The day we found out about your mom’s cancer recurrence, we told you that she was sick again. We didn’t use the word “cancer.” We hadn’t used that word with you three years earlier when your mom first went through treatment, and we weren’t sure whether it would be too upsetting for you to hear now. Instead, we tried to use the language you were familiar with hearing, and that we were familiar with speaking. We reminded you of when she had been “sick” the last time and had to have surgery to remove the “yucky stuff” from her chest. We told you that the “yucky stuff” had come back. We said the doctors would try their best to help your mommy; that some things would be like the last time and some would not. We told you that we were feeling very sad about this news. You didn’t ask any questions, and we didn’t really know what else to say or how to say it.
About a week later, I was at the store and your mom was home with you, putting you to bed. She texted me to tell me you had asked her if she had coronavirus. I asked her how she had responded. She said it was too hard for her to talk about it, so she had just told you no.
You were still awake when I got home, so I took over bedtime duties. I told you that the disease your mom had was cancer, not coronavirus. You seemed relieved until I explained to you that this was actually worse because your mom could not get better from her cancer. At the time, we had no idea how quickly things would go, so I talked with you about what I thought was to come: the chemotherapy and hair loss, the days of being ill and having no appetite, and our need to take good care of her.
Two weeks after that, I sat next to your mom in the hospital. She was heavily medicated and experiencing several complications, primarily kidney failure and internal bleeding, the causes of which the doctors were struggling to identify. She slept a lot while I was there, so to pass the time and to ease my guilt about being away from you, I read the book How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness. It talked about how it is often up to the healthy parent to have the difficult conversations about the illness with their child, as unfortunate and heartbreaking as that fact and those conversations may be. The author advised the healthy parent to identify for the child (at an age-appropriate level) what was going on, to be honest and direct, and to make sure the child knows what you think is going to happen.
The point was simple and its truth was apparent, though the message was hard to swallow: You cannot stop the bad thing from happening, and you cannot shield the child from an inevitable reality. On the other hand, if the bad thing happens and you lie about it or try to hide it from the child, then on top of everything else that you lose, you also lose his or her trust.
I committed then and there to sharing more with you. When I came home from the hospital that night, I told you that I was afraid that your mom would die soon. You started to cry immediately, and then you said, “I’m nervous about telling my friends at school that my mom died!”
As my heart broke for what felt like the hundredth time that day, your reaction confirmed all of my fears about how difficult it would be to deliver this news to you. At the same time, it affirmed that I was right to tell you what I thought might happen. Clearly, your beautiful little mind had figured out that your mom might die soon, and you had started to think about what that might mean for you. You may not have known how to ask any questions, or simply been too afraid to ask them, but deep down you wanted to know how bad things really were and probably feared the worst. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t far from the truth.
Over the following days, I had several other hard conversations with you. About your mom coming home to die, and what that would be like. Then, about how you were going to go to your friends’ house on her final day, and how I thought she would probably be dead when you got home. Then, about how she died. Then, about the Zoom funeral service. Then, about what would happen if I died, too, so that you would know there was a plan should that ever happen. I was always as honest as I could be with you and, as far as I’m aware, you never felt like I hid anything or misled you.
Having to have those conversations felt like pouring salt on the wounds. I was losing the love of my life and breaking the heart of my only child at the same time. I hated having to share my pain with you, rather than shield you from it. I am ever careful with my words around you; I want them to lift you up, to provide comfort and encouragement and strength for the road ahead, to guide you as you grow into the man you someday will become. It killed me to say something that instead caused you to break down, to grow angry and despondent, to become fearful and sad.
As I watched you struggle over the coming weeks, in shock like the rest of us but with all the added pressures of being a kid, I wondered about how any of it could be repaired. You lashed out at me and a few others, throwing pillows and telegraphed punches. You knocked over glasses of water and threw major tantrums when you’d lose a game of cards. It was completely understandable that you were reeling, and though my words had not caused any of this—they were only the vessel by which you received the awful information—I felt as if I had played a part in breaking your innocence and smashing your trust in any sense of order or fairness to the world.
Yet, here we are now, nine months after she died. You have settled back into the same sweet, tenderhearted, wild boy you always were. You are kind to your friends and your family. You laugh. You create art. You have an active imagination. You do well at school. You are gentle with your dog. You remember how much your mom loved you. You worry about me. You smile your mom’s smile and tell me that I’m the best dad in the world. You are incredible.
You find comfort in the new routines we have made for ourselves, like our Saturday morning trips to the dog park. On the way there, we talk with each other about all kinds of things: our pains and our fears, the things we miss about your mom, the reasons why Tobey Maguire is the best Spider-Man of all time, your first crush, religion, favorite fast-food restaurants, what we want to do when the pandemic recedes, what you want to be when you grow up.
We get to the park and Ozzy plays his favorite game with the other dogs: provoking them until they chase him around. We laugh as he stops suddenly and the bigger dogs sail right over his low body.
You come up close to me and ask me to throw you into the air so you can pretend to be Spider-Man. I count to three and toss you up as high as I can manage. You sling imaginary webs, momentarily suspended high above the ground, and I reach out my arms for you.
And there I wait, always and forever ready to catch you and welcome you back to the occasionally unfair reality of earth’s gravity. Your fearlessness in flight assures me that you know I am here and that I will not drop you.
You trust me.
This is beautiful, as usual. Who took the picture? Love you.
Caleb, you continue to make me smile and cry. I love it all. Please don’t ever stop writing, you have such a gift. I’m sure it is therapeutic as well. Hope to see you this year and give you both big hugs! Love you! Jeff