As the weeks ticked by, and arrangements were made in preparation for my leaving, I knew inevitably I would need to talk to Jason about what was happening. Up until this point, my four year old son was happily attending preschool three mornings a week, and going about his normal daily routine, enjoying occasional playdates and accompanying me to the gym several times a week. Jason had no idea that anything unusual was happening, or that anything was wrong with me. My first priority was to change as little as possible, so that aside from my absence, there would be very little disruption in his schedule. With school ending and summer vacation approaching, he would still see the same faces at the pool or at playdates, and I felt that would give him a sense of normalcy and predictability.
Once I knew that his summer activities and transportation had been arranged, it was time to start thinking about how I would discuss my illness and treatment with him, and tell him that I would be leaving for a short time. I fluctuated back and forth about whether to tell Jason the truth about what was happening, which would potentially scare him, or fabricate some creative story that would be less frightening. The thought of Jason accidentally finding out somehow that I had 'lied' to him was inconceivable to me, so I knew I had to be honest with him. How to best do that? I didn't know how he would react...would he cry? Hang on to me to keep me from leaving? Have nightmares? Not knowing what to do, I came up with a great idea--I'd find a book! That's what parents did when there was a serious family issue! Why didn't I think of this before? I knew there were books about potty training, divorce, changes in one's body during adolescence, even death and grief. Of course there were books to help answer kids' questions about sex, reproduction, adoption, having two mommies or two daddies. There had to be one about how to cope when one's mommy or daddy was sick. So I set out to find the perfect book.
I started with the major retailers, like Barnes & Noble and Borders. There were books about a parent with a disability, cancer, alcoholism, even depression, but I didn't have those conditions. I went to several smaller bookstores closer to home, still no luck. I hit the libraries, and Amazon.com, narrowing my search to the 'life issues' category. I found plenty of books about cancer...this was a popular disease. It was more common and well known, and therefore received more recognition. But I just couldn't imagine telling Jason I had something that I didn't have. I contacted the social worker at the JCC preschool where Jason was a student to see if perhaps she knew of any books which could help support a child with a sick parent, without a specific diagnosis, and she did not.
As parents, *we* are the caregivers. Children see us as all-powerful beings who keep them safe and chase the monsters out from under the bed. In a child's eyes, parents don't get sick, at least not seriously enough to need the child to take care of them. I knew that this was the way Jason perceived me, as "Super Mommy", able to play with him, carry him, and protect him, able to take care of the house, cooking, shopping and errands, always on the go, never needing a break. How would I explain not only my leaving, but the change in my physical appearance and abilities when I came home? Until I got stronger, I wouldn't be able to do many of the activities he was used to seeing me do--would he be upset, even angry? How would he react seeing me without my long curly hair? I couldn't even bear the thought of Jason being afraid to see me like that, or thinking I looked 'yukky'....what if he didn't want to hug, kiss or snuggle me? How does a four year old react to seeing his mother so changed from what he is used to?
Then I realized that it's not *what* you tell kids, so much as *how* you tell them. When Jason was smaller and fell down, knowing he was unhurt I'd smile and say, "Kaboom!" and we'd both giggle. I knew that if I overreacted, frantically checking every inch for a bump or bruise, he would see the concern and start to worry himself that something scary had just happened. With no book to guide me, I decided to tell Jason the truth about my situation, but in an upbeat, positive way. If he saw that I wasn't scared, then hopefully he wouldn't be either.
One day Jason was with me while I was cleaning up my bedroom. "Mommy," he said, "You remember that boo-boo I had? It's all gone--look!" and he showed me the area where a scrape had scabbed over, fallen off and healed. "How do boo-boos go away?" he asked.
Well if this wasn't the perfect time to discuss my situation with him, then I didn't know what would be. In my room by the window I still have the rocking glider from when he was an infant. "Come on over here, sweetie," I said, and pulled him onto my lap. "I have something I want to talk to you about."
I started to answer Jason's question by explaining the different cells in the body on a piece of paper: red cells, which give him energy to play, platelets, which stopped his boo-boo from bleeding and formed the scab, and white cells, which kept germs away and protected his scrape from infection. I had engaged his full attention, and he was really interested since I was using words he could understand. "Then sometimes, there are 'bad guys' that make you sick," I said, and drew a few sad faces :( on the page. "Sometimes, there can be boo-boos on the inside that you can't see. Mommy's doctor found a lot of these 'bad guys' in my body, and will need to give me strong medicine to get rid of all of them." In a matter of fact way, I explained to Jason that the medicine was too strong for me to take by myself at home, and that the doctor would be in charge of giving it to me. To do that, I would need to have a long sleepover at the hospital for a few weeks. I told him that when Nana Sue came to visit, which she did every summer, they would do all the fun things they usually did: go to camp, the pool and the playground, play games, and read stories until I came home. Then I told him that the medicine would be so strong, it would not only get rid of the 'bad guys', but the good cells too. When this happened, I would feel like a superhero without my superpowers. I knew Jason was listening because right away he asked, "Like when Syndrome captured Mr. Incredible, and he couldn't get out?" We had just watched The Incredibles during the past week, and this couldn't have been a better example. "Exactly!" I said, offering a second comparison of Superman losing his superpowers in the presence of Kryptonite. Jason seemed like he was handling all of this information incredibly well, so we talked about some of the things I wouldn't be able to do until I got stronger. "How will you get your superpowers back?" Jason asked. I was so excited at how well this conversation was going! I explained to him how the doctor would give me healthy new baby cells, and as the baby cells grew, my superpowers would come back. Not wanting to overwhelm him with information, I decided to wrap it up and move on with our day, once I had shared one last detail. "But Jason," I said, "the strong medicine is so strong, it's also going to make my hair fall out." Afraid of how he'd react, I tried to use some humor. "See how your hair is so short and fuzzy, and Daddy's is too? Well, that's what Mommy's going to look like! I'm going to have a buzz cut just like you and Daddy! Won't that be funny? We'll all have matching haircuts!" We both laughed and he seemed tickled at the thought. I was glad to see he was amused, but my mind was racing...did I explain that okay? Did I tell him enough, but not too much? Or did I tell him too little? I wanted to tell him the truth so that he would know what to expect, but now I feared I may have just scarred him for life. Was he too young to process this information? "Mommy?" he said.
Oh no. Here it comes. Questions I can't answer. What if Jason asks me if I might die? How do I answer that? Maybe I should have waited until Steve was home to help me do this. Would he have bad dreams tonight? "Mommy?!" he said again.
"Can I have more juice now?" Well I guess that went well! Right then and there, I knew that at some point when all this was over, I was going to write the book I didn't have.