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Evolution of a pack mule

In this piece, adapted from Months to Years, mother Giulianna Nenna compares her daughter, who has a brain tumor, to her great-grandmother.

Busy, able-bodied teenagers strode past my 16-year-old daughter on her high school campus. Through their banter, they glared sideways at my scarf-covered daughter. She was fused in cream and pink over her head, then in purple, blue, and red around her neck. Not having seen Sofia dressed in that way, and most probably not sure how to react, their eyes darted away.

“Hi, hi,” my girl chirped to other teens, eyes moist in the wind. “Come on, Mom,” she commanded me. She grabbed at one end of her fluttering headdress, leaving passersby to wonder what was with the new-wave fashion statement. Straggling behind Sofia was her scarf-less, blanched-out, middle-aged mother, struggling under the weight of her heavy school backpack.

With an unbalanced but determined gait, her body weakened by the cancer and the months of treatment, Sofia clutched her cloth lunchbox with the same grace that her great-grandmother had carried her handbag: hinged over the elbow, forearm raised, fingers held like a queen. Sofia had the same look as Nonna, the soft air of confidence, same joy to be alive.

Inside the stone building, my daughter labored up the stairs to her classroom, leaning into each step, one hand holding the railing and the other gripping my arm. She was passed by more student stares, but she forgot about uttering "hi." Their gazes trailed towards me, the sweating, toiling mother.  My smiles were met by either blank stares or eyes darting away.

I still think that the universe must have given my daughter a brain tumor by mistake. That is why her great-grandmother pipes up through her, telling her to carry her lunch box with the same dignity of the 60-year-old family matriarch who used to wear deep red lipstick. That is why her great-grandmother helps her not to be daunted by the looks she gets from the other students, especially those who don't have the time to even consider offering to carry her heavy backpack for her.

We passed more teenagers through the hallway. They, too, looked past my daughter.  Sofia smiled between two scarves...  I opened the classroom door, dropped my daughter’s backpack, and released her the same way I sent her off on her first day of school ages ago.

This piece, originally in longer form, is part of an ongoing collaboration with Months to Years, a nonprofit quarterly publication that showcases nonfiction, poetry and art exploring mortality and terminal illness.

Giulianna Nenna  writes under a pen name. Her daughter is recovering from a relapse of medulloblastoma and continues to grow stronger every day and for that Giulianna is eternally thankful. 

Photo by Scott Webb

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