In the book I want to write, my main characters are going to be wrapped up in issues involving truth. Now that I’ve stared at that italicized word for ten minutes wondering what my second sentence will be, I realize that like most words when they are repeated over and over, truth is a funny-looking one. Truth. Now it’s just started to sound so silly to me. My mind has wandered to thinking of words that rhyme with it. Booth. Sleuth. Tooth. What am I doing? Right, talking about truth, or, according to Google, “That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.” So let’s talk about this funny word and more importantly, this complex concept.
Lately, truth has been on my mind for a variety of different reasons. Just last night, as I watched the Presidential debate, I wondered a lot about truth, and facts, and reality. In an election year, it’s probably something we all should be thinking a lot about despite that it often feels impossible to pin down.
Truth has also been on my mind as Brian and I have talked to Teddy (and less so, to Annabel) about my cancer. Teddy will be five in February and I’m certain he knew something was wrong from the day of my ill fated, or better yet, life saving, mammogram. When Brian returned to the house with the kids from the zoo that day, I was home, and Teddy immediately wondered why I wasn’t at work. Obviously I tried to hide my tears from him, and even though most of that next week is a complete blur, I’m pretty sure I failed a few times.
Honestly, I don’t even remember what we first told Teddy and when. I do remember that a day or two after I was diagnosed, the phone rang. “Mommy, it’s probably the doctor,” Teddy told me nonchalantly. He was right. I answered the phone, numb with horror, and at the same time utterly amazed that Teddy’s world was still safe and secure even though mine was crumbling around me.
Now that I think back to that unbearable time prior to my surgery, I realize that it was so hard largely because we didn’t know the facts or the reality. We knew I had cancer, we knew my major organs were working OK, and we knew my chest X-ray looked good. But we didn’t know much more. So my reality became what my mind invented. Pain under my arms and in my right, as well as my left breast. Headaches that were brain tumors. Nausea and weight loss that were my body failing me. It’s really hard knowing only part of the truth.
When we realized that Teddy was onto something, we started to talk to him about it. I told him that I had a weird thing inside of me that the doctors had to get out. I’m not sick, I explained, and the doctors are going to make sure that I don’t get sick. We started to tell him that lots of people get surgery to fix parts of their body that need fixing. We told him that some of his most cherished people -- his grandfathers and grandmothers -- had all had surgeries at some time in their lives. Papa and Granddad had surgeries to make their knees better, and even his friends’ dad just had surgery to make his hip better. When I told him that he and Annabel were both born from a surgery to my stomach, he wanted to see proof. I showed him my C-section scar and told him how cool it was that the doctors took him, and later Annabel, out of my belly and sewed me back up. I wasn’t lying, I guess, because I really do think it is incredible that doctors can do that. Although “cool” and "incredible" weren't exactly the words I used at the time.
Slowly, Brian and I started to be more and more honest with Teddy about what was going on. I wasn’t going to work while he was at school, we admitted. I was going to doctor appointments. There wasn’t any use lying to him. He had already asked me why I wasn’t wearing my “work clothes” in the morning. Again, he was surprisingly fine with the truth.
With all that we did tell him, however, we never used the word cancer. We knew too well Teddy’s incredible ability to make associations. I could see it all play out – on the TV or on the playground, he would overhear that someone died of cancer. He would remember that I have cancer. And he would think that I too was going to die. It wouldn’t be good, for him or for us, so we hid that part of the truth from him.
When Brian and I met with Dr. Fasciano a week or so before my surgery, she told us that in her psychology practice, she is especially interested in helping parents speak with their children about illness. After she listened to us describe Teddy, she told us it would probably be best to gently introduce him to the word cancer.
A few days later, on the way to school, the topic of my surgery came up again and I repeated to Teddy what I’d told him before – that like so many people, I had something wrong with a part of my body (my boob) and I had to get it fixed. The doctors are going to take this little cancer out of my boob, I explained. I was surprised that he didn’t ask any more questions and didn’t seem worried either. So we moved on. "Cancer" isn't a taboo word in our house anymore. It's not a sad word, either. It's just a reality.
This Tuesday morning when Paul drove the kids to school, I buckled Annabel into her car seat after Paul did the heavy lifting. “Mama doc-ta,” she said to me. Yes, baby girl. I am going to the doctor today, I replied with a dull ache in my heart. She smiled and gave me an open-mouthed kiss on the cheek.
Teddy knows I will be bald soon. He knows it’s because of the medicines that I will take that will make sure that I don't get sick. I like to tell him that it’s going to be so funny that Mommy is going to be balder than Daddy. And he thinks that I am excited to shave my head so that I don’t have to do my hair for a while (not that I really did it before). Sometimes, my baldness may be funny, and maybe every now and then, it will be nice to slap on a wig instead of combing my hair. So, again, I guess I’m not totally lying, although I am certainly stretching the truth.
One day, Teddy and Annabel will know the truth about my breast cancer. They will know that at 32 years old, Brian and I were scared out of our minds. That we cried behind closed doors, mostly because of how much we love them and each other. That we struggled with how much truth was too much, and how much wasn’t enough. I think that’s such an interesting question, and it’s just what I want to write about in my book. Because truth isn’t always black and white. When it comes to arguments made in political debates or medical diagnoses made after surgeries, I’d like to think there are clear facts to be found. But when it comes to human emotions, things get a lot more complicated. I definitely don’t have a prescription for the right amount of truth that a child, or his or her parent, can handle. But I realize the most important fact of all – that one day my kids will know for certain that we loved them enough to think a heck of a lot about it.