I have to confess I had a thing for Jackie Kennedy.
Style, grace. Just something about her that has always attracted me.
And one of the many things that impressed me about her was her level-headedness. Despite being one of the most famous women in the world, she had a sense of what was truly important.
For example, she was once asked about being a mother, and she said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much”.
I love the quote. I love it because it really does help clarify your priorities – it gives you a north star – for what matters most in your life. As a parent – as a father — it is so difficult to balance competing priorities like work, community and family. How do you have a successful career and raise great kids? These priorities often seem like they are in conflict.
But Jackie Kennedy was clear on what mattered most: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” (I am also amused by the use of the word “bungle” — I am not sure that I know anyone who uses that word. But it certainly has helped the quote stick with me for years.)
Now if you are looking for a surefire way to BUNGLE raising your children….getting cancer when they are 5 and 7 provides an excellent opportunity.
I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in the summer of 2007. It was a shock and it was terrifying. And as my wife Lisa and I processed what was going on – we had two major concerns: 1) how do I get the best treatment possible and 2) what is the best thing we can do for our daughters?
When I was first diagnosed we spent a lot of time on both these questions. And I think — I hope – how we have addressed question 2 is one of the few things I have done well in life.
From the beginning, we had great assistance from Lisa’s sister, Barbara, who is a child life therapist. She knew what questions the girls were likely to ask (“Can I catch it?”) and what their concerns would likely be (“who will pick me up at the bus stop if Daddy is at the hospital?”). Barbara helped us predict how the girls might react, and she has always had great suggestions of what we could do to help them along the way.
Lisa and I have had two simple principles that govern how we approach our girls and my cancer: 1) we are open and honest and 2) we keep their lives as normal as possible.
Being open and honest means always telling the truth — even if we don’t share every detail. If they have questions, we answer honestly. Usually we share a subset of what we know – the kids tend to lose interest after a while.
I think there is nothing more likely to screw your kid up than lying to them. So when I talk with newly diagnosed cancer patients, I always tell them to tell their children the truth. They will find out anyway – do you want to be the one who tells them – or do you want to leave it to chance?
To be transparent and supportive, we have taken the kids to the hospital to see where I get my chemo treatments; we sought support groups for kids. We found a great overnight camp – Camp Kesem – that serves children who have a parent who has cancer or who has died of cancer. Camp Kesem has been a magical experience for our girls – a week each summer when everyone understands what they are experiencing.
We have tried hard to keep the kids lives as normal as possible. School always comes first. And they have done more than their share of after school activities – soccer, lacrosse, swimming, basketball, religious school, musical instruments, summer camp, Brownies, and more.
We schedule my doctor’s appointments, scans, treatments to avoid conflicts for the girls. We are fortunate to have family and friends to cover for us when we can’t.
Being a father has given me a great opportunity to focus my energies since my diagnosis. Spending time with my family has always been important – having cancer has made it an even higher priority. I have been very fortunate to have had a great quality of life over the last few years — and that has allowed me to experience so much with my daughters. I have attended their school assemblies, presentations and concerts, we have traveled together, and we have watched several seasons of American Idol and Amazing Race and so much more.
Any father cherishes these moments. Perhaps I cherish them a little more than I would have if I didn’t have cancer. It forces me to step back and think – and be grateful for the time together.
I have tried very hard to follow Jackie Kennedy’s advice. I hope I haven’t bungled my kids.
Only time will tell.