In November 2015, I was diagnosed with stage 4b non-Hodgkins lymphoma. If you’ve never been through something similar, I’ll let you in on a little secret: when you find out that you have cancer, you think you’re going to die the next day. In that moment, all I could think about was how much I didn’t want to leave my son alone.
How much of this would he even be able to understand? He had turned three only a few months earlier. He should be focusing on the alphabet and actually getting the majority of his pee to end up inside the toilet. He should still believe that a kiss from mommy can heal any boo boo, but instead he was thrust head-first into a reality where some ouchies are just too big for a band-aid. Even the band-aids with Power Rangers on them.
I’ve always tried to give my son as much information as he could handle, so when cancer became a part of our lives, I was as honest as I could be. There were no cute nicknames for the disease or chemotherapy. When I was hospitalized, he always knew where I was and, for the most part, he knew why. It was a lot to drop on him at one time, but he handled it as well as I ever imagined he would.
But I’d be a liar if I said that things didn’t change. As chemotherapy sapped my strength, our physical interactions had to change. There was no more lifting him high above my head to play “helicopter” or destroying him in footraces. (No, I’m not one of those dads that lets him win because he’s my kid. I’m old and overweight, he’ll be able to beat me one day soon, so I’m going to enjoy my athletic superiority while I can.) To his credit, he adapted to this pretty quickly – asking me if I felt “yucky” on a particular day, or if I was too sick to pick him up from school.
I worried that Noah wouldn’t understand why everything was changing so quickly and so drastically. But instead of being confused or resentful, the little person that I tried to protect from everything that could harm him had become my caregiver overnight. When I coughed, he came running. He reminded me to take my medicine and brought me the thermometer when it was time to take my temperature. He rubbed my back when I threw up, and even ran and got his mother the one time that I passed out. As unlikely as it sounds, for 16 months my toddler took care of me.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, I think it’s that children are more resilient than we give them credit for. I never imagined that my 3-year-old, who was still battling crippling poop anxiety at the time, would ever be capable of handling the pressure that comes with having a sick parent. But, not only did he handle it, he showed a level of emotional maturity and empathy well beyond his years.
So next time you’re faced with a scary situation, instead of saying “they’re too young,” maybe you should just give your kid a chance to surprise you.