What I Wish I Knew Before My Son, Sam, was Diagnosed with a Brain Tumor….
My only child, my son, the light of my life, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in February, 2011 at the age of 19 and passed away 9 months later. What do I wish I had known before Sam was diagnosed? I wish I had known that once your child is diagnosed with a brain tumor, you are instantly and forever transported to a world of duality.
From the moment we heard the words “There is a mass in your brain”, we were thrust into an alternate reality, a different world that spun out of control, twisted on its axis, and irrevocably changed life as we knew it. Normal was gone. There is nothing normal about your child having a brain tumor, there is nothing normal about watching your child slowly die in front of your eyes and being helpless to stop it, and there is nothing normal about having to live every day without him! I’ve been thinking a lot about life now that I am coming up on the 3-year anniversary of Sam’s passing. I realize I now live my life in a constant state of what I have come to call “duality”, the unique ability to feel different emotions and to believe different realities simultaneously. It started with his diagnosis….
Hope and reality
Sam was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, “DIPG”, a particularly aggressive tumor with an extremely low survival rate. Less than 10% survive 2 years, and only 2% survive long term…an average survival time is 9 months! This is the reality we were faced with and lived with every minute of every day until he died.
At the same time there was hope…I thought if there is even one person who survives, then why could that not be Sam? In the face of such grim statistics, I had incredible hope that Sam would be one of the few to beat his tumor! No parent can accept the idea that his or her child is not going to survive…it is unfathomable to believe this will happen and so there is, by necessity, hope. I remember telling our friends at the cabin where we vacationed every July that chances were not good that Sam would be alive to come back the next year…..I knew the reality, I knew the statistics, and on some level I knew he would most likely not survive this tumor, but in the very deepest recesses of my heart I did not REALLY BELIEVE that my son would be gone! The dual worlds of hope and reality!
Child and adult
Sam was 19 when he was diagnosed. He was a teenager on the path to becoming an adult. He had graduated from high school, was attending classes at a community college, and was saving to move out on his own. He was not a child in the typical sense of the word and certainly not in the DIPG world, where the average age of diagnosis is 5-11. That being said, in some ways he was a child. First, regardless of age, he was MY child and would always be my child. Second, he was not fully an adult…he was still living at home, dependent on us financially, and had yet to establish a home of his own.
His first reaction when he heard the words “You have a mass” was to look to us, his parents, for help in understanding and dealing with this horrible thing. The look on his face was that of a child, a look that said “I don’t understand, I’m scared, HELP ME!” As he lost his ability to walk and to move his arms and then to eat and talk he was forced to become dependent on us to help him with the most basic of life functions just as a young child depends on his parents. And yet emotionally and mentally he was more adult than child….very mature for his age (as happens with a lot of cancer kids). He handled blow after blow from this tumor with a maturity I don’t think I could have shown. In some ways he was a child and in some ways an adult….the dual worlds of parenting a child and an adult.
Holding on and letting go
When Sam was first diagnosed I read about DIPG. I read how these children gradually lose every physical ability bit by bit until they are no longer able to walk, move on their own, eat, swallow, talk, all while remaining mentally aware of what is happening to them. I was stunned that this could happen to our children and there was nothing, I repeat NOTHING to do to stop it. I could not believe this was what was in store for Sam…how could my child, my sweet Sam have to endure this torture?? And so I hoped beyond reason that he would beat the odds and survive! However, that was not to be and his tumor did progress.
I love Sam with every fiber of my being. I could not begin to imagine life without his smile, his hugs, his gentle teasing, his ability to sense my every mood, his very presence. I hoped and prayed for a miracle, for something to stop this tumor and make him healthy again, until one day, one horrible, devastating hour I realized he was not going to get better, he was not going to be able to walk or talk or eat again and the only way for his suffering to end was for him to leave this body. And so while my heart was screaming “No, don’t leave me:”, I started praying, no begging, for God to stop his suffering even if it meant I would lose my son. How can one heart pray for two totally opposite things? Duality….holding on and letting go….the single hardest thing I have ever done!
Pain of loss and feeling love
At first there was just numbness. Then as the numbness started to wear off, I felt the excruciating, all-consuming, raw pain of having had my heart ripped out. Gradually there were times when the sharp pain receded, and instead the pain was more like an ache, intense and ever present, to be sure, but not as sharp or raw. That is where I am now. The pain, the ache is always there, but at times it reverts to the raw sharp all consuming pain. It takes my breath away and renders me incapable of doing anything other than getting through, trying to ride the wave until the tsunami subsides.
During the time between tsunamis when the pain is still there but more of an ache, I can enjoy conversations with friends, a beautiful sunset, the sight of eagles flying over our lake, the silly antics of my dog, the love of my husband and family. But during all of those wonderful things the pain is still there….it doesn’t ever totally recede. I still feel the pain in the midst of laughing and loving and appreciating nature, and sometimes the more I laugh and love the more I feel the pain.
Despite this constant pain I feel love and compassion more deeply. I love my husband, family, and friends more than I did before with a much deeper appreciation for their presence in my life. How does a heart feel so deeply this duality of intense pain and deep love at the same time?
Happiness and sadness
Before Sam was diagnosed with a brain tumor my emotions were simple. I was happy or sad, angry or pleased, content or not content. Emotions came and went, but they usually came one at a time. Now I see a picture of Sam I haven’t seen before and I am brought to tears and laughter at the same time….laughter for the joy of seeing a glimpse of him I had not seen and tears from the pain of knowing I can no longer see him in this world. I look at his drums and smile at the memories of him and his band practicing in our living room and the excitement he had when a practice session went well. At the same time I am in tears knowing I will never see that look of excitement again.
I remember lying next to him on his hospital bed holding his hand and keeping him company when he could no longer play video games or even watch TV to pass the time. It is exceedingly painful to remember what Sam endured in those last months, and yet with that pain there is a deep love and gratitude that fills my heart at having been blessed to be Sam’s Mom and share that sacred time with him. Multiple emotions now live in my heart …. It is rare to feel only one emotion at a time….Duality!
Living and not living
First let me clarify that by not living, I don’t mean dying. I’m referring more to the feeling of just existing and getting through the days until I am reunited with Sam. This is in contrast to living fully in the moment and appreciating that I am alive. This isn’t exactly a duality since it’s not really possible to do both at the same time (I don’t think) but I move in and out of the two frequently. Some days, especially when the tsunamis hit or it’s a particularly hard day, I consider it a success to have just gotten through the day and willing to try again the next day. It is okay, I believe, to have days where just existing is the best you can do. Those are the days where I drag myself out of bed feeling like I have a 100 pound weight attached after lying awake a good part of the night thinking of Sam and waiting for morning to come. But then morning comes and I can barely get out of bed (there is that 100 pound weight after all), and it is all I can do to get dressed and sit in front of my laptop, eat a little, and wait for it to be time to go to bed and sleep and hope to dream about Sam.
Then there are days when I am motivated and feel alive. Some days I just feel more at peace and more secure in the knowledge that Sam is still here with me, and I truly believe that by enjoying life and the people in my life Sam is also enjoying these things. I know I need to truly live life, not just exist, in order to honor Sam. On those days I feel good knowing I am living life “for two”. I know he understands my difficult days, but I also know he is happier when I am enjoying life. How do I know this? The same way I knew when he was having a bad day or was upset when he was here physically…a mom just knows! Living and not living…. I am trying to fully live but giving myself permission to have days when just existing is the best I can do.
Physical and spiritual world
There is no question that Sam is no longer here in the physical sense. It will be 3 years on November 14th since I last held my son, saw his sweet face, held his hand, and looked into his beautiful brown eyes. He is still the first thing on my mind when I wake up and the last thing on my mind before I fall asleep. I miss him immensely with every breath I take. Before Sam died, I didn’t often think about what happens to our soul or spirit when we die. I had a vague sense that yes, there was an afterlife but really gave it very little thought. Since his death, it has become an extremely important concept to me. I have spent a lot of time thinking and reading and praying about what happens when we die. I am convinced that life continues to exist despite the loss of our physical body. I truly believe that Sam is still alive. I believe that the death of our physical body is our birth into a new and different realm where we will be reunited with our loved ones. I believe this not because of what I’ve read or what others say but because I continue to feel Sam’s love, and I continue to feel his presence when I most need it: a sign here or there when I am feeling lost and need to be reminded he is still here or a sign when things are going well and he’s letting me know he’s happy. I am coming to realize that I will always be living in these two worlds: the physical one where Sam is no longer and the spiritual one where Sam is alive and healthy and happy. On a good day when the two worlds combine, I can feel his presence and his love and that is when I feel a little peace. The physical and the spiritual….I strive to be able to merge the two!