'Parenthood's' Kristina: Inside the Mind of a Mother Dealing with Cancer

"Parenthood"'s breast cancer storyline strikes a chord. Episode 9.

This episode, which aired two weeks ago, devoted a small amount of time to the cancer storyline, but managed to touch on significant issues faced by a mother dealing with cancer.  At first I didn't pick up on it -- Kristina's stubborness, her insistence that Max attend his first school dance, seemed unreasonably rigid.  Adam doesn't get it either.  "Why don't we let this one go?" he asks.  Then it becomes clearer.  Kristina tells him that she's optimistic that all will turn out well, but..."I don't want to miss out on any milestones."

"This one" might be the last one.

Maybe it didn't hit me right away because of the school dance scenario.  In my experience, something that made my stomach drop, that made my heart quicken, was the thought that we had pushed off something very important to our family, because we couldn't afford it -- visiting Israel with our children.  In the nine weeks prior to my surgery, when I did not know the extent of my cancer, despite all hopes that it had been caught early, the possibility of dying was never more palpable. (I discussed this in a previous blog, "The Help Train Arrives: Kristina Suffers Through Good Intentions".)

The inconceivable, the tragic became possible.  I looked back -- "Is 41 years IT, will my short-lived past be all that will define me?"  I looked forward -- my kids were 6, 10 and 13 --  not enough time with them.  Was it possible that I would not be there for the future milestones in their lives?"

I have heard a number of times from mothers of young children who become ill about the silent plea that we make --that we live to see our kids reach their 18th birthday.  They still need us when they're adults, but the maternal plea is so that we can feel that an important part of our responsibility has been fulfilled, that at least we've given our children what they need until they have reached the milestone of finishing high school.  Parenting changes once kids leave for college, and I'm guessing that Kristina feels satisfied in her raising of Haddie in a way that she feels unfinished with Max and Nora, that she fears the maternal lifeline being cut short.  She is horrified that Nora, so young, may never have first-hand memories of her.

Max and we walk in on her going through photo albums with pictures of the kids--at the same time cherishing memories and wondering how many more she will experience.  For a time, photographs caused me great pain, the children's innocence.  "Had I made enough of my time with them?"  But the pictures also gave me a greater resolve -- to cope, to hope, to live.  As much as one does not want to leave others dear to her, a mother desperately does not want to leave her children.

So Kristina does see Max go to his first dance.  She relishes this new memory in a deeper way than she ever has.  With joy, but with gratitude.  And with pain.  Max is wearing a button-down dress shirt that she bought for him (he hates it), he's willing to go to the dance (if just for half an hour).  Kristina teaches him something -- how to dance (awkwardly).  And less obvious, but monumental -- Max learns to do things for others' sakes (he's Asperger's, but he does it for Mom).  It gives her hope that he'll be okay.

One of my new memories took place a year and a half after surgery, while standing at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem with my girls.  My left hand against the cool stone, I felt a surge go up my left arm to the new breast where the malignancy no longer was, then straight to my heart-- which was quickening.  From extreme happiness, not fear.

Episode 11, which I anticipate will portray a dramatic turn of events for Kristina, airs onTuesday on NBC at 10.


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Gabrielle Monroe December 14, 2012 at 05:55 PM
I love this post because it digs to find the subtle, but perhaps most important part of the journey when dealing with cancer; the desire and need of your life to matter,especially concerning the sacred role as a mother to young children. The questions writer Helene herself ,"Had I made enough of my time with them?", is proof of the soul searching a mother does when faced with cancer and possible death, and also shows what a great mom Helene is!
Helene Schonbrun December 14, 2012 at 08:47 PM
Thanks so much for your thoughts (and compliment), Gabrielle. This week's Christmas episode, despite having a number of heavy moments, has many nuances as well that I'll explore in the next blog


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