October 2014

When I was 23, I did volunteer work talking to people who were near the end of their lives. I was scared of other people’s pain, or at least what I perceived as being pain. I took a situation that I figured had to be painful and assumed the person felt the same. I wanted to fix it because that’s what you’re supposed to do with pain, or so I thought.

I doubt I was all that effective in my volunteer work. Most likely, I wanted to fix other people’s problems to relieve my own fears. And really how do you ‘fix’ things that either don’t need to be fixed or that simply cannot be? The truth is that 23-year-old me would be terrified of the situation my now 41-year-old me lives in, this world with so many questions and endless concerns and so few answers.

Some have said to be grateful for what all these experiences are teaching me. I would much rather our younger son not have cancer. I would rather our older son not struggle so much with the basics of everyday life. I would rather have not had constant migraines for the past two years.

The truth is that I feel powerless to do anything right now. That is one of the worst feelings you can have as a parent. There’s so much waiting – waiting to see what the cancer does next, waiting to find the right dosing for my newer medications.

Every now and then, Dale Jr. just starts sobbing. He is thoughtful and sensitive, much like I was when I was little. He gets too overwhelmed to cope with all his feelings about everything happening to him. Many years ago, I would have looked for ways to divert him from sadness or fix it somehow or tell him everything will turn out fine.

Now I know that all I can do is hold him, say “I know you are sad. I’m right here,” and be present to him in whatever way I can. I cannot deny or fix how any of us feel. This is all hard right now. The best thing we can do is ask whether we can just be OK with that for now.

When I’m at the pediatric oncology clinic, I look at all the children and parents around me. There are rip currents of pain and fear everywhere. All of us feel like we’re at the mercy of forces we can no longer control. But we are, in our own ways, present to each other. No one speaks in empty platitudes. No one denies the truth of what all is going on. We know anything else is to dishonor the paths we each must travel. We just keep moving on as best we can.

flower from the ashesThe inpatient pediatric oncology floor – our home for a total of almost two weeks now – would once have terrified me. To go there is to walk into the soul of fear. I saw parents who had become shells of themselves. Their children hadn’t been home in months. Some would never go home again.

Yet somehow in the heart of that place, grace and kindness still live. Like flowers that grow out of volcanic ash, each parent we met extended their heart to us. Their children smiled to our son and he back at them.

To varying degrees, we have all been stripped back to our core. We are given the unfiltered truth of what it means to be human. We are helpless and afraid. We are strong and our love unshaken. We fight to whatever end.

We show compassion and kindness because others have showed us the same. We are surrounded by love and support from all sides. We are exhausted and unraveling. We just try to get through the day. We appreciate what we do have. We marvel at how our kids bring out the best in others. We hold on to all that is good.

I never thought I would become that guy. That person I would have felt sorry for. That person who has no idea anymore how the supposedly normal lives of others works. That person who others look at with no idea what to say. That person whose child gets special attention because he’s fighting for his future. That person whose family others pray and cry for because they don’t believe this could all happen to someone. But that is who I am now.

Autism has become one of the easier things in our lives lately. We joke that it’s about tenth on our list of things to be concerned about. Our J-Man is doing pretty well and going through his daily routines about the same as he always has. We never know what he has picked up on, how much he understands about everything that’s happening to us. That mystery remains inscrutable for the time being. He finds solace in the routines of daily life, and he simply is. He almost seems the most oriented of our chaotic family.

But now we just want to survive all this intact and have our life together continue on, hopefully stronger and brighter than before. I have become someone I barely know. Physically I have deteriorated. Mentally and emotionally I am often someone I don’t recognize. Anxiety, chronic pain, fear, guilt, strain, powerlessness, and a laundry list of other emotions take their toll. Some of that is my own doing. In the midst of crisis, we still have it in our power to break things much more than they already are.

We will never be quite the same even when Dale Jr. finally goes into remission and, God willing, my migraines go away. Too much has happened. We will just find a new normal and come to some kind of peace with it.

We’re here together, and that’s what matters most. We have communities of support who lift us up when we can’t do that for ourselves. We’re getting by. It could be much worse. But it is hard.

Sometimes that’s just how life is for all of us. It’s OK to say it out loud. It’s OK to say things are hard. It’s OK to say you feel worried, anxious, or terrified. It’s OK to ask for help. You’re allowed to do all this just as much as we are. We’re all in our own ways in this big boat together.

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Pulling the IV Pole

by Tim on October 16, 2014

During Dale Jr’s most recent chemo treatment, he ended up back in the hospital. He got so dehydrated from vomiting after the second of the four days of infusions that he had to be admitted. So almost six months to the day after we left that inpatient pediatric oncology unit hoping to never have to go back, there we were again for another four-day stay.

He remembers everything about the last two times we were there, particularly the location of all the play areas. He was so weak the first couple of days that he could barely move, but he wanted so desperately to go up to the fancy playroom two floors above the oncology unit.

There was no way he could walk the distance. He couldn’t even walk much past the door of his room. So I found a wagon and loaded him in with his stuffed bird doll and a blanket. You could tell he felt awful, but he wanted to go so much that the medical staff suggested we at least try. I took the wagon handle in my left hand and the IV pole in my right, and I dragged it all behind me toward the elevators.

About halfway there, I was almost struck down with a vision of what I had seen in this place six months before.

Outside his room when he was first diagnosed in March, I saw a dad pulling a little girl in a wagon. She was wrapped in blankets, too weak to move. He dragged the wagon handle in his left hand, the IV pole in his right. They made laps of the oncology unit. As I watched them, I had this haunting feeling that what I was seeing was a prophecy of our future. I never imagined that it would literally come true.

I became that dad I wrote about. I wanted to fall to my knees, but I knew I couldn’t. We have to keep a brave front for him.

We made it to the floor the playroom is on even with my awkward ‘driving’ skills. Since the children’s hospital is located on a major college campus, a lot of college students volunteer there. I was rescued by two of them. One offered to push the IV pole the remaining few hundred feet to the play area while I pulled the wagon.

If you ever wonder what you can do for someone, carry a little piece of their burden for a bit by doing something practical. It doesn’t need to be much or for long. Just pulling the IV pole along for a couple of minutes matters.

This was the big playroom for the entire inpatient part of the children’s hospital. Children with cancer, severe burns, injuries from accidents or traumas, and much more all mingle together with volunteers. It’s like the center of the unfairness universe. But we make the best of it. The kids with cancer tend to get the most sympathetic looks and quiet words. Everyone here knows some of them won’t survive.

The kids play, and for a little while we forget what all is going on. He lasted about fifteen minutes until I had to take him back to his room. He slept for three hours. It was all heartbreaking. We were living on the other side of the prophecy. If I could have rammed that IV pole up cancer’s ass, I would have.

While he slept and I drank bad coffee from the parents’ pantry and ate from a stack of individual cups of chocolate ice cream, I tried to think about anything to be grateful about in all this. It turned out to be not all that hard really.

It’s the people who will walk to the edges of worlds to care for our children. These nurses and doctors walk toward the center of other people’s hell and do their best to help, to heal, to give hope.

The families find a bit of comfort in each other even if we’re often too busy attending to our own children to talk much. We are like strangers huddled under a shelter in a terrible storm.

We have all been offered platitudes by well-meaning people to explain why we are here in this place with our children. Those people will never really understand what it means to be here. They just need to make sense of it for themselves and maybe for us, too, in an attempt to avoid the feelings of terror we feel.

But what kind of divine plan can have children screaming as the chemicals burn a hole in their chests? What kind of plan can have parents’ hearts lying shattered on the hospital floors? What kind of plan decides which little ones live and which die?

The solace I find is that people care for us and help us, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because of their faith. Maybe it’s because it’s simply who they are. Maybe it’s a combination of these and so much more. I simply don’t know.

The kids in the oncology clinic try so hard to carry the banner of bravery left for them by all the courageous souls with cancer who went before them. They, too, do not know how to quit. They inspire us. They teach us what is most sacred in life. They teach us that we don’t have time for all the petty things in life. Our time here is just too precious.

And somehow all this care and courage turns everything into a certain ragged grace that comes out in between the cracks of chaos and hope. It calls us on to follow the footsteps of those who have been out here before us. We are not alone, even if few will ever take the path we are on.

Is any of this fair? It almost doesn’t matter whether it is or not. We can curse the challenges and heartaches in our lives, but it does little to change them. Lately, I feel a bit less angry. I’m not sure why. I guess I realized it wasn’t making any difference except to harm me and others.

We are loved. We are pitied. We are embraced. We are sometimes just on our own. We try our best. We win some days and lose others. We hope in a good future because the alternative is too terrible.

Perhaps people see us as a symbol of how fragile life can be. Perhaps those who live fairly straightforward lives see ours as a rollercoaster precariously balanced on the edges of gravity. Some days are very hard. Some are pretty average. Others are extraordinarily amazing beyond words. But it’s quite obvious that the lives of others are not much at all like our own.

It’s hard to see this as a journey anymore. It’s neither a marathon nor a sprint. We live outside of time. It’s just today now.

We are exhausted, constantly worried about finances, short with each other, and desperately hoping for the days beyond all these challenges. We joke that autism is about eleventh on our list of things to be anxious about right now. We do know that ourselves of two years ago wouldn’t recognize who we have become.

We take heart in how much both our kids inspire others. They have gone through more challenges than most children end up facing their entire lives. So many root for them and want to help. They’ve pulled the IV pole for us whenever they could. I could never put into words what all this means to us.

My hope is that you find people like this in your own lives. We all need them. We aren’t meant to do this alone.

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