It was Friday, February 26 at about 7:30 in the evening. My nine-month-old son was fast asleep in his nursery and I was lying in my four-year-old son’s bed watching his eyelids grow heavy, his long eyelashes brushing the top of his cheeks as he drifted off to sleep.
Typically, I like to wait a few minutes before leaving his room, partially to make sure he doesn’t wake up the moment I stir and partially because I just love watching him sleep. After a day of using up every ounce of energy in his body, witnessing him surrender to exhaustion has become a favorite mom moment.
Tonight as he drifted off, our dog began barking. I appreciate this habit for its protective instincts, and I also loathe its ability to wake sleeping children – usually over a passing bicycle or a much smaller dog. I sneaked out of my son’s room to see what had the dog so worked up. To my delight, I found one of my dearest friends standing on the front porch.
When you have young children, surprise visits from friends are about as frequent as days free of temper tantrums. I eagerly opened the door. “What are you doing here?”
The picture of composure, she responded, “I’m here to sit with you while you call John.” I stared at her. Utterly frozen in trying to process her words, complete thoughts evaded me. Instead I was left with – John.
Husband. Headaches. MRI…brain tumor. These moments, these life-changing moments, they really do happen the way you see it in the movies.
I think I managed to say “Oh my god” before slowly sinking to the floor – though there was a chair within arm’s reach I could have sat in. When you realize that your 36-year-old husband, the father of your two young sons and the man you love with all your heart, has just been told he has a brain tumor, chairs don’t feel stable enough. The ground is the only place to go.
Of course I knew John had had an MRI that afternoon. His recent onset of migraine-like headaches had led us to schedule an appointment with a Neurologist, who ordered the MRI as a routine measure. I didn’t go with him that day because, quite frankly, neither of us thought I needed to be there. He would be in and out, and we would hear the results the following week.
But when you have a tumor the size of a grapefruit in the front left lobe of your brain, that’s not exactly how MRIs go. My husband had just finished tying his shoes when the technician came in the room, phone in hand, and said, “Your Doctor wants to talk to you.” The next words he heard were, ”You have a large tumor in your brain, and you need to go to the Emergency Room, immediately.”
It’s almost too overwhelming to put myself in his position upon hearing such news. But my husband, being the incredible partner he is, was able to put himself in my position. The moment he heard his life had taken a very sharp turn, he thought about me, home with our two sleeping boys, and he called a trusted friend to be with me as I heard the news.
If there were ever an example of how I know for sure that I married the right person, this is it.
I’m not sure I’m ready, or even able, to put into words what the months since that night have been like for me as a wife. I could sum them up clinically with terms such as “awake surgery,” during which my husband was awoken, brain exposed, to make sure that while removing the tumor, the doctors weren’t also permanently damaging his speech and motor functions. I could say things like, “daily radiation and chemotherapy” or “medical bills” and “disability”. I could talk about “focal seizures,” “short term memory loss,” or “Grade 3 Glioma.” To really talk about those things, I need to process them more fully, and there just hasn’t been any space to do that. Not right now anyway.
I recently read an article by a woman going through a very traumatic life event. She talked about how her choice each day was to “feel or function.” This resonates with me so strongly. If I choose to feel, I would likely hole up in my bedroom for days on end, crying and trying to understand why this is happening to us, wondering if we’ll ever get through it, wondering if I’m going to lose him, and how the hell I could ever live without him.
Instead, I choose to function. I choose function for my husband, who needs a strong, resilient partner to help him as he fights for his life. I choose function for the job that needs a capable, attentive employee to continue to do her job. And, above all, I choose function for the two young boys who rely on me to get up each day and be their mother, to make sure they continue to grow and thrive and feel safe in such uncertain times.
So instead of trying to tell you what this feels like, I’m going to tell you what it’s like to function as the mommy of children whose daddy has cancer. Specifically, the mommy of our now five-year-old son, Cooper.
Cooper loves to play. This is not out of the norm for young kids. Playing is what they do best. But my kid loves to play and compete with such intensity that I sometimes wonder if I’m raising the next Michael Phelps. His competitive spirit is inspiring and exhausting at the same time, and he has the chops to back it up. From puzzles to piñatas, Rochambeau to soccer, all he wants to do is play. Play and win, which he usually does.
I, on the other hand, don’t care much for games. I don’t enjoy running or hiding behind trees or pretending to be a character from “Star Wars”. I don’t like water gun battles or playing t-ball for hours on end. But as the mother of this game-loving child, I am forever being asked, begged even, to participate in the play.
I have an arsenal of excuses to get out of such requests. Too tired, too busy, need to make dinner, need to clean up, can’t run because I’ll pee my pants. You know, the usual. It’s not that I don’t love being with my son (most days); I’m just not the game-playing kind of mom. I prefer a kinder, slower sort of quality time – Uno, for example, where I can sit down and also eat a snack.
My husband, however, is most definitely the game-playing kind of dad. He’s the kind of dad who can stay outside all day long and play game after game with the kids, taking breaks only for snacks, water, and “nature pees.” At social functions, you can usually find him leading games of soccer or catch with all our son’s friends while I enjoy a glass of wine with my mom pals. His childlike-spirit is infections, and his love of sports is unparalleled. For my eldest son, you could say the apple fell very close to John’s tree.
Throughout surgery, recovery, and subsequent treatment rounds, John’s inability to play as much as he used to has been one of the hardest things for Cooper to grasp. And one of the most heartbreaking for me to witness.
This is why, one day a few weeks ago, during a particularly tough round of chemo, I did something very unlike me. After dinner, Cooper made his usual request for someone to play tag with him in the backyard. “Please, mommy,” he said, “let’s just try, and if our bellies start to hurt, we’ll stop, okay?”
I looked into his pleading eyes and thought about my husband, unable to run, unable to even stand up without feeling overwhelming nausea. So I said yes. I said yes because I needed to believe that we could still have fun. Cancer may be robbing us of many things – my husband’s health, our security and peace of mind, our financial stability, our intimacy. But it isn’t going to steal my son’s joy.
As soon as we started playing tag that night, that’s what we both felt – pure joy. I suddenly realized how many beautiful things come from simply playing a game together. Things that cancer cannot stop, no matter how hard it tries.
Cancer can’t stop my son’s hair from blowing in the wind because he’s running at lightning speed to escape my grasp. Cancer can’t silence the sound of his belly laughs as I try to trick him into looking the other way so I can sneak up on him from a different direction. Cancer can’t block the grass from tickling our bare toes as we sprint through it. Cancer can’t even come close to quieting the sound of my son singing “I got the moooooooooves like Jagger” as he races to the safe zone on the porch.
So while cancer may have taken a seat at our table, it’s not in our yard. Not when my son and I are playing tag. We do this every night now, no matter how tough the day has been.
I’m not going to end this by saying that you should start loving the things your kids love because you never know when you or your spouse will get cancer. That’s no way to live. It’s totally within your rights as a parent to hate playing with Legos. Those little plastic things invade every space of your home and hurt like hell when you step on them. If you don’t think you can spend one more minute dressing up an American Girl doll for yet another tea party, you shouldn’t have to! It’s hard enough parenting children without having to play with their toys all the time.
What I will say is that one day, maybe in the not so distant future, you may find yourself longing for something simple, something you can count on. You may find yourself needing to step up to the parental plate and do something you don’t enjoy because your kids need you in a whole different way.
And you may just find yourself trying to catch your breath, not from crying, but from running like hell to escape a tag from the hands of a child you and your husband created. And it may just be the best feeling you’ve ever felt in your life.
So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the backyard.