It was 7:30 AM, and a full week since the last day of school. Baby #2 perched at the end of a kitchen chair, his eyes watching me as I emptied the dishwasher.
“So, now what?” he asked timidly, studying my body language and facial expression. I could see the tension in his shoulders and the anxiety in his bouncing knee. His older sister had at least another hour and a half of sleep left in her, before she was plodding down the steps and answering his enthusiastic “Good morning!” with a zombiesque grunt. His younger brother would be bolting out of bed soon to embrace the day in a whirlwind of creative energy, and his baby brother was currently watching You Tube videos of adults playing with Play Doh.
It was 7:30 AM, did I mention that? 7:30 AM, and this child had already eaten breakfast, dressed and washed up, read a book for 20 minutes, completed an online math quiz, written two paragraphs in his journal, took care of three household chores, played creatively for 15 minutes and kicked a soccer ball around in the yard for another 30. Now he sat, awaiting further instruction, and would not pick up his iPod or give his attention to any amusement until I gave the okay.
He doesn’t require supervision or encouragement to tend to his responsibilities. For the most part, he is an independent kid. Before my cancer diagnosis, he would never have lingered to wait for my approval. He would have checked each item off of his list and then been on his merry way, creating epic adventures for his stuffed animals or reading up on prehistoric creatures.
But there he was, and it didn’t surprise me anymore. He can hardly remember life before BRCA2 and breast cancer entered our household. He is sensitive to my medicinal-induced mood swings, my anemic fatigue. He thanks me profusely for making dinner each night, holding my gaze with his piercing eyes, saying with his face “I know you are tired and frustrated. I know things take more effort for you than you think they should, but we need you. Please don’t give up.”
Baby #2 was a month into half-day Kindergarten when I received my breast cancer diagnosis. His school year began with me as an enthusiastic, hands-on volunteer and ended with me struggling to stay upright at his class’ year-end celebration. His dad would walk him to the bus in the mornings, and a rotating schedule of people would be waiting for him to step off of it in the afternoon. His days weren’t full of activities like his older sister’s, and he wasn’t in need of as much care as his preschool and infant brothers. He was the easy-to-manage one, and the one likely to fall through the cracks. As long as we existed within the confines of some sort of routine, he would get by.
It weighed on me, his willingness to give up his share of our attention, but he asked us for nothing. He believed his obligation was to tend to me, not that I had one to tend to him. He didn’t want to ask me a question if my eyes were closed while I was wrapped under blankets on the recliner. He set up his toys close enough to where I was so that he could observe me, and minister to me if coughed. He was the child asking if my chest hurt, if I wanted a drink of water, if I needed another pillow. He chastised the other kids if I was in the bedroom sleeping and they shouted or sang loudly. He felt personally responsible for my comfort, for my care, when I, as his mother, should have been able to meet those needs for him.
There was no anger, no frustration at our situation…at least on his part. For me, they were woven into the fabric of my daily life. I had to be careful, because if I showed those feelings to him, he could easily misinterpret them as something personal. His perception could be that he was liable.
This is the boy whose eyes shed empathetic tears for classmates having a hard day. This is the boy that follows the rules as if they were written in blood. This is the boy whose heart breaks for roadkill, that apologizes for not only his mistakes but for the missteps of others. This is the boy that needs reassurance and praise, and who aims to please. This is boy whose views of love and life are matter of fact, yet deeply emotional.
This is the boy I must be delicate with, whose love and devotion to me and to others I must encourage yet temper. His sense of justice and fairness might inspire him to have a profound influence on the world. Throughout his life, his heart may be heavy at times, but his ability to empathize and connect with other will be his greatest asset. As much as it grieves me for the worry I’ve caused him, my hope is I’ve shown him courage and fortitude as well. He motivates me to give more, to be more, than I thought was possible. Maybe the greatest lesson he will learn from cancer and BRCA2 and their burdens is that relationships, at their very core, are about give and take. We may not be able to control the variables, but we are capable of taking command of our responses.