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When My Son Was Told ‘Big Boys’ Shouldn’t Cry

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Recently, I heard someone tell my son Gabriel, a 7-year-old leukemia survivor, that “big boys” going to second grade shouldn’t be crying when leaving their moms. I know this person probably just didn’t think and did not intend any harm. In fact, I’m sure of it. But I saw the look in Gabriel’s eyes this morning when he heard it, and it hasn’t left me all day. From what he said to me when he came home from school, it didn’t leave him either.

G may shed tears, and appear timid to some at times, but he is and will always be the strongest boy I will ever know. Now that treatment is over and he looks just like any other 7-year-old boy, it’s easy to set aside what he’s gone through. What others may not fully appreciate is just what our son has had to endure in his short seven years in this world and what is left to deal with from all of that. Many will not understand this because they have not walked this road, which I am infinitely thankful for.

For two and a half years, I spent virtually every moment with my son. I’m the one who held him and sang to him, read to him and played with him, fed him and bathed him. I’m the one who slept in his bed and not my own, who comforted him when he couldn’t sleep because of his meds or woke up screaming from a nightmare. I’m the one who broke the news to him that he suddenly had to stop going to school and church, that he had to be in the hospital for a long time and, even after that, could not go out places. I’m the one who told him he couldn’t see his friends for a long time, and I’m the one who helped him feel better when his friends, as life goes, moved forward without him. I’m the one who literally pinned him down or put both my arms around him to restrain him when heartbreaking things were done to him to save his life. I’m the one who repeatedly told him “it’s OK” when it wasn’t. I’m the one who convinced him to enter MRI machines and x-rays and undergo countless other tests. I’m the one who rocked and held him at the start of procedures and told him he was just going to take a nice short nap, all while watching his speech slur and his eyes roll back in his head from the anesthesia — over 25 times. I’m the one whose face he saw when he woke up.

I’m the one who was there when he was nauseous, anxious, and scared. I’m the one who begged him to drink and to eat to avoid a feeding tube, and take his medicine because it would “make him stronger.” I’m the one who came up with stories and distractions and sticker charts and rewards when he was getting poked by IVs or getting transfusions or his port was being accessed. I’m the one who took him to the ER dozens of times, and to the hospital for several inpatient stays, and made these fun and exciting. I’m the one who snuck him out into the hospital’s garden when he couldn’t be outside for six weeks and told him to take deep breaths in of the cold winter air so he could feel alive. I’m the one who had to speak sternly to him, and a time or two even yelled at him, to cooperate when I would not have cooperated if these things were done to me. I’m the one who consoled him when he was too weak to go outside in the summer but could hear the sounds of other kids playing outside. I’m the one who convinced him he was strong when others mocked him for not running as fast or jumping as high as they did.

I’m the one whose face he saw before each bad thing that happened to him. I’m the one he looked at with his “What are they doing to me?” and “Why are you letting them, you’re supposed to protect me” looks. I’m the one who smiled at him and kissed his cheek and hugged him tight to reassure him on countless occasions, when I wasn’t so sure myself, that he would be OK. I’m the one who taught and reminded him that God and his army of angels surround him. I’m the one who held back all of my own tears while wiping his. I’m the one who tried to fill his life with music and fun, to try to make him smile and giggle, dance and sing, when I would have been complaining. I could list so much more.

To be clear, I’m no saint. I seek no accolades for this. I’m no better than any other mom and have not done anything any mother would not do for their child (though I pray they never have to). And, I definitely could have done it all a lot better. But please understand — I’m the one.

I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for him or want him to receive any special treatment. We try to raise him to be respectful, to be faithful, and to understand that sometimes things happen and you rise up and do your best to overcome and emerge stronger. I know it’s hard to imagine or understand that you never, ever “go back to normal.” I just want to protect him — from words that wound his soul or make him feel weak, from pain, from everything. All of it. From things I wasn’t able to protect him from in the past and things I hopefully can try to in the future.

Please understand he cries not because he needs to grow up, and for a lot more than the fact that summer is over or he just doesn’t want to go back to school. He cries for a lot of things that he just can’t say and some of which he still can’t understand. When he doesn’t want to leave my side, it’s not because he is “weak” or “clingy.” It’s because I’m the one who knows this child inside out. I’m the one who has been at his side during his at times challenging but always joy-filled life.

Soon he will learn that he doesn’t need me next to him all the time. Soon I will be surprised at how much he’s forgotten. Soon he will be different, it will all be different. Soon he won’t shed tears when he leaves my side. Though there may be tears as he leaves me to go to school, let there be no doubt that I — an adult — have infinitely more tears waiting to burst out of my eyes and my heart that breaks for and celebrates this child.

And when he walks away from me and looks back for my face with tears pooling in his eyes, please understand — I’m the one. I’m his one. And he is mine.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: Write a letter to yourself in regards to a cancer diagnosis. What would you say or wish someone had told you? Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Originally published: September 28, 2016
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