At the sinks, a trio of women recline side-by-side, eyes closed in seeming ecstasy as their locks are lovingly lathered. Two more ladies slump limply over massage chairs as therapists knead their necks and shoulders, tug gently on their arms, and roll rounded knuckles down their spines.
At the back of the salon, still more women sip mimosas and nibble lemon tarts as strangers caress their feet and drag brushes of “Zsa Zsa” polish across their newly buffed toenails.
This is living. This is the way to treat a lady. And yet… you wouldn’t want to trade places with a single one of them.
“All of these women have children with cancer,” said Robyn Howard-Anderson, a pediatric social worker at Cottage Hospital. The pamper party is a gift from Walter Claudio Salon and the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit that gives financial and emotional support to the families of kids with cancer.
At the first of what may become an annual event, 50 mothers showed up to bask in a kindness that has become all but foreign to them as they trudge through the trials that cancer demands: the sucker-punch of diagnosis, the terrifying whirlwind of treatment, the guarded relief of remission, the deep fear of relapse, and, for some, the inconceivable devastation of loss.
Many of the mothers know each other. They hug and offer updates of their children’s progress. Close-knit as they’ve become, though, theirs is a club formed by cruel, inscrutable circumstance. A club that they — like all of you reading this — never imagined they’d belong to. A club some of them may never fully identify with.
“I still don’t like to say the word cancer,” said Santa Maria mom Debbie Goeres. After doctors found a malignant tumor on her 14-year-old daughter Kelsey’s kidney, the family endured two years of stressful — but ultimately successful — treatment.
“You just could never, ever know what it’s like to see a child suffer like that. Losing her hair and eyelashes, wondering if she was ever gonna eat again or look the same again,” said Goeres, who lost 10 pounds herself in the first two weeks after Kelsey’s diagnosis. “Stress can really do weird things to your body. Heart palpitations. High blood pressure. Insomnia. I had it all.”
And while a facial and pedicure aren’t exactly antidotes, they are very much welcome. “I do kind of feel like I deserve it,” she said, smiling. “When you’re going through something like that, you think it’s never gonna end. And here we are.”
But some aren’t here for long. Despite her efforts to grin and be grateful, a woman whose 16-year-old son just relapsed with leukemia finds herself in tears and leaves the party. She can’t do this today. For her, it’s not time to relax. Not time for finger sandwiches and emery boards. It’s time to be vigilant. To steel herself. To pray.
Oxnard resident Corrina Rubio has been there. The single mother of six lost her son Marcus last year just before his ninth birthday. He had a rare form of cancer that’s seldom detected until it’s too late to beat. Marcus underwent treatment for two years, including two stem cell transplants and countless trips to Los Angeles hospitals. “The disappointments, test after test,” recalled his mother. “I’m thankful to have been there for my son every step of the way.”
She’s having her toenails painted pink today. She asked her teenage daughters to watch the younger kids, she tells me with a giggle. She told them she didn’t know when she’d be home.
“This would be something I would never, ever do,” she said. “You just don’t think of treating yourself. It’s really nice. But it’s hard because you know why you’re here. We’re all going through the same thing, and we’re trying to move forward.”