I lay here next to him in his room, and he is cuddled right next to me. His hair smells fresh and nice, and he is telling me something that happened at school today. I am trying to focus on the contents of his story, but my mind is drifting in and out.
It has been barely three days since my diagnosis of Stage 4 metastatic cancer has been confirmed. My 9-year-old boy is lying next to me in his bed, and I am staring at the fan in his room. He gets hot easily and loves to have the fan running on high at night. The chain controls have two planets hanging from them. I am sure he can tell me which ones they are along with their special features. They are spinning fast with the air, much like the thoughts in my head.
I am going in to meet the oncologist tomorrow. Tomorrow, my treatment plan will be determined. I am really hoping that I get to keep my hair, not because that is the most important thing to me, but a hairless mommy is just a bit freaky to the kids. Nothing says cancer more than a bald head. I haven’t told him yet.
He has grown up under the shadow of cancer for the last two and a half years. He has seen me sick and he has seen me bald. I haven’t been able to rack up the courage to tell him that my cancer has returned. I really don’t know how to explain to him that his mother was diagnosed with an incurable illness. How do I actually destroy his innocence myself?
How do you explain to an eight-year-old, the concept of death, dying and an incurable illness?
I wish I had let him have a pet. A fish, a hamster, something small. Something small that had died. So I could tell how he handles grief. Something insignificant in his universe that could help me answer some of my questions. The earth rotates and the planets spin. The glow in the dark planet set hangs from the curtain rod as well. Everything in nature is supposed to stay in its place to keep the balance. But what about me and him? Why must I change his orbit?
My gaze catches the telescope that sits on the chest of drawers consistent with the theme of the room. He has been obsessed with planets and the universe since he was three. An early reader, he would bring these little planet books from the library and we would read those to him over and over again. Later for the longest time, his favorite book was the “Atlas of the Universe” and I would get inundated with the universe factoids that I would nod my head to as he rattled them off and followed me to the bathroom to make sure I understood.
His universe is under threat by something that was seen under the microscope four days ago. Those metastatic cells, gang banging through my body, found a new home in my liver. He could tell that something was wrong when I had my liver biopsy. The next day when he came from school, I was still in my pajamas, a very rare sight. That evening, he commented to his dad, “Mommy looks just like she used to look when she had cancer.”
My heart sank, and a psychiatrist who always knows what to say was speechless. I made lame excuses that it is because I am not in my day clothes and lied through my teeth.
The fan is whirring, and my mind continues to spin. How exactly do I sit down with him and what words should I use?
“Mommy’s cancer came back?”
“Mommy needs to start treatment again?”
“Mommy feels not so well these days?”
20 years of medical practice and dealing with complex issues, seeing death with my own eyes and discussing terminal diagnosis with patients, one would think, I would have some ability to break this to my son. But no, all this mother is capable of is his wiping her tears and hiding her face in his planets comforter.
He said to me, “Mommy I think I have figured out what www means?”
I think is the “whole wide world” or something.
I wipe my tears and say “Very close, it’s the world wide web”
He, then, cuddles some more, the whole wide world shrinks in my arms and he dozes off.
The clock keeps ticking. It’s the shape of an iPad, I found it on Zullily and was very pleased with my purchase. His chess trophies stare at me and the Legos stay still. He is gently breathing in his sleep.
His universe is under threat. I think, “Thank God he has a telescope so he can watch mommy when she becomes a star.” My eyes fill up again.
On the wall there is a decal that I thought would be good for him to look at every day,
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
Let him sleep one more night with his innocence. There is a lifetime ahead of him to learn about death and dying. I am alive today and that is truer than true.
Goodnight my son!
Goodnight to sons everywhere!