April 30, 2009. Another anniversary that we won’t celebrate. Another day filled with painful memories.
Unlike the day we found the tumor, my memories of this day are clouded by tears. I remember segments of the day and bits of dialog, but mostly I remember tears: Ian’s tears, my tears, Dave’s tears; Nicole, Carol Linn, and Mom in tears.
We woke up at 5AM; we had to be at the hospital at 6 AM to get Ian registered and prepped for surgery. Ian couldn’t eat or drink anything after he woke up. It was so hard to deny his requests for water. We tried to keep him distracted with games and stories, but every few minutes he would ask again.
When we finally moved to a semi-private room, it was a little easier to distract Ian with cartoons on the TV in the room. It was here that we first met Jeri Young, the Child-Life Specialist at Memorial. Jeri brought Ian a Chihuahua stuffed animal and joked around with him to take his mind off his hunger and thirst.
The morning moved slowly with little being accomplished; the nurses asked questions; the anesthesiologist asked the same questions. Eventually someone came in to place sticky pads on his head. Then, another nurse gave him medicine to make him drowsy.
It was 8:30 AM and Ian hadn’t had a drink or anything to eat in over twelve hours, except for the liquid medicine that made him goofy. He made us giggle when he exclaimed, “I see five of you, Daddy!” It was a nice distraction. But then I had to try to keep Ian on the bed; he kicked and wriggled around until I let him get down. He nearly cracked his head on a counter as he teetered around the room. I was angry and went to the nurse’s desk to complain and find out how much longer. “Any minute now” was their robotic response.
At 9 AM they finally wheeled Ian to radiology. Dr. Grabb wanted an MRI to have a better idea what to expect in surgery. I was able to ride in the bed with Ian, holding him tight and kissing his little head the whole time.
He cried when they poked his hand to get an IV going. It was worse when I had to let him go. They placed him on the MRI bed; he screamed for me while they started putting the anesthesia in his IV. I put my face close to his and kissed his face; I promised him everything was going to be ok. He continued to scream “No, Mommy! No!” for a few more seconds, and then he was still. His screaming stopped; only the small movement of his chest reassured me that Ian was breathing. Unrestrained tears flowed down my cheeks; his motionless body displayed all my fears. I kissed his cheek and told him I loved him. Dave did the same. I buried my face in Dave’s chest. I didn’t want to leave Ian in there; he looked so tiny in that big machine. We didn’t have a choice. The nurse escorted us to the waiting room where Nicole, Carol Linn, and my mom were already waiting.
Dr. Grabb said the procedure would be over by noon. In that three hour timespan, we had a constant stream of visitors. They were a welcome distraction. But then noon came and went.
At 1:30, Dave asked the information desk if they knew anything. The chart said Ian was still in surgery. I didn’t want to think about what that might mean.
At 1:45, Dr. Grabb finally came out. He squatted next to Dave and me. He told us that Ian was doing well. “But,” he started, “I’m afraid the tests will show it’s malignant.”
“What?” I wasn’t sure what he was saying. That’s not what he said in his office two days ago.
“I’m sorry. The texture, the shape… It was bigger than I thought. That’s why it took longer. I wanted to make sure I got it all. I’m sorry. It doesn’t look benign. It looks cancerous.”
I remember walking quickly towards an exit and screaming once I got outside. “No!” I was pulling my hair. “Why, God? Why?” I sank onto a bench and cried until no more tears would come. I was thankful no one followed me. I wanted to be alone. I couldn’t bear to see the pity in anyone’s eyes. The hope that his tumor would be benign was the only thing that gave me strength the days prior to the surgery. Now, I had to find strength from somewhere else. I needed to pull myself together. I needed to be strong for Ian when he woke up. I wiped away my tears and waited for the nurse to bring us to Ian.
I wasn’t prepared for what Ian looked like after surgery. The left side of his head was swollen and bruised. We could see his head pulsing underneath the stitches. It wasn’t the small incision Dr. Grabb said it would be; it was at least four inches long in a zigzag down the side of his head. I cried.
Ian woke up screaming and crying. I climbed into bed with him to comfort him. He held on to me and wouldn’t let go. The rest of the day repeated that cycle: Ian sleeping with the aid of morphine, followed by Ian waking up screaming. At one point, he tried to ask me a question and he couldn’t think of the words. He was so frustrated he started hitting himself in the head with his splinted hand. He then tried to take his IV out. The nurse had to restrain him and give him some morphine earlier than was scheduled.
It was a long, restless night. I only left his side to stretch or use the bathroom when I was sure he was sound asleep.
Three years ago, we were at the beginning of Ian’s Cancer journey. Even as I write down these memories, I am incredulous at the battle we endured. But endure it, we did. Ian battled a deadly disease and won! I cry today for the memories of that day; but I also cry for the victory. Today, Ian is Cancer-free. Ian’s memories of that day three years ago have faded, thankfully.
The rest of the story is still being written. The lessons we’ve learned, the pain we’ve experienced, and the joy we all feel are directly related to this anniversary. Life after cancer is filled with painful memories, but those memories contribute to how we live our lives today: We choose a life filled with love, thankfulness, hope, and joy.