Growing Up Normal

October 20, 2014

I grew up in a normal household. Normal is an ambiguous word, encompassing a wide range of possibilities and situations – a word whose definition is defined by each person’s personal experience. For me, normal was being awakened in the middle of a school night to be told that my mother had to go back to the hospital. Normal was attending school the next day without mentioning a word about the previous night’s events to anyone. Normal was rarely consuming a home-cooked dinner, instead opening the refrigerator and freezer to see shelves stacked with shiny tinfoil pans of lasagna – the classic meal given to a family in need. Normal was seeing the wig sitting innocently on the nightstand. Normal was living in a constant state of uncertainty. Normal was growing up with a terminally ill mother, diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer when I was five years old. Looking back, I realize that perhaps my situation was not quite normal at all.
The story of my own life is inexorably tied up in the story of my mother’s. From the minute of her diagnosis, my family’s life revolved almost solely around hers. Afflicted with such advanced cancer, a type with no known cure, the prospects seemed bleak – the prognosis was for her to live less than two years. Confronted with imminent death at such a young age, any possibility of a carefree childhood quickly disintegrated. Cancer is an insidious disease, physically residing in one person but affecting everyone – forcing each family member to undergo a personal struggle against the ailment. Together, my family chose to fight the battle against this illness – each of us contributed to the war-effort in a different manner. My mother subjected herself to numerous experimental drugs in hope that one would pan out. My dad worked tirelessly in a high-pressure job because the health benefits covered expensive treatments that prolonged my mother’s life. Realizing that the extent of their commitments left little time for parenting, I took on the responsibility of raising my younger brother and myself.
From the time I was six years old, I took care of my brother, Noah. The duties increased as I grew older, until it seemed that I was not only his older sister, but his mother as well. Assisting with homework, cooking dinner, organizing the schedule – these tasks became a part of my daily routine. My primary focus was ensuring Noah’s well-being. Though cancer destroyed any aspect of normalcy in our lives, I fought to give Noah a childhood he could remember with fondness. Throughout the dark storm of a story spattered by the poisonous stains of cancer, I tried to be the umbrella that would shield my brother from the harsh onslaught.
The spring of eighth grade began with what seemed to be a routine hospital stay for my mother. Suddenly, without warning, we received a call saying that her condition had worsened. Unexpectedly, our family of four became three. My mother’s death triggered my father’s slide into deep depression. With my father completely consumed by grief, my brother and I were left to fend for ourselves. For two years, I ran the household, attempting to maintain some semblance of normalcy in our tumultuous lives.
The human life is an equation – moments are added together, compounding second by second, until each person remains the sum of their personal experiences. True joy cannot be understood without unbearable sadness, just as life’s greatest struggles provide the backdrop against which to view the most bountiful rewards. Cancer forced me to uncover the deepest depths of myself, gifting me with a sense of maturity and allowing me to cultivate strength, ambition, compassion, and determination. The past defines who I am today, but the future remains a brightly beckoning road. My adolescence may have been unconventional, but I’m sure glad I didn’t grow up normal.
Hannah Stulberg