Eroding Innocence

My son should not have an intimate knowledge of cancer. He’s SIX.

When I picked him up in Charleston, WV last Saturday for a visit during his Spring Break, I quickly explained to him that I’m going to be put in a machine that will take a picture of the insides of my body. I asked him if he wanted to watch, thinking that might be pretty fascinating for a boy his age, but also wanting him to have a direct experience with modern medicine and technology. I think he would have actually enjoyed watching, but the walkie talkies the easter bunny dropped off held more appeal.

Little did I know that machine was gathering images of something far more serious than the suspected hernia around my navel. When I met with the surgeon the next day and was given the news I was by myself. My first thought was calling my dad and letting him know, allowing him to pass the information to my mom in a way I trusted he would do best. Then I sat in the car for a few minutes to do a little processing, in the midst of realizing I needed to find a way to talk to my son about this.

When I arrived back at my parents, my dad was already on the computer researching PMP and my mom seemed to be doing OK. August was playing in the other room by himself. I didn’t say anything initially, but just sat with him and watched a little TV, just enjoying the comfort of his snuggling. I knew I should tell him soon though, because the conversations that were going to begin would not be missed by his little hyperactive ears. As absorbed as that kid can seem, he has an uncanny ability to pick up on everything going around him at the same time.

When we got back home I sat him on the couch to give the info to him directly, initially struggling to find the right way to describe the specifics in a way a six year old can understand….

“You know how Papa’s stomach has been hurting him? Well, the photos they took of my inside yesterday showed the doctor something we didn’t think it was. Now, I want you to know I’m not “sick”, but I just have a problem inside my stomach that needs to be fixed. It’s called a Cancer. There are these cells that are growing and causing problems in my belly, making everything hurt, and I’m going to need to get them out of there. It’s a pretty serious problem and if I don’t take care of this, I can die from it, but that’s why we took the pictures of my inside and talked to the doctor. When we meet with the next doctor we are going to set up an appointment to get rid of the bad cells inside of me. Does that make sense? And I know this can be confusing, so if you have any questions about this, you can ask me anything, ok? Ask me anything you want if you get confused.”

He wrinkled his nose and fidgeted during my explanation, but paid direct attention and expressed genuine interest. He paused a moment after I finished, then asked, “So you could die from this?”

It was obvious the most extreme element of my explanation had made an impression…

“Well, if we didn’t take care of it, yes, I could.”

“Whooooa”, he said with a six year old’s fascination.

“But that’s why we are going to take care of it. That’s why we are going to the doctor’s to get everything fixed. And remember, you can ask me any questions about this if you want, you just let me know, ok?”

We got up from the chairs and started back to finishing making lunch and getting ready to eat. 10 minutes later I finished making the sandwiches, walked into the dining room to check something on my computer and found him sitting at the table, his arms crossed and chin resting on his hands, just looking off pensively….VERY unlike him.

“Hey buddy…are you ok?”

“Yeah.” he calmly said.

“Remember, if you have any questions about this, you can ask me.” I assured him.

In hindsight I was so glad he was here to experience this development right along with me, getting a very direct knowledge of being given this sort of news, that way any explanation I gave him was fully understandable, instead of trying to convey this over the phone from hundreds of miles away. I was there all week to give him the straight story if needed.

But what I didn’t realize until later was that, even more importantly, it wasn’t how I described it to him, or that I was there to answer his questions, but that he was there to absorb everything going around him with his keen six year old perception. He got to see the way in which my family reacted to the news. He got to see how my friends reacted. He got to see the love and care everyone extended to me as we spent our time around the city. And he got to see how I was able to process, accept and make the best of the new awareness. And that has to have the deepest effect on him in the immediate sense and on into the future. This may be more valuable to his future than either of us can ever imagine right now. So for this cancer to make itself known during the very week he was visiting was immeasurably lucky, and I’m so grateful he was here to share the experience with me.

But I don’t mean to romanticize this. I wish to hell he didn’t have to experience this at all, nor me.

I walked him towards the coffee shop in Charleston for the drop off this afternoon, stopping briefly outside for a final hug, to say goodbye and address the experience one more time, letting him know that I was going to be in the hospital soon and the next time we Skype it may actually be from the hospital, “which will be pretty neat, huh?”

I told him I loved him and we walked into the bookstore, but suddenly he uncharacteristically stopped, not bee-lining it straight towards his mama. He turned to me…

“Papa. Will you call me and tell me if your cancer goes away?”

“Of COURSE I will. Absolutely. I’ll call you and tell you how everything is going and let you know exactly when it goes away, ok?”

And with that he was appeased, running off to his mama and back to North Carolina.

Now it’s time to buckle down and face what’s coming.

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9 responses to “Eroding Innocence

  1. Wow. It would have been the last question he asked that would of been hard to keep back tears, for me anyway. I think you are totally right in the fact that having him here to see the initial processing was important. Beat this shit and get back to enjoying the biophilia hypothesis. Many healthy thoughts your way.

    • Terrance, his genuine care and concern certainly hit me deep, but I was trying to stay focused on being calm and straightforward with him about this. Admittedly though, it was a good thing I was writing this in public, cause there definitely seemed to be a bit of dust in the air at the time. 😉 Thanks for your good word friends. Get out there and run Eagle Creek for me while I can’t.

  2. You seem like such a good Dad. One of those that I’m in awe of, who can relate to kids so well. I found your blog by accident, and I’m so glad I did. I’ll be praying for you.

    • Thank you…I try to be a good dad to the best of my abilities, and I’m glad it shows through to others. Thanks for your good words and thoughts.

  3. Once again your words are so incredibly poignant. I told my wife about your cancer, and when she asked how you were doing I reflected on all your fb posts and the comments you’ve written here…(now especially in this post with your son) and it my impression was to convey to her your optimism and strength. I am very thankful that I have gotten to know you, albeit digitally, and I think this account of how you interacted with your son is pretty awesome. Keep well, friend, and enjoy more of those times with your son. (And don’t stop writing about them :-))

    • Thank you Jonathan, it has been great to get to know you (digitally) as well. Don’t worry, I’ll keep writing through this. I’m a pretty transparent person as it is…what’s life without sharing it?…and all this helps me consider everything deeper and process it too. Thanks again friend.

  4. oops, I meant *”…and my impression”*

  5. Came across your story because of Erin Hazler and Christy Victor… I find it to be perfect timing since I just posted a link on my fb page today about supporting my nephew who is doing the Relay for Life walk in honor of my mom, who has beaten cancer twice. Prayers for you on this journey of yours… thanks for sharing as well.

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