May 17 has always held special importance for me. It is my mother's birthday. (Today she celebrates 84 years on this planet!) Last year, 2012, May 17 took on a new significance. It is the day Brandon, the second of my five "babies," the second of five amazing adult children -- none of whom I could imagine my life without -- told me he was dying. It is the day my head was forced to wrap itself around what my heart was already forcing me to acknowledge.
One year ago my baby was still in this world. One year ago today he and I planned to meet for a noon matinee of The Hunger Games. Brandon had read the book but hadn't yet seen the movie when it was first released several weeks earlier, because he'd been immersed in testing for and then being involved in a trial to treat his cancer with a Trojan horse-like drug. Although I'd seen the movie when it first came out, I jumped at the chance to share it with him.
I had to work that morning, so I offered to pick him up afterward for an afternoon showtime. No, he said he felt fine and wanted to drive. He'd meet me at the theater. I bought the tickets and he bought the popcorn. He ate only a few kernels and told me to eat the rest. I watched the movie and listened to him cough. Worried. I was so worried. He was coughing more and more, and becoming thinner and thinner.
We discussed the movie on the way to our cars, and I asked if he'd like me to get Morgan at the sitter's so he could have some extra time with her that afternoon. (He now needed help to lift and care for her if for more than a brief period.) He asked me to let him think about it, but he did want me to stop by first if I had time to talk. Time? Of course, I had time if he wanted to talk. I had an errand to run and then I'd follow him to his place.
My errand was to Half Price books. I sought a copy of Lessons from the School of Suffering: A Young Priest With Cancer Teaches Us How to Live by Reverend Jim Willig and Tammy Bundy. I'd read this book years ago as a book club assignment, but I'd recently downloaded and begun rereading an electronic version on my Kindle. I thought it might help me understand, if even a little, what Brandon was going through. The book is an honest and faith-filled account of a very human priest, who is grappling with the physical and emotional ramifications of cancer as a disease but also with the aftermath of its treatments, including extensive surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. I thought Brandon or Christina might find some value in it. Several copies lined a shelf in the self-help niche, and I bought them all.
Book in hand, I arrived at Brandon's and joined him in their family room. The TV was on and turned to some crazy reality show he occasionally watched. (Brandon introduced me to Moonshiners last year; one episode was enough for me.) His bloodhound Otis was, as usual, at his side. At first we talked about nothing and everything.Then he said he'd recently seen the new director of head and neck oncology and asked him to be honest with him about his prognosis.
"You went alone?" I asked. Usually his wife, and his dad and/or I went with him. When I'd questioned in the past whether he wanted us to go to such appointments with him, he'd said he liked one or both of us to go. We understood "medicalese," plus "they always tell me something that knocks me for a loop, and I don't remember a thing they say afterward. You or Dad remember and translate for me later." So it came as a surprise that he went to this appointment without any of his support team.
"Yeah, Mom," he said, "I wanted to know." I had a sense he was digging in, seeking the courage to share the doctor's words.
"What did he say?" I asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.
"He said that unless something changes I probably have anywhere from a month to 12 months, but he also said he's still getting Christmas cards from patients 10 years out."
No, no, no, no, no! My mind was shouting. My mind was crying out. No, no no, no, no. This couldn't be. No, no, no, no, no. Not my beloved baby, this wonderful man. A month? No, no, no, no. That simply wasn't possible. I must've heard wrong. And a lot could happen before 12 months, couldn't it? He was to participate in a different drug trial. We'd contacted Stanford University about another trial. There were still options left.
My heart was in complete turmoil while my head tried to stay cool and calm. It's one thing to have an unacknowledged "knowing," and quite another to have it validated.
I remembered getting up, going over to him, hugging him as if both of our lives depended on it and, maybe, they did. I said something to the effect of, "Brandon, I'm here, your dad is here, for you, no matter what. I will stay with you no matter where this journey takes you. I love you." And we hugged again.
I don't know if I said the wrong thing or if he was afraid he'd break down if he said one more word, but he transitioned to an entirely different topic. He switched conversational gears as if he'd never dropped the bomb of what the oncologist had told him. I took my cue from him and let it go, figuring we'd have other times to talk, that I'd have other chances to get it right.
What a difference a year makes. He said he'd had a month to 12 months. He barely had two more weeks with us, and here I sit a year later, tears trickling down my cheeks, with the memory of May 17, 2012 seared on my soul. The enjoyment of sharing a movie with a beloved adult son is juxtaposed with the revelation that there may be precious little new memory making in our mother-son future. Yet I feel blessed he shared his revelation with me.