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What do I tell them?

Headshot of author with long sandy blond hair and striped scarf and winter coat.
Me in January 2020 before my cancer diagnosis.

I want to share what I am learning about parenting for social justice while navigating a terminal illness, or perhaps because of it.

A year ago this week I was diagnosed with breast cancer and within two weeks we knew it had metastasized, taking over my liver, my spine, and my lungs. From one day to the next my life, and the lives of my husband and our two boys, ages 9 and 12, changed drastically.

While I’m doing much, much better these days, it is clear that this is not the kind of illness that goes away. At any point it could very well take me from this life. My kids have known from the beginning that I have a terminal illness.

A year ago I had an extremely full schedule, balancing my work as an equity and justice trainer and volunteering with various local committees and racial justice organizing collectives. I was nearing completion of the Parenting 4 Social Justice book, and my husband and I were parenting active kids, sometimes attending upwards of 10 sporting events a week! Alongside, I was trying to figure out an ADHD diagnosis for one of my kids.

Then it all stopped, and I was home, sitting in a chair with a heating pad, throwing up, losing my hair, losing weight rapidly, sometimes with an oxygen tank and other times not getting out of bed. For three months I barely talked with my kids, except to say “goodnight, I love you.” My focus, my full-time job, my song, became healing. In the past year I have done so much to heal - my body, my spirit, my emotions, my relationships, my patterns, and my past.

Husband and two sons are shaving the author's hair with an electric razor.
In April 2020 my family shaved my head to get ready for chemo.

Author with bald head and two sons eat cake on the sand by the ocean at dusk.
Celebrating my 43rd birthday and the end of the chemo with my family at the beach in June 2020.

After about six months of increased activity - a period that had me feeling more like “Angela the angelic agitator,” as I like to call myself - we discovered that the cancer was in my brain. Which brings me to today: needing to go on chemo again and deal with all the side effects. And while things aren’t nearly as bad as last spring, yesterday I had to cancel my plans and last night I could barely make dinner for the boys (read: toasted hamburger buns, a carrot, and a few leftover chunks of chicken).

So much of this process has been about letting go of my identity as a social justice activist. I’ve had to get to the heart of what activism is for me and how I’m able to engage in it given my new life circumstances. The ways that I parent for social justice have shifted, and expanded.

I used to bring my kids to protests and events - but that hasn’t happened in a year. I used to consistently build relationships across the social justice community - but because of cancer, and because of Covid, this hasn’t happened either. We have been “pod” bound, and while we feel blessed to be part of an amazing support group, it’s made up of a small, homogenous group of families. I used to be constantly bringing new social justice books, music and other media, and conversations into my kids’ lives - but much less so this year because so much money and time is going toward materials focused on healing. My kids are now constantly having to navigate the painful realities of cancer and Covid, and I think twice before deciding to bring more discomfort into their lives through conversations about social justice.

Many times this year I have felt that I’m failing at parenting for social justice. Putting the Parenting 4 Social Justice book out into the world now can feel hypocritical when I think about social justice in the way that I used to: the pull to give everything I had to the work because of the scope of the problem, because people I love are hurting, because of the responsibility I feel to do everything I can to alleviate suffering, to heal my own internalized white supremacy, and help create a world where people don’t suffer at the hands of other humans, and because I am socialized as a white woman in capitalism, which means to go go go and take care of everyone else first. This last one is key, and in my year of respite I’ve worked to unpack how it shows up in me. I’ve been going deep within myself to find the causes of my own suffering, and to heal those causes.

I am gaining a new understanding of what social justice is and how I can show up for it no matter what my life looks like - and I want to try to put it into words. Let’s see how this goes.

Tell the truth in a way kids can understand.

The question, “What should I tell them?” has come up for me and my husband so many times this year in relation to my illness. We decided to go about telling them about cancer in the same way that I had learned to practice telling the truth with social justice issues like talking openly about our class status, and talking about police murdering innocent people, disproportionately Black and brown people, and not being held accountable. Just as with talking about social justice, when talking with the kids about cancer we kept what we said as simple and honest as possible, with a bent towards a vision for a healed Angela, a healed world.

Telling the truth about cancer engages my kids in truth telling, in being able to hear the truth, and in being able to envision beyond the truth. This has ripple effects on everything, including truth telling about social justice.

Believe in myself and my personal power.

I believe I can heal. I believe that I know what is best for me. I believe that I’m enough. I have seen over and over again this year that when I listen to myself, even when others don’t believe me, I am reclaiming my power. My power has been eroded by society telling me I’m not good enough because I’m a woman, because I’m short, because I have strong emotions, because I don’t make enough money, because I’m an idealist. Because of the intense journey I am on, my power is being revealed to me this year.

When I am in my power, I can do a much better job of supporting my kids to be in their power, at not giving away their power to a society that says they need to look a certain way, be a certain way, to ignore their inner voices. I can be a mirror to reflect back to them that they have power and they can use that power for good in the world.

Believe in healing, whether or not a cure presents itself.

This is preposterous, at least that’s what the hospital staff tell me. I can’t heal from this, I can’t be cured of stage 4 cancer, that’s what they say. But I know differently! Anything is possible. We are constantly evolving, evolution has not ended. A cure for my kind of stage 4 cancer hasn’t happened yet, but doesn’t mean that it won’t. I am a unique being, a unique body, just as every single being and body are unique, nobody has any idea what’s going to happen. No need to write my story before it actually happens, right? Not to mention that healing does not mean that my body is cured. Healing to me is broad and expansive and cannot be labeled and put in a box. It is a way of being and it is the way of being that I am embracing.

My kids are surrounded by this healing energy every day, because this is what I practice. And I have no idea how it is impacting or benefitting them, I just know that it is. This healing is what is needed for social justice to be realized. So much incredible deep harm has been done by oppressive systems and individuals who can sometimes embody those systems. No one goes unscathed. We all need healing.

Connect on a soul level with my kids.

Whoa! This is cool. As I’ve been able to connect more deeply to my soul, or my truest essence, I’m able to catch glimpses of my kids’ shining souls, and for brief moments I feel a soul to soul connection. This is harder than it sounds, and also way easier than I thought it would be. Instead of me looking at my phone or focusing on, “Did you empty the dishwasher? Did you brush your teeth? Make that thank you card for your Grammy,” I put that aside and am just with them, their purest self. When I can do this I feel an intense joy and I can feel both of our souls expand. This is living in the present moment. More laughter and play automatically flow into our lives when we are connecting this way.

This practice reverberates. It makes it easier for me to connect on a soul level with all those beings around me - humans, birds, trees, water, and all. And it builds my kids’ feeling of what it is to really connect with another being. This kind of connection is foundational for a world where social justice is realized. When we understand and feel our connection to all beings, we know that when other beings are hurting, we are also hurting. We are inspired to change our actions, to create what it is that will heal us, all of us.

Author with hair growing back holding a fluffy gray bunny, husband holding black kitten, each son holding a kitten, and chickens in a coop in the background.
August 2020 family portrait with our new "covid pets", 3 cats, 1 bunny, 6 chickens.

My kids are soaking all of this energy up. They are receiving so much information by accompanying me in my cancer journey. They don’t talk about it, and have nothing to say to me when I talk with them about it. Surprisingly they haven’t even expressed any feelings about it. We are working on getting them set up with therapists with the hope that they will start talking about it more. Yet, even if they aren’t expressing their feelings they are receiving energy, they are learning about healing, self-power, community, and justice, through my energy field.

So what do I tell them? I tell them the truth.

Monarch butterflies on Mexican sunflowers in my summer 2020 garden symbolizing transformation.

“I have breast cancer. It might cause this body to die, and for me to transition into the spirit world. And I am going to do everything I can to heal, which doesn’t mean that I won’t die. Dying is a natural part of life and if it is my time to go, then that is ok. We aren’t there yet, so I am living to the fullest every day. I am practicing healing in my thoughts, in my actions, and in my spirit.”

“Yes, George Floyd and so many other Black people have been killed by the police. And we can do policing differently. When we work towards defunding the police we can use that money to create a safe community - people have a lot of plans for how to do this - dignified housing, livable wage, universal health care, dignified mental health support and much more. There are white people who hate Black people, and they are making it hard to create safe communities. But you and I also make safe communities impossible when we don’t take the responsibility and stand up for Black people. Let’s support each other in having the courage to do what is best for BIPOC folks, which is best for everyone.”

“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are not the answer to our problems, no politician can be. The system is broken and needs to transform. It will get worse before it gets better and we are all here on earth just for this time. We each have unique gifts to bring to this moment. It will be painful, and this moment is necessary for freedom. We each need to show up as our true selves. Let's support each other to be the best we can be every day.”

sunrise at the Atlantic ocean - new beginnings

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