About six months ago my oldest daughter said, “Hey, there’s a weird bump on my arm, I should probably ask the pediatrician about it.” It didn’t hurt her, she said, but there it was, a quarter-sized firm lump, just south of her right elbow. She couldn’t remember when she first noticed it: could have been weeks, months, or years earlier. Coming from the “rub some dirt on it” school of wound care, I said something along the lines of “Ok, add it to the list of questions we’ll ask when you have your regular annual check-up in August” and forgot about it.
To spare you the suspense: it was a benign tumor, and as of last Tuesday’s surgery at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, it is no longer in her arm. But the three weeks starting at the end of August when we went from casually pointing it out to the pediatrician, who referred us to a radiologist for an ultrasound, who referred us to the Pediatric Oncology Clinic at Children’s, who referred us to another radiologist for an MRI, who referred us to a pediatric surgeon to have the bump removed and biopsied: those three weeks were surreal.
From the very beginning I believed it would turn out to be nothing, based on what the medical professionals were saying but mostly on sheer faith. As a parent, how do you go into that situation believing anything else? It is your job to know that everything will turn out fine for your child, to train formidable force of will on that thought. You can’t really entertain other possibility.
That’s what haunted me. Even as each test and exam gave us one more reassuring data point that there was nothing scary going on in her arm, I kept thinking to myself: parents of really sick kids never believed anything would happen to their children, either. At the heart of all my belief in her eventual well-being lay a dark kernel of dread. And that kernel wasn’t loosened until the tumor was gone, and she was back home lying on her bed eating Trader Joe’s Parmesan Crisps, watching Parks and Rec on her laptop while floating along on a cloud of Tylenol with codeine. The dread didn’t disappear for good until I got the call two days ago from the oncologist who said the biopsy showed it was benign. Benign: the most beautiful word in the English language.
I was exhausted throughout those weeks, not physically, even though it was hard to sleep. It was the mental exhaustion of wondering (how long will it take for the doctor to interpret the MRI?), revisiting (why didn’t I take her in for that lump when she first told me about it?), worrying about her (this is an awful lot for her to handle, especially at the beginning of junior year), worrying about her sister (shunted to the side temporarily while we run between appointments and talk about treatments.) When I wasn’t doing those things I was praying and chanting the word in triplicate: “benign benign benign.”
I didn’t tell many people at first, because I didn’t want to have to keep repeating the story, and I didn’t know yet whether it was the bad thing or the awful thing. But at some point I knew we needed prayers for my daughter, and a lot of them.
My minister was happily flipping quesadillas on the griddle at church for Welcome Back Sunday when I took him aside and told him. He said, “Let’s turn this griddle into an altar. But don’t lay your hands on it ‘k?” and then we prayed right there. At a bat mitzvah between the MRI and the surgery, I managed, but only just, to not yell her name during the Healing Prayer because I knew she’d be embarrassed. The school counselor’s secretary offered to “take her name to the altar and talk to Jesus.” Shari offered to call me during the surgery for a good cross-country pray. Lisa asked her meditation group to devote its practice to our kid, and our Jewish friend Joe raised it up to his Evangelical Christian minister father in law. The point is, I felt like we had pantheistic coverage, though I do need to work on my contacts in the Buddhist and Islamic world.
Blogger Julie Gardner recently wrote a beautiful post about the worries we carry, called “Your Bag Won’t Always Be This Heavy, Mom.” I couldn’t even look at my bag for the past few weeks, let alone pick it up. But our friends and family were happy to shoulder it for us so we could focus on our daughters. Jill called and asked, “Do you want baked ziti or kugel for dinner on Tuesday?” Andrea met me at the house to help get our 5’9” daughter from the car into her bed to sleep off the anesthesia after the MRI, and weeded my garden while she waited. My mother in law sent a cheerful bouquet of yellow flowers, and my parents sent the kids each a $5 bill, which, nobody don’t like a $5 bill. Maria texted me our favorite prayer from our favorite wacky church lady, the 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, just after our daughter was wheeled into surgery:
All shall be well,
And all shall be well,
And all manner of thing shall be well.
In other words, “benign, benign, benign.”
My daughter’s friends were also incredibly supportive, including the one who showed up a few hours after surgery with a plate of delectable chocolate cupcakes that helped chase away any lingering anxiety. Parents of our younger daughter’s friends offered to take her for ice cream and dinner so she didn’t get lost in the shuffle. I was grateful for everyone who emailed and called and texted and said, “Don’t bother calling me back, just wanted to let you know I was thinking of you.” It truly helped.
I was awed during this time: at the courage my older daughter showed, the bottomless love for his children that renders my stoic husband so vulnerable, the resiliency my younger daughter displayed when her parents’ attentions were elsewhere for a little while.
I was reminded that no matter how scary things are, pockets of humor persist. Right before she was wheeled in for the MRI, the Radiology Department doors swung open and a male administrator flew past. “Her nail polish is metallic so it’ll mess with the MRI results,” he yelled over his shoulder, “I’m heading down to the gift shop to see if they sell nail polish remover.” After the polish was off and the MRI was underway, three nurses came out to the waiting area separately to ask where we get our nails done, because the polish was so hard to remove. So much for my idea of taking her for a manicure a few days earlier, to keep her spirits up.
When we got the final, final call on Wednesday that the tumor was benign, I finally released the breath I’ve been holding since September 5. I’m hopeful my funny bone will fully recover soon, too. I’m left now simply with the need to express thanks, to God and all the people who do His work here on earth: pediatricians, radiologists, oncologists, surgeons, nurses, child life specialists, compassionate teachers, cupcake baking friends, texters, prayers, callers and emailers.
She’s ok, so we’re ok. Thank you.
I’d keep you safe, I’d keep you dry, don’t be afraid Cecelia, I’m your satellite…listened to this song driving back and forth to the hospital and it’ll forever be associated with the memory of this month.