When Matt went to work on August 21, 2017, I took G, H, and my two-year-old niece to the lake. I texted a friend and told her that there was no better distraction from the drama of brain cancer then babysitting a very active, very adorable two-year-old.
The day was nothing but chaos. Doctors needed call backs, flights needed scheduling, and three children needed to be nourished and nurtured. By the end of the day, I’d been pulled in so many different directions, I couldn’t think straight. I dragged all three kids to the grocery store to buy milk and ingredients for dinner, only to fill the cart with groceries and realize I’d left my wallet at home. The young teenage cashier was less than sympathetic, and did not see the humor in the situation. I scrounged up an old Visa gift card, which had just enough money to pay for the gallon of milk, and forfeited the rest of the cart.
As the story marches forward and the down cycle continues to pick up speed, the question becomes again what did G and H know? What should should they have known? They saw Matt fall down those two steps. They knew he spent more time upstairs, in a dark and quiet room. They heard me speaking to the doctors, watched me pace the kitchen with the phone tucked beneath my shoulder and ear. They saw the doctor’s name scroll across the caller ID in the car and listened to conversations over speaker phone.
Our incredibly well-intentioned friends brought up the idea of therapy for G and H. They asked whether I thought it was time to take them to see a therapist to discuss all they’d seen and heard, all they’d watched and listened to. My answer was the same every time.
I agreed that G and H might need a therapist if things continued to get worse, if it seemed that Matt’s recovery would be too extensive, or, too improbable. But we weren’t at that tipping point yet. One year ago today, despite the growth of that third tumor and all those symptoms, Matt and I believed his chance of a full, speedy recovery was more likely than his chance of getting worse. For that reason, we didn’t need to start G and H with a therapist to discuss what was happening because they’d seen Daddy plummet into a down cycle and they’d seen him make a swift, miraculous recovery. We didn’t need to start therapy because doing so would be creating a mountain out of a molehill. As if brain cancer was nothing but a nuisance. One year ago today, brain cancer was still simply “Daddy’s headaches.”
When I look back on that thought process, I see the flaw in our logic in a way I didn’t before. Giving G and H an outlet to discuss what they were seeing, whether Matt’s condition got worse or better, would not have been creating a mountain out of a molehill—GBM was always a mountain. Even if poliovirus worked as we’d hoped, brain cancer would never have been just a footnote that we could skip in the story of our lives. No matter how the story ended, on August 21, 2017, we (G, H, Matt, and I) were already changed from the people we’d been before, and there would have been value in giving G and H a safe space to understand all the ways they’d watched their father and mother change, all the ways they’d had to change themselves.
With that in mind, I can’t help but ask myself if maybe I should have been more up front with G and H at this point. Was it actually hope or simply cowardice urging me to say “not yet” to the friends who asked about therapy? Time will tell, I guess. But as I sit here in post-hope, after wiping away another round of tears from little cheeks that should only know light and laughter, I can’t find it in me to regret giving G and H as many unburdened days as possible, giving them a few more weeks of a world in which the word cancer didn’t exist and the worst thing that could happen is their flighty mom makes a scene in a grocery store.
Too soon in this story, they will know the word cancer; they will know the nightmare from which Matt and I tried to shield them. Too soon, they will know not every nightmare can be vanquished with an extra hug and a nightlight. Too soon, they will lose an innocence they will never be able to reclaim.
Maybe the answer—hope or cowardice—doesn’t matter. Maybe all that matters is that the choice was always made with nothing but love and the hope that we’d find a way back to our happily ever after.