It seems at every stage of the breast cancer experience, I’ve come upon a time where I have had to prepare Oliver for a major physical change due to surgery or treatment or side effect. When I was diagnosed, Oliver was only 19 months old. There was no way he could understand cancer but he did understand that something was different when I came back from my mastectomy. His intuition let him know that I needed to be treated carefully and he was sweet and gentle with me. When it came time for me to lose my hair, I had to find a creative way of explaining to him that my hair was going away. I had no idea how to do it and, evidently, neither did anyone else. There’s no information out there on how to speak to a child so young about these issues. We had to invent the wheel.
Now Oliver is 3 years old and much more aware about his world. He’s curious about everything and is very verbal. His favorite thing to ask is, “What would happen if…” and asks the funniest questions. Here’s our latest “what if..” conversation.
Oliver: What would happen if I didn’t have any feet to walk on?
Me: Then you’d have to walk on your hands.
Oliver: What would happen if I didn’t have any hands?
Me: Then you’d need to scoot on your tush.
Oliver: What would happen if I did have a tush?
Me: Then you’d have to spin on your head.
Oliver: What if I didn’t have a head?
Me: Then you’d have to roll on your belly.
Oliver: What would happen if I had no body?
Me: I don’t know….
As you can see, Oliver wants to know about how the world works, about action and reaction and consequences. Along with that, he studies everything. He’s always been an observer and this is what fuels his curiosity. I knew that the trauma and changes that I experienced from surgery could not be hidden from him. My parenting philosophy is also that I should treat Oliver as an intelligent human being who deserves honesty and respect. The challenge for me was how could I possibly explain surgery, especially one that is so extreme in a way that wouldn’t frighten him. I thought it over for a very long time. This is what I came up with.
About a month before my surgery, Oliver asked to be picked up, which was always hard because of my cording and lymphedema. But that day, I picked him up and I said, “You know, Oliver, soon I won’t be able to pick you up anymore because I’m having a surgery.” “What is surgery,” he asked? “Do you remember how mommy has a boo-boo on her breast? And you know how my arm sometimes hurts? Well, a doctor has to give me a new boo-boo that will help me with my arm and the boo-boo on my breast.” I saw the wheels turning in his head. He asked some more questions, which I do not remember and then changed the subject.
I kept doing this and having similar conversations. Not every single time I picked him up but as time got closer to the surgery, more and more often. Or sometimes I would say to Oliver, after he asked me to pick him up? “Will mommy be able to pick you up when she has surgery?” He would say, “no.”
I know that he had no concept of what surgery really was but he did know the word and he did know some of the consequences. Soon he began to ask if the boo-boo will hurt. I said that it would hurt at first but like all boo-boos, it would get better. I started to show him where the incisions would be so he wouldn’t be surprised when he saw them on me.
Then, the week before my surgery, we discussed the topic every day. I prepared him for the fact that he wouldn’t be seeing me for several days and that I would be spending time in the hospital. Every day he’d ask me, “Mommy, did you have your surgery already?” “No,” I said. “I’m having my surgery on Friday.” We also counted down the days.
I also tried to get him excited about his time away from me. I told him he could bring all of his favorite toys with him to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and he loved that. Also, his uncle Jesse was coming up from D.C. to help out my parents and Oliver was over the moon about that. So each day, he was reminded of the upcoming surgery, what changes he would see in me, where my boo-boo would be and who would be taking care of him. He never showed too much concern.
Two days after my surgery, I was ready to talk to Oliver on FaceTime. I hoped to do it the day after my surgery but I was in too much pain and couldn’t muster the strength to even hold up my iPhone. But on day two, I called. He looked at me over the phone. “Mommy, is that you?” “Yes, it’s me. It’s Mommy,” I said. “Mommy, is that you?” He seemed confused. I guess I looked a little different. Battered. “Yes, it’s me baby.” “Did you have your surgery,” he asked? I explained that I did. I explained that I had a boo-boo but I was getting better. Then he saw the IV in my hand. “You have a big band-aid?” “Yes, I do. It’s how the doctors give me medicine to make me feel better.” “I want to see it,” he said. He was really curious about the band-aid. Then he was done talking.
The next day when I called to talk to him, he didn’t want to speak to me. We tried to get him to the phone but he refused. We didn’t push him.
When I came home from the hospital, he came back home to sleep over because he had school the next morning. At first, all I could hear was, “I don’t want to see Mommy! I don’t want to see Mommy!” He sounded scared and nervous. But then he agreed to let my husband pick him up and he came into my bedroom. He didn’t want to be put down at first but I told him that I’d show him where he could sit so he wouldn’t hurt me. I had him sit on my husband’s side of the bed. He looked so scared and nervous. I’ve never seen his face like that. It broke my heart. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said. “You won’t hurt me,” I said. “Just take my hand. Hold my hand.” He did. “Oh, that feels so nice,” I exclaimed!!!! He began to smile. Then he said, “I’m going to hug you.” He took his two hands and wrapped them around my cheeks and rubbed them gently. And then he leaned into me and began kissing me gently around my face.
This is what heaven feels like.
Each day since has had it’s ups and downs. He definitely tries to take care of me. He insists on holding my hand as I walk to and from the bathroom and he reminds me to walk slowly. Other times he says to me, “I don’t like your boo-boos.” I don’t like them either. He’s suddenly dropped his naps. It can be because of a growth or cognitive spurt. It could be the stress and changes. Who knows?
It seems that we’re getting through it all. I was so afraid of traumatizing Oliver, especially at this critical time when memories are being made. I know he’ll remember some of this. How can he not? But I hope the thing he remembers the most is the love. There has been so much love.