Ten years ago this week, we were on the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. The search party consisted of Matt, a two-and-a-half-year-old Ben, and a five-months-pregnant me. We weren’t trekking through the Wilderness on our search – kinda hard to do in Dublin, Ohio – but it was a pretty popular tree lot, laden with rows and rows of trees. The day was overcast and the chill in the air was a definite harbinger of snow. Matt was off on his own while Ben and I half-heartedly looked at the trees. He was more interested in weaving in and out of the rows, and I was following along to make sure he didn’t wander off or slip on the icy snow pack.
“Ooooh! Smell the trees, Ben!” We put our noses toward the sky and inhaled sharply, trying to strip the balsam out of the air. I don’t think Ben appreciated it as much as I did, but it was cute to see him emulate my sniffing. This age was my favorite yet. I went into this parenting gig without any indication of how these little people-thingies worked. The newborn phase was freaky. The first year of reaching milestones, like rolling over and sitting up, was pretty cool. But this phase of all-encompassing wonder was just so awesome. I loved watching my little Bean discover things. I had to admit that I was really nervous about starting over with a whole new little person, but if he or she (I like the surprise aspect of hearing the gender upon birth) would be anything like Ben, then I was up for doing it again.
Ben limped back to me and raised his arms up high. “Hold me, mommy.” There’s that damn limp again. Of course, he never exhibits said limp when we’re at the pediatrician. I grunted as I hoisted him up, groaning at the beginnings of back pain. He snuggled into me as he laid his head on my shoulder. Instinctively, I swayed back and forth, attempting to comfort my son. But while some things – like swaying – came naturally, so many other things didn’t. I had reached the point where I was taking him to Urgent Care for all the weird symptoms. The easily dismissed indicators of a common virus. A case of constipation. A possible hip infection. No real tests were being run because the evidence just didn’t seem that damning. And, of course, I was an overly protective first-time mom with hormonal issues caused by this second pregnancy. Everyone thought I was just being a nervous, first-time parent.
I knew Ben was hurting and I took him to the doctor all the time. Why won’t this runny nose go away? Why does he have this constant low-grade fever? Why doesn’t he want to eat anything? We had tried everything to get him to eat. He liked spaghetti. He liked bread. But even presenting him with his favorites was not a guarantee that he would eat. “He’ll eat when he gets hungry. Don’t make special allowances. You’re doing it wrong.” Everyone had an opinion on how to solve it. Everyone had an opinion based on their expertise. I regret that I turned to everyone else for advice and didn’t follow my own instincts.
I knew deep in my heart that something was really wrong.
And, of course, when he was diagnosed with a very horrible cancer, the variety of ailments all made sense. He was misdiagnosed for a long time, though. And I feel very guilty about that. Would he still be battling 10 years later if I had been more persistent? Maybe they would have caught it earlier. Maybe he would have lost his hair only one time. Maybe he would have forgotten all of that initial therapy – 15 months of hell – because he was just a toddler. I know I shouldn’t play the “what if” game because it’s a game that nobody wins. It happened and nothing on this earth can change that. “You should sue the pediatrician. Why didn’t you make them do more tests? You’re doing it wrong.” Everyone had an opinion on how to solve it. And this time, I told them all to piss off. Well, not really verbally, but I just quit sharing my feelings with all of them.
But the time leading up to it, before we knew about a horrible disease named Neuroblastoma, things were kinda normal. Here we were looking for a tree. Playing amongst the rows of sweet-smelling pine. Watching him toddle about, cautiously reaching out to touch things with his curious fingers. And then retreating to his mommy when he just didn’t feel good.
I’m mad at cancer for hiding in my son that Christmas 10 years ago. I’m mad that all the Thomas the Tank Engine toys were opened but not played with because cancer had exhausted him – even though we thought he was just overwhelmed with all the excitement that Christmas morning brings.
I guess looking for that tree was really my first realization that something was really and truly wrong with Ben. I let it slide for two more months because I listened to everyone else. And I’m sitting here ten years later dreading putting up my freaking tree because somehow I link the two together. I can usually deflect these emotions with a healthy dose of cynicism but this anniversary is getting the better of me.
Ten years. A decade. Nearly a quarter of my life. Nearly 5/6 of Ben’s life. And the entirety of Madeline’s life. It’s taken too much. But, it hasn’t taken everything. My sweet Ben is still here.
And there’s my silver lining. Right?