Days like April 2, 2017 are why Matt and I decided not to tell the kids the full truth about his diagnosis. Although, saying we decided is probably being generous. I can’t remember whether we even had a conversation about avoiding the topic of cancer with G and H or whether it just happened, a silent agreement to preserve their innocence for as long as possible.
We’d read the how-to literature from Duke and spoken to the social worker on one of our trips down to North Carolina. We knew what to say to explain brain cancer to a child: Daddy has a spot of cancer in his brain; no, it’s not contagious; no, we don’t know what will happen but he has really good doctors helping him.
But we didn’t have that talk with the kids. Not in April, anyway. The day after we came home from Duke it was business as usual. I went to Bar Method and Matt took the kids to their favorite weekend bagel haunt, a place with spinning, vinyl barstools at the counter and linoleum floors, where regulars are greeted by name and pajamas in public aren’t judged. G and H ate bagels and then walked across the street with Matt to the Dunkin Donuts for munchkins like they’d done a million times before, carefree and oblivious to the word cancer. The rest of the day was spent playing in the backyard, lounging on the deck in the sun, and focusing on family.
Before Matt was diagnosed, he worked hard, long days and late nights. He wasn’t always home for the kids’ bedtime. He didn’t always make it a priority to come to their nursery school events. He was working—for us, always for the kids and me—but working. In the weeks and months before he was officially diagnosed, work dominated his thoughts almost obsessively. The day after a CAT scan revealed a mass in his brain, while hooked up to machines in the ICU, I couldn’t get him to stop answering emails and listen to the neurosurgeon. But most of that obsession was caused by the tumor playing tricks on his personality. After the first tumor was resected, he had a new perspective, probably thanks to hindsight, a shift in priorities, and a brain free from a tumor the size of a tennis ball. Nothing mattered except the kids (and me and his family, but really G and H). He loved his job, but he wasn’t sacrificing any more time with them.
From that point on, when he was still able to go to work, he made a point of getting home to read books at bedtime. Even when the tumor stole his ability to read, made him angry and frustrated and hard on the kids, at bedtime he found a way to climb the stairs (bad vision, bad balance, and all) and cuddle up with G and H while I read to them.
Maybe not telling G and H the truth from the beginning was the coward’s choice. Maybe one day they’ll read this and wish they’d known to appreciate every trip to the local bagel shop. But who knows? I knew all of it and I didn’t think to appreciate every laugh and I love you until they stopped coming and it was too late. A year later, knowing everything the kids would go through in the months after April 2, 2017, I don’t regret not listening to the Duke social worker. I don’t for a second regret any day they had with Matt where they didn’t have to worry. Maybe next year I’ll feel differently.