A Letter to My Daughters

By Jessica Praley, who is living with Stage IV cancer caused by a Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor

Dear Louise and Phoebe, 
By the time you read this, I hope you remember me. I mean I hope you have actual memories of me, like how I let you sleep in bed with me and Daddy every night, Louise, against our better judgment now that you’re almost five, and how I crack up at the hilarious things you are already coming up with as a two year-old. Phoebe, I hope you remember the way my skin felt and the sound of my laugh, not just the stories that our friends and family, and the thousands of photos of us together, tell you about me. 
I want you to remember me as I actually was – not a hero or a perfect mom, but a flawed person who got impatient when Daddy didn’t empty the dishwasher fast enough, who loved that my friends didn’t cringe when I made dark jokes about my disease, and who could really be kind of an asshole sometimes! 
This will be one of many letters I’ll write to you, because as much as it sucks to have a rare and terminal cancer at age 37, it has taught me a lot of lessons that I want to be sure you hear straight from me. So, here are a few things that are on my mind today. 
First of all, if there’s any way you can possibly avoid it (which there obviously isn’t), for the love of God don’t get a life-threatening illness during a global pandemic! Attending appointments which you’re pretty sure are going to bring bad news – alone – really sucks. And recovering from a surgery that took a 27 centimeter tumor as well as several surrounding organs and parts of others from your body – alone – is even worse. I missed Daddy so much during those days when COVID restrictions kept him from being with me at the hospital. 
When you do find yourselves in impossible situations though, I can’t urge you enough to accept help from people kind enough to offer it. I’ll be forever grateful to Dr. Monica Jones who held my breast pump up to my engorged boobs for me after surgery, to give me some relief after too many hours away from you, Phoebe.
Invest in one another – please!! My greatest legacy will be you two, and part of that is giving each of you a sister. Your Auntie Emma, my little sister, has been such an amazing source of support to me and our family since my diagnosis – I really can’t even describe to you how grateful I am for her. She put her life in New York City on hold to live with us and care for you as I recovered from surgery, and between endlessly taking you on adventures, clearing all non-vegan, gluten-laden, sugary food (translation: anything delicious) out of our kitchen, and holding my hand, she dove into research that helped me find some direction and organize my life with cancer. You’ve each only got one sister, and if you can show up for each other half as well as Emma has for me, you’ll be in great shape. 
Be sensitive to ways that people might be lonely or feel out of place. I am in a weird place right now where I’m almost certain I won’t survive past my mid-40s, but I look and act (and usually even feel) healthy. In fact, I look pretty good, but compliments about “looking skinny” don’t land the same when it took cancer to make me that way. I feel out of place in my support group for metastatic cancer patients. Even though I definitely meet the criteria for membership, I don’t currently share the painful treatments and devastating side effects that the ladies around the circle with me do. Not everybody fits neatly into a category, and you can start to help them by just being aware of that. 
I know it’s not always possible, but whenever you can, do what brings you joy, without questioning it too much. I am so grateful to have a job that I adore. I’m surrounded by friends at my office, I learn new things constantly, and I put good out into the world, which sometimes allows me to stop thinking about cancer for a while. I also have amazing friends outside of work who distract me and take care of me. Daddy bought our boat while I was in the hospital, and I can’t wait for this winter to be over so we can get back out on the bay and make more memories on it! He keeps finding ways to make life fun for us in the midst of a lot of pain, and I am embracing them. He loves us so much and will always protect you. Along with that boat, you’ll inherit my growing collection of romance novels…another pleasure I’ve indulged in, without any shame and with lots of joy! 
Girls, I don’t know where your lives will take you, though I love to dream about the women you’ll become. I do hope that you’ll be kind to yourselves and others, don’t ever say I was “brave,” just say no to toxic positivity, and please give your dad some grace when he inevitably botches that conversation around your first periods. Please know I am doing everything in my power to be standing right next to him for that conversation. And never forget how much I love you.
More to come, 
Mommy

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