better mother when I’m working. I’m a better mother when I get to delve deeply into other life commitments and choices in addition to parenthood, and for me these are intimately connected to language. (The neurosurgeon responded, “My wife says the same thing.”)
I don’t have a neat summation here, an explanation of what I’ve learned and what this all means. My life has many points of connection to the planet, but whether I knew it or not, a few of them are more important than the rest.