After my initial consultation with Dr. Big Dog, I decided that I needed to sit down with Liam and explain to him what was going on. He had had a really hard time with my extended hospital stay and I knew that there were days ahead where I would be away from him again. So I bit the bullet and sat him down before I went back to Chapel Hill for my PET scan.
Telling your almost-eight-year-old son you have cancer is not something that is regularly covered in the parenting books; there is no What To Expect When You Expect Chemo. Liam is a very bright child, and he is also a worrier. So I knew that the way I framed this conversation was going to set the foundation for how he dealt with things in the months to come. In many ways this was probably one of the most important conversations I'll ever have with him. I didn't know what to say, I only knew that I had to be honest with him.
So I just said it flat-out, "Mama has cancer." Then we talked about what cancer is and how it affects your body, and the things that had already been done to kick the cancer's ass. I explained to him about chemo, reminding him that his first-grade para-teacher had gone through chemo last year, and that she was still able to come to school and be his teacher. I told him that my doctor was very, very smart and knew all kinds of things about how to treat cancer, and that my job for the next several months was to listen to what my doctor had to say and to follow his instructions so that I could get well.
He cried, of course. He said, "I wish this had never happened!" about a million times-his mantra against bad, scary things (he repeated it endlessly in the ER the day he broke his arm). I cried a little too, and we both agreed that this was very scary and sucky, but I assured him that I was going to do everything the doctors told me to do so that I would get strong and well again.
I thought he was handling it well, until last week when I returned from Chemo No. 2. Mama had come to meet his bus while I was in Chapel Hill, and she planned to stay with us for a few days until I felt ready to be here alone with Liam. We are so fortunate that my mother is willing and able to come stay, but Liam was very resistant to her doing anything for him; he wanted me to do everything, even things he could do himself. He loves her to pieces, but he was not very kind to her while she was here, which was my first clue.
Then came the call from his teacher, who said that all week he was coming in complaining of being tired, not wanting to participate in class, putting his head down on his desk. She was finally able to get him to tell her that he was tired because he couldn't sleep at night, that he kept waking up because he was "worried about Mama." Do I even have to tell you how my heart broke when I heard that?
I didn't want to jump right into it with him because I want him to continue to confide in his teacher, but he took the decision right out of my hands when he initiated the conversation and told me the same things he had told her. He also told me that he likes Grandma to visit, but he doesn't want her taking care of him or me, that we can do it ourselves. I explained to him that I was Grandma's baby just like he was my baby (even though neither of us is a baby), and that she wanted to take care of me so that I could get strong and take care of both of us again soon. He agreed, but very grudgingly, to let Grandma help us when I needed it, but was very clear with me that he didn't like it.
He stayed home from school yesterday and really wanted to stay home today, too, and a little judicious digging uncovered the fact that "it's hard to be at school when I'm worried about you." So we talked about how the best thing we can do right now is lead our lives as normally as possible. I told him that this week I felt really good and strong (a bit of an exaggeration, but that's okay), and that I was going to spend the week doing what I need to do, and that I need him to do his job, which is to be a little boy who goes to school and learns cool stuff and plays with his friends.
Clearly this will be a continuing dialogue, not a one- or two-time conversation with him. With so much of what will happen still unclear, it's hard for me to talk with him about it. All I can do is listen to his fears, hold him close when he cries and be honest with him when he asks questions. It doesn't seem like enough, but it's what we have now, and will have to suffice.