The other day, I wrote something intensely personal about myself and my relationship with my mama. When I was very young, I had to undergo a series of painful procedures. According to mama, my interactions with her took a tone of blame, with every act of toddler rebellion feeling like an indictment. “You let this happen to me.”
The notion plagued me for years. Not even in my wildest imagination did I think to blame either of my parents for what happened. I’m sure unexplained, unknown pain was traumatic for a toddler, so there had to be anger mixed with confusion. But was I harboring resentment for my parents over something none of us were able to control? What type of douchey kid was I?
My life was peppered with conversations about why my condition not only existed, but seemed impossible to fix (it was never completely corrected). Looking back at my mother’s attempts to make sense of it all, I realized my alleged accusatory glances were less about my feelings and more about her own guilt. “I let this happen to her.”
This scenario didn’t occur to me until about a week ago. I was writing about how a vivacious toddler can go from bubbling to bed-ridden in the blink of an eye and I drew a previously-unseen parallel. Five years ago today, my then 14-year-old was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
I look at this picture all the time. We were going through a particularly rough time (at that time, we had just lost our home) and my mind was in survival and recovery mode. My job had given me two tickets to the Nationals-Cubs game that were so close to third, Zimmerman could have reached over and fixed my twist-out. Tyson had a cold that he couldn’t get rid of and didn’t want to come, but I pushed him. “I have no idea when we’re getting seats like this again,” is how I sold him on coming out.
I attributed his mood to 8th grade grumpiness and cold medicine grogginess, until I noticed he’d barely touched his food somewhere before the 7th inning stretch.
“I think it’s because my stomach is still messed up. I threw up on the way here.”
Threw up how? On the train? The platform? Was it a lot? Was that his first time throwing up?
“It’s my first time throwing up today.”
“Wait. How long have you been throwing up son? I thought this was just a cold.” I wouldn’t have pushed him to come out had I known.
“It’s cool. I’m feeling better. I’m just not hungry.” He didn’t want to leave the game. We ended up beating the Cubs 7–3.
The next few days, I kept an eye on my son and his mysterious vomiting. He would give me a peek of his regular self, then become a fountain of wherever he ate that day.
On the night of the May 13, after he admitted to vomiting again, we went to the emergency room. They tested for the flu, strep, and meningitis. One of the doctors came into the room and said that they were going to explore other possibilities. Strep, flu, and everything else was coming back negative. But with those tests, they were very specific in telling me what the test was for. “Exploring other options,” struck my panic button, and I began to google.
Leukemia. All the symptoms were there. I looked at him in the bed, and realized how small he looked. When did he get so small? He was always skinny but why was he small? He was quietly looking at TV and eating jello, or sherbet, or whatever they feed kids to make them ignore that they’re in an awful place. I didn’t want to scare him; particularly since they were going to tell me he had something else.
“I bet this is what they think he has,” I texted my friend, adding a screenshot of a leukemia diagnosis. I was waiting for the conversation ruling out this awful word looming in the back of my mind. Then we would move on to the next thing. There was no next thing. There was a conversation about further tests, an ambulance ride to Children’s Hospital, and a small room with nice people who told me they would have Tyson’s finalized test results shortly.
Tyson had drifted off to sleep, but I was working on my 23rd waking hour. I had drifted off to sleep, for about 30 minutes when the door jarred me awake. I don’t remember if the lady was a doctor or a nurse. I don’t remember the color of her hair, and if you put me in front of a firing squad with my survival dependent upon her identification, that would mark my last day on earth. I just remember her confirming the leukemia diagnosis and saying “I just want to let you know that this isn’t your fault.
I don’t remember any of the other things she said. I just remember thinking, “Why is she lying to me?” Of course it was my fault. I look at the picture of that small boy, five years later, and still think the nurse is a liar. I am his mother. Why didn’t I see that his smile wasn’t reaching his eyes? How long was I so focused on the act of survival and piecing life back together, that I almost let it cost me my son?
Five years is a big deal. Five years since his diagnosis and ultimate remission. Almost five years since he was able to discontinue treatment entirely. Five years of wishing that I never knew what words like “nadir” meant. Five years of remembering that somehow I managed to be a parent to kids in two different states and fake my way through my then-current definition of normal.
But in those five years, it just recently dawned on me that maybe someone stood over my mama, with a face she’ll never remember, and told her that what was happening to me wasn’t her fault. Did she politely nod, then burst into tears like I did? Or did she call the woman a liar to her face?
I don’t think Tyson blames me any more than I blame my mama. But I don’t think I blame myself any less than she blamed herself. Maybe I got this terrible habit of picking up burdens that don’t belong to me from her. In this last week, I’ve wondered if she was waiting to me to release her out loud. Sometimes, there is a part of me that waits for the same thing from Tyson. It isn’t logical, but it is real.
I hope my kids never have to think about this — the imagined indictments parents carry in their breasts. I think that is another unrealistic expectation I might be carrying, particularly if guilt is encoded in our DNA. I can hope.