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When a Stranger Said He Bet My Son Had Lived a ‘Good Life’

Sometimes ordinary moments in life can cause a blip in time. A stranger asks an innocent question, and my heart starts pounding and my breath catches in my throat.

Tonight, a young man rang our doorbell. He was canvassing for UNICEF. He was personable and outgoing — just the sort of guy to successfully canvas for donations.

As he started to warm up regarding his topic, I kindly intervened and told him I wouldn’t be donating this evening, but it was indeed a worthy cause. He boldly looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you mind if I ask why?”

I was silent for a moment. Should I lie and make it easy for myself or tell the truth? After hesitating briefly, I decided to respond honestly. “Well, since you asked, I’m saving my donations at this moment to donate to childhood cancer research.” Then I couldn’t help myself and blurted out, “My son died of cancer — Ewing sarcoma — so that’s why.”

He physically gasped and jumped in reaction to my statement. His eyes filled with horror, and he said to me in the most sincere voice, “I am so sorry. That’s awful.” Yes, yes it is awful. More than awful. Then he said the most unexpected and kind thing. With shock in his eyes, he asked me, “Do you mind if I give you a hug?” So I stood embracing a total stranger on my doorstep, a young man who was moved to hug me after hearing about a boy he never knew. It moved me as well — that he would care.

So I said to him, “You see that blue ribbon tied around our tree and all the blue ribbons in our neighborhood? They’re for my son, Noah. Blue was his favorite color. We live in a wonderful community.” He was visibly moved and responded it was indeed a wonderful thing. Then he paused and asked, “Can I ask how old your son was when he died?” The air left my lungs as I responded: “He was only 14.” Again, he was totally shocked and said how terrible it was as I nodded in agreement. What else could I do?

In an effort to try and comfort me, this total stranger, a young man himself, blurted out, “Well, I bet he had a good life before he died.” Oh, the innocence. The first thought that leapt into my mind was, “Yes, if you call slowly dying as tumors filled his lungs and took over his sweet body and soul — a good life indeed.” My eyes welled up, but I held in the pain and just nodded. His innocence and deepest concern for me — a total stranger — preserved. I thanked him and we parted.

Imagine living this life. Waking up every day and knowing that someone will always be missing. While trying a meditation exercise yesterday, one of the practice items was to imagine something happy. But I couldn’t do it and hold steady. As I closed my eyes and focused on past happy moments, I remembered Noah was gone. As I switched to happy moments now in the present, I couldn’t hold steady because I remembered he’s gone.

I have been forced to accept this life; I have happy times and sad times. But I’m shocked each time an innocent question propels me back in time, and it feels as though I’m living the pain again in slow motion. Every breath, every nuance as clear as if it were happening right here, right now. Imagine never knowing when a total stranger will ask you an innocent question that makes you feel as if your heart is being squeezed into the shape of a tear.

So I left this kind stranger in partial ignorance and hoped he would never have to learn the bitter truth. That a good life is not dying of cancer at age 14. A good life is not enduring debilitating treatment that makes you violently ill and causes alarming late effects. A good life is not telling your friends that after three years of fighting, this time you aren’t going to make it. A good life is not dying a cruel death while your friends play hockey. No, a million times no.