In September 2013, my 9-year-old son, Adi, was diagnosed with leukemia. Two and a half years later, he was better. A lot happened in between, but the relevant fact here is that The Boy Lived. And I was grateful.
The thing is, there’s grateful, there’s #grateful, and there’s I will never ask for anything ever again, because The Boy Lived.
I chose the third option.
When Adi was two years old, we learned that he had a rare genetic syndrome, Sotos syndrome, which causes physical overgrowth and developmental disability. By the time the cancer diagnosis came, I had eight years’ experience parenting a child with special needs. (Which also meant eight years of anger, sadness, and taking Lexapro to manage my depression and anxiety.)
When we told people about the cancer, an overwhelming reaction was, “Why Adi?” Well, yes. Why, Adi, indeed? Shouldn’t the bad luck of already having a kid with special needs somehow protect us—protect him—from the further bad luck of leukemia?
Wait, it gets better. Or worse, actually.
A week after Adi was diagnosed with leukemia, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. If I were writing a novel and did this to my characters, people would shake their heads and say, “Yeah, that’s not really believable,” which is an entirely accurate description. Our lives were absolutely unbelievable.
A pediatric oncology ward is, most of the time, a surprisingly upbeat place. Celebrities pop by. Gifts are distributed. Also, there’s a really cool way to turn syringes into makeshift BB guns. But at the end of the day, it’s a pediatric oncology ward, and not all kids beat cancer.
When you watch another mother scream because her baby is dying in front of her, you feel every muscle in your body turn to jelly. You can’t catch your breath. Your heart pounds so loudly you can’t hear anything else happening around you.
You think, Please don’t let this happen to me. Please don’t take my baby away. I will do anything.
And when your baby lives, you remember that promise.
You know how lucky you are, and you are so grateful.
That’s how you get to thinking, I will never ask for anything ever again, because The Boy Lived.
Before Adi was sick, I was a freelance writer with a great reputation, steady clients, and consistent income. Plus, I had the sympathy of everyone I’d ever met, so there were plenty of offers to introduce me to new clients. Rebuilding my business should have been straightforward.
It wasn’t. In my head, my earning money would violate some sacred deal I’d struck with God, The Universe, or whatever force had kept my son alive. I didn’t have the right to happiness, let alone meaningful work—or heaven forbid, money.
I played small. I took on work at rates I hadn’t agreed to in over a decade because it was work that would keep me busy, if not interested.
Adi was born in a home birth with a midwife. We lived in Los Angeles at the time, and the Santa Anas were blowing that day. There had been a wildfire, and the air was filled with ash. It rained down on us like black snow as my husband and I walked up and down our street that afternoon.
Moments after Adi’s birth, the midwife told us she didn’t like the way he was struggling to breathe, and we transferred to a hospital, where Adi spent 11 days in the NICU. During the entire time he was there, I didn’t drink coffee. I had created an elaborate arrangement with God where I would not drink coffee, and my baby would be OK. I have no idea if God knew about this arrangement, but it made absolute sense to me at the time. Magical thinking is interesting stuff.
Now I created a similar deal where I would do boring work that I didn’t enjoy, and I would accept terrible pay for that work—my penance—and in exchange, my son would continue to live and be healthy.
And just in case I ever started to feel a little bit sure of myself, to think that this whole cancer thing was well and truly behind us, I would suddenly get a message that another child from our close-knit oncology world had died, and I would think about how lucky we were.
I will never ask for anything ever again, because The Boy Lived.
Reading this, you might think that Adi is our only child, when actually, he is the third of our five children. If you’re counting along, you realize that I have four other children, whom I had more or less abandoned for the two years and change that Adi spent in the hospital.
My daughters are the two oldest, and they had always known me as a freelance writer. When they were babies, I would carry them around in slings and read first drafts of articles out loud to them. (I also nursed them while watching Weeds, so don’t think too highly of me.)
My oldest does an impression of me. “Hi, I’m Abbi. Did I ever tell you that my son had cancer?” And yes, that’s fairly accurate. I felt like this one thing defined me now, and it was important for me to know my place.
My younger sons, I realized, saw me very differently from my daughters. They didn’t remember me working. They knew the broken, fearful version of me. And while perhaps that alone should have been enough to snap me out of where I was, it wasn’t.
I knew I needed to stop spending my mornings crying on the floor of my kitchen. On an intellectual level, I understood that I was not moving past my fear. But I could not make my body do the things that might have helped, and on another, more emotional level, I was sure that I needed to be this sad and unhappy all the time because I didn’t have the right to anything else.
As you know, healthcare in the United States is kind of a mess. I live in Israel, and my son’s treatment was all covered—like, we paid nothing. But I was in a Facebook group for moms of kids with cancer, and so many were in desperate financial situations. They needed to go back to work and earn money, but they couldn’t be in office jobs with set hours.
Post-treatment, cancer kids still have a lot of medical appointments. They miss a lot of school. Flexibility is key. I started teaching some of these women how they could get started in freelance writing. It was a little bit, nothing formal, but it started getting me off the kitchen floor and to my desk in the morning. And because the first question people ask is, “Why would anyone pay me to write?” I started talking a lot about mindset, limiting beliefs, imposter syndrome, abundance. I listened to a lot of Jen Sincero.
I’m not a fan of false dichotomies. I don’t believe women have to choose between career and children. I’m constantly encouraging people to replace either/or with both/and. Which led me one day to the idea that The Boy Lived and I can have more.
It wasn’t like I had a sudden moment of clarity and everything clicked. It was more like a gradual awakening to possibility.
I poked at this thought, the way you check a sore tooth with your tongue. I tested it. I held it in my head and then in my throat. I felt it poke my heart with sharp edges. It felt dangerous, as if I were facing down a wild, rabid animal in the woods. I wanted to retreat.
It was safer to play small, certainly. I could live with my teenage daughter making fun of me and my sons never knowing the person I used to be. I could be unhappy all the time. But unhappy, which had been my default state for a long time, finally started to feel uncomfortable. Being grateful all the time is exhausting—and it also makes other people feel like they don’t have the right to complain about anything. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what I saw when I looked at myself, it was that I really, really wanted a new iPhone, or a great cup of coffee, or time to read a good book—and I didn’t want to say no to all of those things anymore.
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The idea of both/and was stuck in my brain, and I couldn’t get it out until I leaned into it. So I did. I heard about a project that excited me, and I quoted a price that felt ridiculous because I wanted more.
Reader, they hired me.
The Boy Lived, and I can still have more. Why do we go on roller coasters and walk through haunted houses and watch scary movies? We like a little bit of fear, in measured doses. I’m learning, slowly, to balance grateful and more. Both/and. It’s a mantra, and I say it out loud when I’m afraid, when my anxiety flares, when I see that another child we knew has lost his fight.
I’m grateful every day. And I want more.
Abbi Perets lives in Israel with her husband and their five children. At SuccessfulFreelanceMom.com, she helps women break into freelance writing so that they don’t have to choose between children and career.