Today is our anniversary. Four years ago our lives changed forever, but there won’t be a celebration today. We won’t have a cake or a special dinner. As a matter of fact, it’s just a normal Sunday for our family. Ian is outside playing. Dave and I are doing laundry. If anyone looked in our window, he or she would not guess that this day marks a momentous occasion. Today we will quietly remember the pain and confusion associated with April 28, 2009 (Our Cancer Journey). It’s as if the days surrounding that day three years ago have been recorded perfectly in my memory.
Five days before, on Thursday April 23, 2009, Dave called me to tell me Ian had the stomach flu. Ian complained of a headache, vomited, and then fell asleep. I had to cancel my afterschool plans, and then I asked one of my students if he could bring Carol Linn to a volleyball game for me, since I couldn’t take Ian out. When I got home, Ian had just woken up from his nap; he was fine. He wanted to eat and play. He said he didn’t have a headache and his stomach felt better. I thought it was weird but was thankful it wasn’t the flu. Over the weekend, Ian said his headache was from when he fell and hit his head.
I was shocked. “When did you hit your head, bud?”
I looked at him suspiciously. Ian was four and “yesterday” could have been four hours ago or four months ago. His understanding of time wasn’t quite developed yet. I asked, “How did you fall?”
“I was sitting on the potty, and I fell off.”
“You fell off the potty? Did you hit your head on the tub?”
“Yes. Right here.” He pointed to the right side of his head. I looked for a bump and found none. I asked Dave if Ian hit his head while they were home without me. Dave said no. The story was curious, but I thought maybe he hit his head on Thursday and that’s why he threw up. I checked his eyes and they were dilating fine. I didn’t think about it again until the following Monday. On April 27, 2009, Dave called me again to say that Ian must be sticking his finger down his throat because it happened again. Ian complained of a headache, vomited, and fell asleep. I told him that was weird. What if he has a serious concussion? We set up an appointment at his doctor’s office to get a second opinion.
It was a busy day so we saw the physician’s assistant (PA) instead of Ian’s regular doctor. She was concerned that Ian might have bleeding in his brain from hitting his head. The PA ordered a CATscan to check for a concussion. Her final words haunt me still: “I don’t think it’s a tumor, but the scan should let us know what’s going on.”
I remember being so upset that Ian fell and hurt his head, without me knowing about it, that I reprimanded myself for being a bad mother. I must have been grading papers when Ian told me about it, so I didn’t really hear what he said. I had to work on being more present and available for my son, I told myself.
Dave and I decided that Dave would take Ian for the scan at 7 AM, and I would go to work and wait for his text.
I remember being lighthearted that Tuesday morning, April 28, 2009 as I gave KC, my office assistant, some work to do, laughing and joking with her over something trivial. Dave sent me a text to tell me they arrived at the radiologist’s office and were going right in for the scan. I said ok and continued to organize things for the day. I heard the beep again a few minutes later. Dave said the results came back already. I asked if they said anything about the scan. I fully believed that we would have to wait a few days before we knew anything. I took my time before I looked at his next text. When I finally did, I fell to my knees. His text said, “It’s a tumor.” Time stopped. I couldn’t process what I was reading. I remember thinking that Dave was playing some kind of cruel joke on me.
I called Dave and screamed, “What?!” with a few expletives. I was ready to tell him that it wasn’t funny…when I heard his voice crack. It was true. It wasn’t a joke. I was crying and screaming, while crumpled on my knees. I felt KC’s hand on my shoulder. I barely got the words out, “My son has a . . . brain tum–” I remember choking on the last word. Dave said they were going home. I told him I’d leave right away as well.
I somehow walked to the main office. They knew something was wrong; they could see the rubble at my feet and the lingering dust of my crumbling world on my face. I somehow said the strange words, again choking on the word tumor. A hand wrapped around my waist so I wouldn’t fall. I was brought to a chair. Carol Linn was called to the office. People offered to drive us home, but I declined. The two of us drove home shell-shocked.
I hugged my sweet little boy, and he asked why I was crying. I wiped away the tears and told him I was happy to see him. I didn’t see any point in scaring or confusing him. I hugged Dave and then went downstairs to wake up and tell my other daughter Nicole. She acted the same way we all did: shocked, confused, afraid.
A few hours later we brought Ian to the brain surgeon who would remove the tumor. I remember not being able to fill out the new patient form. I couldn’t write the word tumor; Dave finished the form while I played with Ian. I wiped away tears before Ian could see them.
Dr. Grabb seemed confident that it would be no big deal. “Brain tumors in children were a common occurrence; most of them were benign. The waiting is the hard part,” he said. “It seems to take forever for the results to come back from the lab.” He explained the small incision he would make above Ian’s left ear to remove the small egg-shaped tumor from Ian’s brain. The procedure would be two days later and would take about three hours. I hated the thought of Ian being operated on for so long.
We called family and friends. My mom booked a flight immediately. My brothers sent their love and support. The girls and a dear friend of the family, Susan, met us at McDonald’s, Ian’s favorite place to eat lunch. We let him play while we talked and cried about our new lives: Our healthy little boy wasn’t really healthy. Nothing made sense. Why was this happening? We had no answers. We decided to make the next few days happy and fun for Ian. We bought him a few Hot Wheels trick sets. We had a steady stream of visitors coming over with gifts for Ian. It warmed our hearts to see Ian so happy. The only time I left his side was to cry privately for a few minutes; I brushed away the tears and then joined him again.
We planned our next day: picking up my mom at the airport, going to the 3-D version of Monsters vs. Aliens, and then going to Chuck E. Cheeses for dinner. We wanted a fun day for Ian; we had no idea what the rest of his life, for however long that would be, would look like.
That night, three years ago today, I lay in bed thinking of all the wasted opportunities I had with my son. I thought of all the times I was too busy to play with him, the times I was listening but not hearing his sweet voice because I was grading papers or cleaning or cooking . . . I was so ashamed. I prayed for 8 years for God to give me a son, and this was how I treated him. I vowed to be different from that point on. I would honor God’s gift and be the mother I needed to be for Ian.
Today serves as a reminder of how blessed I am to have Ian, of how blessed I am to have my darling son in my life. Today marks the day that changed my life forever. It is an anniversary that can only be celebrated through a renewing of my vow to stay present and available for my son.