In January 2016, my son, Ryan was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. He had just turned fourteen. At the time, we were living in Paris for a job reassignment. He came home from school on a Monday afternoon and pointed to a lump on his neck. A few weeks later, he started chemotherapy in a French hospital. People commended us for being strong. Friends and strangers called me a “good mom,” and they labeled Ryan “brave.” But people living with cancer know one thing: We don’t have a choice. Survivalism is not the same as courage. Ryan is now in remission. After he got the all-clear, we moved back to the USA, where he’s a ninth grader at our local public high school. Unless he tells them, none of his classmates ever has to know he survived cancer.
The following essay will soon appear in a popular literary journal. It appears here with permission from my publisher.
“Is there ever a time when a person needs to be put down?”
My fourteen year old son asked me this question in April, as I packed his belongings - computer, dirty pajamas, toothbrush, antibiotics, steroids, acid reflux reducers, anti-nausea medications, laxatives - for discharge. He was three months into chemotherapy when he developed an infection.
“Let’s talk about this later.” I zipped my jacket. “Five days in the hospital is a long time, kiddo. I’m tired.”
He sat down on the stripped bed, looked out the window. We had been living in Paris for two years when he was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. He came home from school on a Monday afternoon and pointed to a lump on his neck. Two weeks later, he was in surgery to biopsy a tumor and insert a catheter for intravenous drugs, and by April, he was a familiar fixture in the most renowned pediatric oncology unit in France.
I knew what he saw outside. I looked at him, instead.
“Sometimes,” I said. “Sometimes, if a person is elderly and they have a terminal disease.”
“Well, yes. But if they are elderly, and have lived a full life, if their cancer isn’t curable, if they are in a tremendous amount of pain, if their doctors agree they won’t live long, and their family thinks it’s for the best.”
“That’s legal?” he asked me, shifting on the bed.
He moved his gaze from the window to me. “It must happen,” he said, “that a parent puts their child down. I mean, not frequently.”
“Rarely. Very, very rarely. Almost never,” I said.
“But it does.” He lifted the collar of his shirt over his face and wiped his eyes with it.
Last year, we didn’t talk about things like euthanasia. Our conversations were simple, and when we practiced French, they were simpler still.
“Ça va?” I’d asked, after I’d returned home from a food tour in South Pigalle, or an excursion near Saint-Germain, or a lunch in the Marais.
“Ça va,” he’d reply, then go back to his homework or his video games or his Skype conversations with old friends in America.
A few days after he was formally diagnosed with cancer, I took my son to a fertility clinic. “I don’t want to do this,” he told me.
“Just talk to the doctor.”
“I know what to do,” he said. He’d already sat down with my husband, who verbally recapped the process of male self-gratification and the depositing of sperm into a clear plastic container and why, just in case chemotherapy and radiation took away our son’s ability to produce viable swimmers, it’s beneficial to have a stash available. For the future. Frozen in a lab. In France. “I just don’t think I want to,” he concluded.
As it turns out, the doctor was a beautiful French girl no older than thirty. And while their reputation for rudeness precedes them, the French are among the most empathetic, compassionate, emotionally generous people on this planet.
“I can adopt,” my son told her. “I don’t see anything wrong with adoption.”
“It is a respectable option,” the doctor said. Then she leaned forward in her chair. “But not everyone wants to adopt. Many people - most people - want to conceive their own babies.”
I closed my eyes. I imagined my son, happy, in love, on the verge of marriage, needing to have a certain conversation, another difficult dialogue created as a result of all this. I intervened, to save the lovely doctor from what she needed to say.
“What the doctor is telling you,” I said, “is that your future wife might want to have her own babies.”
My son crossed his legs, turned his back to me, looked out the window. I followed his gaze. When you live in Paris, you never grow old of that view. After a few moments, he said, “Then she’s not my future wife.”
The doctor and I looked at each other across her desk, the distance and years between us suddenly shorter. I blinked, and she blinked, and I saw my reflection in her wet, black pupils, parentheses around my mouth, papery skin under my eyes.
“You know,” I said, “We don’t have to decide right now.”
“Exactly,” agreed the doctor. “Today is Friday, and your chemo starts Monday. If you change your mind this weekend, call me.” She wrote her mobile phone number on the back of her business card and passed it across the table. “I live in Paris. I can be here in twenty minutes.”
On the Metro, I asked my son, “Ça va?”
“Ça va,” he replied.
In April, by the time he had developed the infection that landed my son in the hospital for five days, he was already a familiar face in the pediatric oncology unit. “Look what the bird dragged in,” said a nurse as she replaced one bag of antibiotics with another. And when he woke from a morphine induced intermission, “That was quite a power sleep.” I felt the weight of his discharge papers between my fingers when his lead Intern showed up after lunch on the fifth day to tell my son that his infection was gone and he could go home for one week before his next round of chemo.
“And I want to tell you I’m leaving,” the Intern said. “I’ve been transferred to Bordeaux. They move us around comme ça.”
We both stared at her.
“I know it’s weird,” she said. “It feels very weird.”
She was gone fifteen minutes when my son asked me that question. “Is there ever a time when a person need to be put down?”
A few minutes after that, after our talk, he wiped his eyes with the collar of his shirt. I secured my backpack over both shoulders, and we looked around his room to make sure we didn’t leave anything behind.
“After you went home last night,” my son said to me, “after it was dark outside and I was almost asleep, the Eiffel Tower twinkled.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “Did you take a video?”
“Nah,” he said. “That was just for me.”
In February, my mother sent me a green scapular. It was made in China, mailed from America, and arrived in France one month after my son’s diagnosis. She also sent fifteen printed pages of Internet research, which included the history of the scapular and directions to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal on Rue du Bac, where I could have the scapular properly blessed and converted into an instrument for the Virgin Mother’s healing powers. For good measure, she included the Paris Metro map, on which she highlighted the route from my apartment in the 16th Arrondissement to the church in Saint-Germain. As if I didn’t know my way around Paris after two years.
My son spent eight months fighting cancer. Fighting cancer includes chemotherapy, of course. It also includes a constant barrage of physicals, blood draws, pharmacy runs, and diagnostic tests. It’s a time consuming battle. Frustrating, tiresome, painful, humiliating, and downright annoying. He was hospitalized twice. He spent thirty-three days hooked up to intravenous drips of chemicals farmed from the earth’s disappearing rain forests. He spoke - in French - to doctors, nurses, technicians, and interns about side effects and his bowel movements.
Somehow during that time, my son also managed to complete eighth grade and graduate with his class. He hugged and kissed me every night before bed. He gained a greater understanding of global issues and human compassion. He expressed guilt that his cancer was curable, while other children faced their mortality daily. He also recognized that feeling guilty doesn’t mean you want what they have. Because he didn’t want that. No one wants that.
It was two weeks before my mother sent me the green scapular that a pediatric oncologist sat me down in the only available room she could find on the fifth floor of of a French hospital, closed the door, and said things no parent wants to hear. I don’t remember her exact words, but she didn’t say Cancer, and she didn’t quote Survival Statistics. She didn’t need to.
The green scapular that my mother sent to me from America sat on my desk since the day it came in the mail. I looked at it a hundred times, held one finger in the air, nodded my head and said to myself, “Right, I have to take care of that.” A few times, I even placed it into my purse when I had plans on the left bank. But fighting cancer is a time consuming effort.
By the end of July, my son was feeling much better. He had finished his last cycle of chemotherapy, and his hair was growing back. On a ninety-four degree day, we went for a bike ride in the Bois de Boulogne. When we returned to our apartment, I poured two glasses of ice water, shuffled some medical bills, and wished we had air conditioning. Then I noticed the green scapular on my desk. I thought about my mother buying it, packaging it, mailing it to me in February. I remembered that I wouldn’t always live in Paris, that I couldn’t jump on a Metro and visit places like the Chapel of the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul when I returned to suburban Philadelphia.
Two hours later, I found myself kneeling at the porcelain feet of the Blessed Mother, asking for her healing gifts. I had left my son in our apartment, endured body odor on the Metro, and eventually sat through a Mass, in French, on a balcony where it was a hundred degrees, inches from pilgrims who visited from every country of the world, who wore matching tee shirts and held their scapulars in the air when it came time for the blessing. I held my scapular tightly in my palm, folded beneath my other palm, firmly near my abdomen, until I was brought to tears, and until I could blink away those tears and look like a person who would go home and cook dinner and read a book and sleep.
The next day, my son rested on a table behind lead walls, his veins pumped full of radioactive dyes, a technician instructing him to stay still while a robot took pictures of his insides. At the end of the week, we met with the pediatric oncologist, the same one we had gotten to know so well since January, the one who laughed at our jokes and sported a tattoo on the inside of her wrist... the one who told my son he would not need radiation...
He was in remission.
He was in remission.
After our appointment, my son and I spent three hours walking through the Luxembourg Gardens. We ate French patisseries and drank sodas in glass bottles. Occasionally, I reached into the pocket of my jeans and gripped the green scapular. I didn’t bother to tell my son I had brought it with me. He beat cancer on his own. The scapular was just for me.