We had been putting off sharing my health news with our three children until we had more concrete information about what I might be facing in the weeks or months ahead. I dreaded the notion of a somber family meeting during which we would gently lay out the facts and possibilities while our offspring burst into tears. And yet, as usual, events sometimes don’t unfold as you foresee, as evidenced by our borderline-futile attempt to have a serious conversation with an energetic 4 year old, an intelligent but self-protecting 10 year old, and an emotionally mature, sensitive 13 year old.
Since Earl works out of his office at home and I take care of the kids full-time, the absence of both of us on a weekday afternoon seemed fishy to our 13 year old. Furthermore, just days earlier, he had managed to hop onto my computer before I had a chance to erase my browser history and close windows showing breast cancer information; I hoped he hadn’t paid attention but unfortunately he did. By the time we returned from our appointment with my doctors, he was highly suspicious, peppering my mother with “Why aren’t they here yet?” “Where did they go?” and “Is Mommy ok?”
We tried to call all 3 children over to the couch, but in typical fashion unless there’s dessert or a movie involved, resistance reigns. The 13 year old didn’t want to come downstairs, likely because he’d already pieced it all together and was forestalling the inevitable. The 10 year old was busily engaged on the computer and couldn’t be bothered to move. The 4 year old either needed to go to the bathroom or had consumed great quantities of sugar (or both) so was simply uncontainable.
Finally, we managed to herd all three to the same general geographic area and started a conversation that went something like this.
Earl: “Mommy and I have something to tell you.”
Child 1: “Is she ok?”
Child 2: (To Child 3) “Get off me!”
Child 3: “Spatula, spatula, spat-u-la!” (Sung à la Rita Moreno in West Side Story’s “I Want to Live in America.”)
Child 1: (To Child 3) “Be quiet!”
Child 3: (Louder now) “Spatula, spatula, spat-u-la!”
Earl: “Mommy has just had a test, we’ve spoken with her doctors, and she has something called breast cancer.”
Child 1: “What? I can’t hear you!”
Child 2: (To Child 3) “Get off me!” “Daddy, he won’t get off me!”
Child 3: (Still louder) “Spatula, spatula, spat-u-la!”
By some miracle, after a few minutes, the older two understood the substance of our message. At this point, the 10 year old declared that she’d had enough bad news and went back to her computer. The 4 year old continued his serenade, oblivious to my health status. And the 13 year old gripped my hand tightly while hearing more about my immediate future.
It’s probably appropriate at this point to mention that the older two have already lived through a loved one’s cancer diagnosis and treatment as my mother’s ovarian cancer was accidentally discovered almost 5 years ago. They already understood the general nature of cancer as cell growth gone crazy. And yet it hit even closer to home this time. We continue to be vigilant, watching for any changes in them at home or at school, and we have enlisted the aid of friends and teachers to also be on the lookout.
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