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.