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An Abiding Presence

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. lxxx-lxxxii | 10.1353/sew.2013.0091

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

There is a fragility to the connections that bind family members together. Circumstances in families can change, sometimes too quickly. An unexpected crisis, say the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, can place unbearable strains on relationships. Thirty-six hours after her daughter Nadia's jaw cracked as she ate Halloween candy, Judith Hannan heard the chilling diagnosis—cancer. With that diagnosis she and Nadia entered an alien world. In her memoir Motherhood Exaggerated Hannan recalls the painful journey she made at the side of Nadia, a journey that disrupted their lives and their family's lives.

After a series of tests Nadia was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma. Surgery and chemotherapy offered the best hope for a cure for the malignant bone tumor. A turbulent and grim six months followed, placing strains on the parents and siblings. The Hannans' marriage had followed the traditional patterns of that era. The husband had his career; Judith stayed home and took care of the children. With Nadia's illness she assumed the burden of caregiving. She, the protective mother, helped Nadia navigate the hospital environment, explained the procedures to her, provided the nursing care, and absorbed the frustrations and resentment of an eight-year-old child whose life had been put on hold. Mother and daughter developed a strong bond, sometimes excluding other members of the family. Hannan took pride in playing the role of a strong mother, but she freely admits that she sometimes resented having to assume the major burden for Nadia's care.

Hannan recognizes certain painful truths as she explores the impact of Nadia's illness on the dynamics of their family. Tensions developed between her and her husband. They had come from very different backgrounds. Her husband, John, was of Irish immigrant extraction, and she derived from an Eastern European Jewish background. They had resolved many of their differences, but they sometimes differed in their approaches to childrearing. He was less inclined than she to take seriously the anxieties the children experienced. In addition to that they lived in separate worlds. He had a demanding career as an investment banker, and she was absorbed in managing the household and taking care of the children. She admits to resenting any effort on his part to encroach on her role as mother. The diagnosis of cancer came at a time when the relationship between the two was changing. Having achieved success in his career, he was experiencing a certain restlessness, a readiness to enjoy life beyond his work. Communication between the two had become a problem, and Nadia's illness complicated the situation.

Hannan's forthright account of the impact of Nadia's illness on the other children is useful in understanding the tensions that develop among siblings in a time of crisis. It is the dream of every mother, Hannan believes, that one's children should "coexist in harmony." She had difficulty reconciling the idealized [End Page lxxx] behavior of the families in the documentaries she watched with the reality she was experiencing: the occasional nastiness of her children. Nadia's bad attitude and her own lack of patience and grace troubled her. In real life a life-threatening illness does not confer saintliness on the children participating in the drama. Children, as she came to recognize, were both nasty and nice; and when they were nice, they were very, very nice. Brother Max helped entertain Nadia, and the compassionate Franny became invaluable in helping care for both Max and Nadia. It is easier in retrospect to recognize and accept the tensions that erupt among children than when one is experiencing their bad behavior. Her account provides needed reassurance for caregivers that an occasional outburst by children or adults is not abnormal in a crisis situation.

A mother is an abiding presence in a daughter's life, yet one has to recognize that the emotional ties between mothers and daughters are complex. While coping with the stress of caregiving, the Hannans had the support of their extended family, but what Judith missed was the comforting presence of her own mother. Nadia's cancer was a reminder of Judith's mother's early death from cancer and of her...



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