I regretted the words as soon as they came out of my mouth. Of course, she was sick!
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Getting out of the house when you have two small children is a must if you want to keep your sanity. At least, that’s what the nurses at the hospital said after I had baby number two. At the time, my family and I were living in Tucson, Arizona, where it gets incredibly hot in the summer, typically reaching the triple digits. Being from New England, I never really got used to the heat.
One of the best places to cool off in Tucson is at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, located in the center of the city. It was late August, during the dog days of summer, and I loaded my two small children, Faith, my newborn, and Isaak, my 18-month-old, into my SUV one morning. Along with the passengers, I loaded all the baby gear I needed: diapers, bottles, snacks, extra clothes, baby wipes, plenty of water, toys and so on, and headed to the gardens to try and beat the heat.
Knowing me, I was super-proud of myself for getting out of the house before noon. But there was also a part of me that complained about having to lug everything around, especially the double stroller that weighed a ton and took forever to get out of the back of the SUV.
Digging deep – finding a child with cancer
This was our first time at the Botanical Gardens and my son, Isaak, who takes after his aunt who is allergic to anything that grows, found the flowers and plants beautiful, but they also made him sneeze – a lot. In one part of the gardens, there is an area where kids can dig in the soil and pretend to plant a garden. Faith was happy lying in her stroller and checking out her hands, but Isaak got knee-deep in that dirt with another little girl named Jessica.
Despite the heat, Jessica was wearing a hat. In the back of mind, I thought I knew why. Her dad stood by, happily watching his daughter play with my son. And then Isaak sneezed. And he sneezed again and again.
“Is he sick?” the man asked me.
“No,” I said. “He just has allergies. Why? Is your daughter sick?”
I regretted the words as soon as they came out of my mouth. Of course, she was sick! I thought to myself. And then he said the words I dreaded to hear, “She has cancer,” just as my son sneezed in the little girl’s face, not once, not twice, but three quick, little sneezes in a row.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said
I immediately told my son to turn away and cover his mouth when he sneezed. Jessica’s Dad wiped her face with a wet napkin. He briefly looked at me. All I could see was sadness in his eyes. I just wanted to grab my kids and run away from this man and his daughter as fast as possible.
A child with cancer is heartrending
Why? Why did I want to run away? Because my heart couldn’t handle it. Because the subject of a child with cancer is one of the most awkward conversations anyone can have, especially when you have two healthy children of your own, and you’re staring at a girl in a hat in the heat of August whose future is unknown.
My children were too young to ask questions or even notice the absence of hair under Jessica’s hat. So instead I stayed put, and I watched and wondered and pretended everything was normal. I asked myself how her father kept it together. I asked myself what kind of cancer she had. But I was too afraid to ask, especially after the sneezing episode.
What is it about cancer that makes me so uncomfortable?
What is it about cancer that makes me so uncomfortable? Is it because I don’t know enough about it? Or is it because I have so much empathy that it is dripping out of my ears and nose and mouth? Is it because a certain sadness and pain washed over me when her father said the word cancer? Is it because he was a stranger? Is it because I felt relieved it wasn’t my kid? Is it because her cancer reminded me of death and that young, beautiful children like Jessica can get as close to death’s door as those who have lived long lives?
I think it was all of these things and more.
Looking back, I wish I had said more than “I’m sorry.” I wish I had asked questions. I wish I had engaged more with Jessica, but my mouth was stuck frozen by a bewildered brain.
What I did do was pray for Jessica, right then and there. I found it much easier to say what I needed to say to God. But I just couldn’t say it out loud to his man and his beautiful little girl. For weeks afterward, I thought about Jessica and said a silent prayer for her, but as time went on, I forgot about her. The child with cancer I met once in a Tuscon park.
It’s now five years later as I write this from Seattle, and I wonder how Jessica is. Unfortunately, I’ll never know because I never asked.
<em>*To protect privacy, the name Jessica is a pseudonym.</em>