September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Each day I will feature a different guest blogger who will generously share their personal experience with childhood cancer. Stories are always more potent than statistics, albeit more emotional and difficult to consider. The hope is that by learning about children with cancer, readers will be more invested in turning their awareness into action.
By Alyson Weissman
We were vacationing in Seattle and the thought of a Starbucks on every corner had me practically giddy. It was during what my family lovingly referred to as my “Frappuccino craze” that we visited this gorgeous city and it did not disappoint. For the record, I am not an addict, but for a full year prior to our trip I have been skipping meals regularly to enjoy my beverage of choice. There is nothing more comforting and just downright delicious then a chocolaty chip frap with sticky caramel coating the sides of the plastic cup and a giant pillow of whipped cream sitting sweetly on top. The last day of our trip, as my thirteen-year-old son Jared rested in the hotel room feeling too worn out to leave, I sucked icy goodness through a green straw as my husband and I strolled through Pikes Place.
I made an appointment for Jared when we returned home to California because he was exhausted and his dry, hacking cough would not go away. Dr. Saludares has been my son’s pediatrician for years and I am always a little overwhelmed by her competence and professionalism. Though her office is a bit run down with stained linoleum and old copies of Nickelodeon magazines and Highlight strewn about the place, she is tall and elegant with stick straight posture and sensible pumps. Her white coat is always starched and perfectly pressed, and her voice is soft with a lilting accent I can’t quite place. She has been the calm to my Jewish mother neuroses and has walked me through strep throat and diarrhea, sprained ankles and most recently 10 days of fever that I thought might never break. She is rock solid this one.
We are led to a small exam room with silly kitten posters and advertisements for acne cream and allergy remedies.
She enters the room and asks a litany of questions about how long Jared has been sick and when did it start and then she examines him with her long, delicate fingers touching him, probing gently. She asks more questions, searching for some elusive answer and then she suddenly becomes very quiet and still. Her hand is on his neck and she asks me, “do you see this?” I do. And it is huge. It is so big that I am confused. Then distracted. How did I miss this thing? How could I? I am utterly ruined.
She is no longer gentle as she touches what can only be described as a mass protruding from my son’s neck directly over his collarbone. She is pushing hard and asking him does it hurt? I hear her voice change and she is becoming pale and her tone is now insistent. “Jared, tell me, does this hurt?” He is so in tune with her voice and body language that he too becomes pale as he answers, “no it doesn’t hurt” and I know in some deep primal part of me she needs this thing to hurt, is begging for it to hurt, she is beseeching, she is praying with her words. Hurt.
Doctor Saludares is looking at me with a kind of desperation and I know already. The mind is an amazing thing and I can feel mine shut it all down like a trap. Her face. The mass. The knowledge. I ask her if she is concerned and she answers simply, profoundly, “yes.” I ask, “Very concerned?” and again, “yes.” I accept this with what must seem utter calm but the truth is I am not even in the room anymore. I am gone.
My next move, for which I have no memory, was to drive my Tahoe over to Starbucks for a tall, double chocolaty chip Frappuccino. Jared cannot believe that I am stopping at Starbucks despite the doctor’s orders to go directly to the hospital for a chest x-ray and CT scan of his neck. I can only imagine this was my last grasp at some kind of normalcy, a taste of comfort in the face of what is coming. Last Frappuccino before the shit totally hit the fan. To this day, my son vividly remembers the stop and it still angers him. It was the first of many scenes my mind conveniently erased.
At the hospital I hand my only child over to strangers who proceed to stick him in a giant machine that will read his future. I know that these people in their white coats and solemn masks are gazing at my child’s insides on a computer screen. That they are seeing the inner workings of his neck and I know what they know and it is fucking awful. I can see them through the glass hunched over and they are whispering to one another. Oh no. How sad. He is just 13. Look at all this. Look.
The doctor has told me she will call me in the evening with the results of the tests and we are eating dinner. Maybe it is chicken or spaghetti or maybe we ordered a pizza. We were trying to keep it light for my son’s sake while we waited for the call that would bring us the news. The phone rang at exactly 6:17 and I took it upstairs with me. I need to be away from my husband, away from Jared, in the bathroom where I can be alone with her and listen.
She is formal and she calls me Mrs. Weissman. “Mrs. Weissman I need to see you and Mr. Weissman at my office tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m.” Her voice is quiet and grim and I know she is not going to say the word until tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m., but I have to know. She must tell me something now so I say, “It is bad. right? You don’t have to say the word, but please tell me, because I already know it is really bad,” and she says, “Yes Mrs. Weissman, I’m sorry, it is bad.”
I find myself on the bathroom floor with my face pressed against the cool, stone tiles. I am coherent enough to recognize what a cliché it is that I have fallen to the ground like every character in every book and every movie that gets this kind of news. The floor is the right place to be, so I stay there on my knees bent at the waist with my mind wide-awake and racing. I am dialing the phone in my hand because I need someone to hear me, to help me unburden, to witness this most unbearable grief. My best friend answers on the second ring and for the first time I say the words out loud, “Jared has cancer,” and then with one heartbreaking sob I release it all and I am lost.
The author dedicates this post to Dr. Myrna Saludares, who passed away in April 2013 from cancer. And she wants you to know that Jared just celebrated his fifth anniversary of being cancer free, which means, officially, he is CURED! WOO to the HOO! He is now a college sophomore, living in the dorms, getting great grades, and thriving.
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