I don’t mince words when it comes to explaining cancer to my son.
In the middle of brushing our teeth one night he abruptly stopped and asked me, as a six year old spontaneously does,
“Daddy? What happens if you get cancer and don’t do anything about it?”
Without pause I began explaining the process of cancer growth, multiplying cells, and the potential consequences of not acting to kill them, where they begin to take over the body and ultimately lead to death. Of course, I immediately followed that up by reassuring him that this is why I have had a surgery, am going through chemotherapy and we’re doing everything we can to kill the cancer.
And that was that. He went back to brushing his teeth and beginning our bedtime ritual.
I love that my son isn’t naive to my cancer experience and feels confident asking me the questions that pop into his head, because it means he’s not scared of the process, because I talk to him about my cancer when it shows its ugly head throughout the day. I don’t necessarily concentrate on it, but if I’m tired from chemotherapy or my stomach is giving me problems or any other sporadic annoyance related to cancer gets in the way of our activities, I let him know. I let him know because this is an incredibly important experience that he will undoubtedly learn from, no matter the outcome, and come out the other side better for dealing with it and being aware of it. Just as I was fortunate to understand a little more about the cancer experience by watching my sister go through it, he will also be more prepared when this is all said and done.
But that’s the more hopeful perspective.
I also NEED him to know what is happening to me in case things DON’T go as planned. After all, cancer isn’t cancer because it’s a physical annoyance. It’s not cancer because the treatments are so rough. Cancer is the ugly monster it is because it is always potentially fatal….and should things not go as planned, my son needs to know what has been happening all along. If I should succumb to the disease, however that might happen, I want my son to have the awareness that this was always a potential. I don’t want him to get caught off-guard, unaware that death was a potential part of this process, so I explain it to him bluntly. We talk about it so that he can process it in his six year old way, just as I have been forced to with my adult level of awareness. Plus, I trust him to understand what’s going on and cope with the seriousness of the situation. He’s an amazingly empathetic little creature.
On the other hand…I’M struggling to cope with the potential fatal outcome of my cancer..not the finality of it all, but the potential absence in my son’s life it would create. I can handle the emotional weight of existence having no definitive purpose, of the unknowable causes that brought me to this point, the perceived “unfairness” of the situation…but all this leading to being absent in my son’s life, well, I just don’t know what to do about this, how to process this, how to prepare should it become a greater reality down the line.
First off, let me interject here to say, I’m not proceeding as if I WON’T be here for my son. I often feel great and am moving forward as if this is just an incredibly annoying physical obstacle in my life that I need to move beyond and get back to the routine of living, but I also can’t ignore the dark consideration that death IS a potential.
I try not to think about it so much, but it’s incredibly difficult and I often find myself lost in my own thoughts…sometimes at the most inopportune moments where I have to suppress the emotional weight of it all lest I melt into a blubbering mess in public. Sometimes my thoughts are triggered by a sentimental commercial, sometimes just having too much headspace, but most of the time I become consumed while trying to fall asleep. Just last week I was wiping away tears as I lay in the dark, my son already asleep in the bunk above me, then a feeling like a physical weight pressing down upon my chest as I imagined him growing up without me and me missing out on the same. I just don’t know how to process missing out on my son’s life, being there for him should he need me and, honestly, I don’t think I ever will. The love of a parent isn’t necessarily irrational, but might be irreconcilable with the tragedies of existence. And this might be one of those times.
I can handle surgery. I can handle chemotherapy. I can handle the interests of my previous life taken by cancer. But not being a father… and chance robbing Auggie of his, well, that’s just a reality I can’t process.
He is still with me this summer, one week left of our time together and you can believe I’m absorbing every second of it, spoiling him whenever I get the chance (within reason, of course) and making sure I don’t take for granted one fleeting moment. It’s gonna hurt more than ever when he leaves this time, but I’m grateful to have this time together and am looking forward to all our experiences to come, at some point hopefully cancer-free, so that any questions he may have about this experience can be answered in the past tense.