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02.08.11 4:15 PM ET

Telling My Kids About Cancer

When author Susan Conley learned she had breast cancer, her first instinct was to hide it from her young sons.  But in an excerpt from her new memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, she discovers their bravery is a source of strength.

Cancer follows me from our apartment where we’ve been living in Beijing to the kitchen of this old, wooden house in Maine that my parents have given over to us. My husband, Tony, and I have to be at Massachusetts General Hospital at eight-tomorrow morning for pre-op. The surgery won’t start until 10. Tonight I’m making my boys grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner.

A month ago, when we were still in China, I told my boys I had breast cancer. A wise doctor I’d met said the best way to talk to my kids about it was to tell them the truth. I’d been avoiding it. I thought I was being kind—sparing them details. But it was really a high-wire act of deception. That same doctor said we each get one cancer chit to lie to our children with, and that I’d already used mine. So I had to tell them. The hardest part was saying the words out loud. “I have cancer in my breast,” I said. “My left breast." The boys listened closely. Then Thorne, my seven year old asked me matter of factly if I would die. I told him, “No. I won’t.” And it didn’t feel like a lie. It felt like an affirmation.

I’ve come to feel as if I’m bobbing in a lake where only people with cancer swim. It’s a big lake. My husband and boys are standing by my side. But only people with cancer can be in the lake.

Then Aidan, the 5 year old, asked, “Will you always be OK?” I nodded and he seemed satisfied too. I was the one with the most fear at the table. The one who attached meaning to my words. That’s what the doctor also predicted—that all the boys would really want to hear was that I was going to live.

Sometimes now it’s as if the cancer has separated me from the boys. I don’t feel entirely like their person anymore. Maybe I’m a different version of myself—a woman about to have a mastectomy pretending to be their mother. And I have to give a lot of the parenting up to the group.

I’ve come to feel as if I’m bobbing in a lake where only people with cancer swim. It’s a big lake. My husband and boys are standing by my side. But only people with cancer can be in the lake. So where Tony and Thorne and Aidan are could best be described as on shore waiting for me to come back. Maybe they’re rummaging in the forest for wood to make a fire to keep us warm. But the biggest surprise of all is still that they aren’t in the lake. They don’t have cancer. The thin line between having and not having can seem malleable, but for me that line is everything. It separates.

The Foremost Good Fortune. By Susan Conley. Knopf. 288 pp. $25.95.

After dinner I tuck the boys into their beds. Thorne wants me to show him my muscles. “Are you strong?” he asks. “Let me see your biceps.” What’s mine is theirs in the world of young boys. So my body is in some ways sanctified to them. And how could I let such a thing as cancer transpire on my watch? They don’t know the half of it. The lights are out in their room, but the sun has just set and the orange glow comes through the curtains. “Let me see,” Thorne demands.

I’m tired and want to go to bed right after they do. I flex my arms and show Thorne my small muscles. “You’re strong,” he decides and sounds surprised. Then he looks me in the eye and asks me clearly, “Are you strong enough to survive?”

Whoa. I say to myself. I didn’t see that one coming. “Yes,” I say. I want to be honest with him. It’s my new cancer policy. I feel like Thorne knows what the stakes are. I look at him and I don’t flinch. “Yes. I’m strong enough.” Then I kiss him again on the cheek and close his door and go lie down on the floor in my bedroom until I’ve stopped shaking.

In the morning, just before Tony and I leave for the hospital, Aidan finds me in the living room and hands me a drawing he’s made on pink construction paper. He’s all business. “Mommy. When you have the surgery, you should keep this drawing near you.”

There are 30 or so pink and purple butterflies under a bed of blue clouds. The wings of each butterfly have been carefully drawn to look like they’re mid-flight. “It’s so pretty Aidan,” I say. “It must have taken a lot of work.”

Aidan says, “You have to choose which one you want to be during your surgery—clouds or butterflies.” He looks up at me waiting, and I realize he’s offering me a way to escape the operating room. How does he know I need this? How has he gotten it so right?

“Which do you want to be?”

“Butterfly,” I decide almost without thinking. “I want to be a butterfly.”

“OK,” he nods, and smiles slightly, like I’ve made a good choice. He stares at the drawing for a minute longer and then points. “Now you can imagine you’re one of these butterflies in this drawing if the surgery hurts.” He pauses again. “Which butterfly do you think is the prettiest? You’ve got to pick one.”

There are so many beautiful butterflies it’s almost impossible to choose, but I point. “OK,” he nods again and approves. “OK. Now this is your butterfly.” He stares at me briefly in the eyes. “Imagine you’re this butterfly during the surgery OK? Then, whenever you want, you can just fly away.” He says the last part slowly, like he’s giving me the keys to the universe. Then he adds, “You just get up and fly away.” He looks at me for another second, to make sure I’ve got it, then heads to the back yard to play a game of whiffle ball with my father who’s been waiting for him.

Susan Conley lived in Beijing for over two years, and returned to Portland, Maine, with her husband and two sons in December 2009. Her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares; THE FOREMOST GOOD FORTUNE, just published by Knopf, is her first book.