No more scans

Twice a year, we don’t get to pretend life is normal.

On these days, I drive my daughter to the hospital still in her PJs, usually fussy, sometimes crying because she is hungry and thirsty but can’t eat or drink before the tests she is about to have.

She is the youngest patient in the waiting room by decades. The nurses give her Disney princess stickers or abbreviated coloring books titled — I kid you not — “My Trip to Radiology.”

Every single time, I fill out the same form:

Has the patient had surgery?

Are you kidding?

If so, give the dates.

I list months and years because the actual dates have blurred together.

Has the patient ever had cancer?

Duh.

Does the patient have a penile implant?

Giggle.

We wait for an hour, sometimes two, once for three. When they finally call her name and lead us to the procedure area, I give her long and extensive medical history to the anesthesiologist and beg him (it’s always a him) to please, please, please put anti-nausea medicine in her IV. It will mean the difference between her vomiting once or twice when she wakes up or for the rest of the day.

The doctor always present a syringe filled with the pink liquid sedative Versed. Since I’m not allowed to walk her into the treatment room due to the completely safe levels of radiation, they want her calm when they take her from me.

When she was a baby she took the medicine easily. In her toddler years she pushed it away, or took it and then promptly threw it up. Now that she’s a mature child of 6, we have an agreement, one that many — but not all — anesthesiologists can’t get their heads around. I don’t make her drink the medicine, she goes bravely into the treatment room without melting down.

Many — but not all — anesthesiologists don’t believe she can do it, so I have to bust out my own medical credentials, namely an advanced degree in She’s My Kid, This Isn’t Our First Rodeo, So Kindly Step Off. The nurses always come to my aid, although from the way they shake their heads I can tell they are used to being ignored by Those Who Must Be Obeyed. (If it sounds like I have contempt for doctors, I don’t. I adore them, especially pediatric oncologists, who are g-d—n unsung heroes in my opinion. For some reason, though, most — but not all — anesthesiologists drive me crazy, probably because I disagree with their assessment that God wears a name tag and Crocs.)

They take her from me, weeping but not bawling, and I wave good bye smiling. Inside I am screaming.

The hospital has a chapel. I don’t know if God exists but I go into that room, get on my knees and beg. Please let her sleep soundly, please comfort her when she wakes up, please ease her pain. It feels hypocritical to pray when I’m not even sure what I believe but a parent in this position will do anything.

It’s a sentiment perhaps best summed up by the protagonist of one of the greatest novels of our time, Peter Benchley’s Jaws. At one point, when the beleaguered police chief is powerless to stop attacks on swimmers he declares, “If someone came in here and said he was Superman and could piss the shark away from here, I’d say fine and dandy. I’d even hold his d—k for him.”

Man is this is ever true. Except for the pee and d—k parts. Gross. But if someone told me standing on my head and coloring my face green would ease her pain, I’d flip over and grab the paint. It someone told me the universe is being presided over by a cosmic Elmer Fudd, I’d tell him which way the Wascally Wabbit went and ask him to grant my child mercy.

After the praying comes the waiting. At least four hours, sometimes more than six. For some reason, without fail, there is a band playing Irish music in the hospital lobby, and I don’t mean U2 or the Pogues.

Now, I love Irish folk music as much as the average person. Probably more since I have a few albums. But when this band’s music bounces off the cold marble floors off the hospital lobby, it sounds discordant and irritating, like a 3-year-old sawing at a violin or an accordion being dropped down a flight of stairs.

It’s a huge relief when the call comes in that they have finished the tests.

Upstairs in the recovery room, my daughter is a tiny body in a room full of giants. Groggy and quiet she clings to me as she slowly wakes up, while other patients groan or even rant in alarm because they don’t know where they are. If they shout I cover her ears. The nurses are remarkable at settling the patients down. They must be great with drunks.

On the drive home my daughter usually vomits, a surprised look on her face as the bile erupts from her mouth and nostrils. At home we cuddle and wait for the doctor’s phone call.

With a few exceptions it has been good news: the tumors are the same size, or they’ve shrunk the tiniest bit. We all exhale with relief. I say a prayer of thanks. We are officially granted leave to live in denial for the next six months, which is how we roll in this house.

But last week, when I steeled myself to schedule her next set of scans, I was given a pleasant shock by her oncologist. It’s been three years since she stopped chemotherapy, something I hadn’t realized in the daily chaos of life.

At this point, it is so unlikely the cancer will start growing again that the scans to check their size are considered more harmful than useful. Instead they will check her urine and test her blood once a year.

It’s a joy and a relief. She is no longer the ghostly pale baby who practically lived in a hospital bed. She’ll never again be the bald toddler with track marks in her arms. And now she won’t be the kid who is dragged out of school for debilitating tests and assessments.

She’s not completely out of the woods. She probably never will be, a thought that hangs over our heads when we let it, usually on Christmas and her birthday.

But for now, her life has gotten that little bit better. And for that, we are grateful.

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Words to live by

 

There is a question doing the rounds on Facebook: What movie quote best describes your life?

At first glance, that seems a tough one to answer. Do they mean my life right now? Or are they talking about childhood, the awkward teen years, the misspent youth, the dawning of middle age?

If I narrow it down to the present, then the choice is obvious and automatic. It comes from one of the few films that captures the chaotic, frightening and exhilarating moments of parenthood.

I’m talking, of course, about Jaws.

In my opinion, no truer words about parenting exist than those uttered by Chief Brody when he comes face to face with the behemoth shark he has set out to kill and he realizes he has set himself a task way beyond his capabilities:

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Aw, hell, yeah.

Because as much as you think you’re prepared to be a parent, you’re not. You may have hired an expert fisherman, brought a marine biologist on board and prepared to stay out till the job was done, but eventually you will be forced to admit that your child is a 2-meter-long great white shark with a taste for human flesh and a personal vendetta against the good people of Amityville.

Ha-ha. Kidding. Maybe.

To be fair, there are people who don’t feel overwhelmed by parenthood. I met one once. The memory is hazy, since it was a few weeks after my first child was born and I was anemic and exhausted. In a breastfeeding support group, an impeccably dressed woman without a scrap of vomit sticking to her told me motherhood wasn’t challenging at all.

“It’s just such a privilege to be a mother,” she said, as she nursed her infant and her toddler played contentedly at her feet.

Unsure what kind of support she was meant to be providing in a support group, I went back to “nursing,” which meant squeezing back tears as my son flattened and abraded a part of my body that deserves much greater kindness than an infant can give. (Why, oh why, can’t breast milk issue forth from a less sensitive part of the body, say, the callused soles of our feet?)

We were interrupted by Little Miss Privilege hrieking because her toddler had walked into a door knob. Flying across the room, infant still at one breast, she dropped to the floor and lifted her shirt so the older child could latch on to the other breast.

“She finds it comforting,” she told me, as her toddler stood and nursed with tears streaming down her face.

Holy hell, I thought to myself. If she thinks that’s easy, I’m am 100 percent f—ked.

But for the most part, people I have encountered find parenthood as daunting as I do. Because you can love your children to pieces, they can be something you wanted all your life, and they can still be your most formidable challenge.

Believe it or not, the physical part is the easy part. You can get by on little sleep, lowered standards of hygiene and scraps of food caught on the fly and survive. By my count, for eight years.

It’s the psychological aspect that can make you want to give up. When my son was an infant and cried, I was convinced he was in terrible pain. When he went on walks strapped to my husband’s chest, I was convinced he would catch the plague. (To be fair, we lived in London.) When his nose became clogged from a cold I was convinced he would stop breathing.

The first night my son slept by my side, I was wide awake and breathless in terror, constantly reaching over to check that he was still alive. It was then that I realized I would never sleep soundly again. Even though the delicate newborn years wouldn’t last forever, there would always be something to worry about. From nightmares to bullies to broken hearts and brutal life lessons, he would have to suffer and there WOULDN’T BE A DAMN THING I COULD DO ABOUT IT.

Damn straight I needed a bigger boat. Or a shot of Jaegermeister.

Of course, I’ve relaxed a bit. It’s impossible to operate at that frequency for  long without imploding and when the universe throws the degree-of-difficulty crap it has flung at my family, you just gotta sack up and deal.

But if there were ever any words that gave me more comfort in my “Oh s**t!” moments of parenting, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” tops the list.

That and “Sweep the leg” from The Karate Kid. I mean, right???

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This image perfectly sums up my feelings about parenthood. It’s also an accurate depiction of mealtimes in my house.