My son, Justin Elliott, lived 21 years, 3 months, 4 days and 4 and 1/2 hours. He went through a lot during his young life. When he was four, I divorced his father. Three years later, I moved him to a new town when I married Ed. Justin was almost 14 when I had to hold him while his father was taken off life support and immediately passed away.
Despite all this he grew up into an amazing young man. Justin had a plan, and the world was waiting for him. Education was extremely important to him. He decided to go away to college, attending a dual enrollment program, instead of completing his senior year. I was devastated because I wouldn’t get to enjoy being the mom of a senior. Turned out to be one the best decisions Justin made. That fall Justin matured and thrived. He loved college. Loved his professors, and loved being away from home!! He traveled, by himself, not even 18 years old, to interview at NYU. New York City is a far cry from the little town of Ellijay, Georgia. Of course he was accepted. I thought he should go to Georgia, but Justin was determined to be different. I can’t describe how proud I was of my young man. We celebrated his 18th birthday, and a month later the glass of life shattered into a million pieces.
Justin was home for the weekend. He called me, and said he had a horrible headache and was nauseated. I think now that I knew it was brain related. My mother had two aneurysms, and when something goes on in your head you get sick. But that couldn’t be possible. This was my healthy, athletic 18 year old. It must be a migraine, my sister had them. I understand the first one can be really bad. After several hours nothing was helping, and we headed to the emergency room. After a CT scan the doctor told me Justin had an aneurysm. I remember holding on to the bed rail then going to the bathroom so Justin would not see me hysterical. The memory of Justin being strapped into a helicopter at one in the morning is something I will never forget. Then followed several days of excruciating pain, lots of tests, too many different doctors, and no one who could tell us what was wrong. Then, a specialized MRI showed a tumor. Surgery was scheduled. They said the tumor was encapsulated. They would go in, pluck it out and we’d be on our merry way. Not. February 28th around 5:30, a doctor had to tell me and a huge crowd of family and friends that my only child had 6 months to one year to live. Another memory seared on my brain.
I won’t go into all the details but the next 3 years were filled with chemo, radiation, a year of being on a trial drug, more radiation, many other drugs, more surgery and way too many trips to doctors. Despite having to endure all of this Justin lived his life to the fullest, continuing with college, attending sporting events, going on trips and trying live a normal life.
What I wish I knew. I wish I didn’t know any of it. I wish I didn’t know the pain that Justin would go through. I wish I didn’t have to watch his dreams be shattered. I wish I didn’t know that Justin was more concerned about Ed and I watching him die than he was. I wish I didn’t have to bring him home from NYU, and I really wish I didn’t have to watch as those silent tears rolled down his cheeks on our way home from Athens when we were told the tumors had ” exploded with growth” and the end of out journey was near.
I wish I knew how to be the mother of a very independent young man with brain cancer. How can you let your child go to school a thousand miles away with brain cancer? How can you let him be two hours away, getting himself to treatments and doctor appointments, getting prescriptions filled? He was 18 and legally in charge. As hard as it was, I don’t regret letting him go. What if I had insisted that he stay home while everyone else was off going to college or working and definitely not being home with the parents? Justin wouldn’t let me take care of him. He just wanted to be normal, and he didn’t want anything to remind him that he had cancer. I will have to say that his favorite phrase was “fuck cancer”. Justin actually had a shirt with that on it. He wore it to doctor appointments. The only other time he would mention the word was when I asked him to unload the dishwasher. “I can’t, I have cancer!”
I wish I knew what he kept to himself during those years with cancer. I wish he would have talked to me about it. To this day I don’t know if he ever confided in anyone. His “other” mother, as I fondly call my best friend, texted him those last few weeks. She asked him if he was scared. His reply, “we aren’t supposed to talk about that”.
I could write volumes about Justin, the what ifs and the whys. He is my first thought when I wake and the last when I go to sleep. I will miss seeing him fall in love, get married and have children. I won’t get to see him have an amazing career and make his mark on this world. My biggest fear is that his memory will fade. I am so scared he will be forgotten. Ironically, as I have been writing this, I had to stop and attend a memorial service for Justin’s youth leader. It was much harder than I thought. Justin thrived with Leanne and “came into his own” as he grew up in the church with her. He was mentioned at the end of one of the eulogies today.
I am rambling as I have become accustomed to do. So what I really wish I knew:
How lonely I would be when it was all over. I am very social and having a house filled with family, friends and kids was great medicine for me. The house is now too quiet.
I wish I knew how much people really do care.
I wish I knew how much Justin loved me and what I really meant to him.
I wish I knew that I would become involved with some extraordinary women who would understand what I have been through and will for the rest of my life.
And finally, what I know know:
I am forever changed, and in some ways, for the better. There is a definite line in the sand: before diagnosis and after. I view life and make choices differently now. There is so much that just doesn’t matter anymore. And out of the darkness there will be light again.