November 27, 2020
Thanksgiving. This is my most thankful one.
One year ago, we had to take my son to a “rush” MRI. I cried silent tears watching the anesthesiologist put my then 3 year old into a sleep so he would stay still enough for MRI imaging of his head. Placing him in the arms of someone I just met and leaving him in the room for 45 very long minutes was hard, but knowing that they suspected a tumor made the waiting so much more difficult. They carried his 30 lb body, bundled in warm sheets and placed him in my arms. I held him close, rocking the chair back and forth as we waited for the anesthesia to wear off and for him to open his eyes.
We new that we might not know anything until 5 days later because it was 4:30 pm on Wednesday, the night before Thanksgiving.
On our way home, we received a call which I hoped would be a courtesy call. It wasn’t. My child’s ophthalmologist told us to go directly to the nearest children’s emergency room. That “time was of essence”. We immediately turned around and went to the emergency room.
We sat around the emergency room for 5 hours with no additional testing or options because it was the eve of Thanksgiving and the “Attendings” (the doctors done with their training) were out of town for a week. We left shortly after midnight, scared, confused, in shock that they were suggesting cancer, yet hopeful that a biopsy would rule it out and the false alarm would be over. It couldn’t be cancer. After all, there is no family history. And he is only 3 years old. The odds of it being cancer are so small, so surely this is just a false alarm.
Thanksgiving day, we were silently processing and researching our options which were none on a holiday weekend. Every hospital‘s “new patient department” was closed. My eldest son captured this image of me in the early hours of Thanksgiving. You can see my eyes swollen from crying. But we hadn’t told him what was happening yet. How do you tell a five year old that his brother has cancer? Do we wait for definitive results or do we tell him that there is a tumor that doctors need to take a small sample piece to determine if it is in fact cancer.
To my oldest, it was a normal day, filled with spontaneous joy and laughter and lots and lots of toys. As he kept telling me “say cheese” with every picture he captured on my phone, I didn’t have the heart to let him down with the real emotions I was dealing with. So I obliged—Painfully smiling for every picture, trying to make it as authentic as possible.
But inside, I hurt so deeply. I was so terrified. No additional scans were done to determine if my son’s tumor was a localized tumor or if we were looking at metastatic disease. We were told that 7 days later would be the soonest a biopsy could be done. 7 days for potential disease progression. So many factors that were left answered and I felt our lives stuck in limbo until we could have answers.
We canceled our Thanksgiving dinner reservation with family and sent off the main course which we were in charge of to be enjoyed by the rest of the family. We didn’t want to be around other people knowing that this type of news would change the Thanksgiving mood, but really mostly because we needed the space to process the real emotions. So while we prayed, and processed and figured out what (if anything) we could do on Thanksgiving Day or the day after to gain answers, I was resolved to not let the entire Thanksgiving day go to waste while we contemplated our options. Thankfully, my oldest brother and his wife brought over some food to hold us over, but I decided to run to the grocery store to grab ingredients to have sides for our impromptu meal, and to make my special holiday traditional dish: sweet potato casserole.
I walked the aisles of Walmart, talking to my mom, explaining to her as much as we knew while I tried to get my hands on the ingredients and side dishes I needed. She began to share an email she received earlier that week from a family member who was checking on her a little over a year after my brother’s death. The relative had written to her beautiful thoughts with scripture for meditation to his message. Nobody in the extended family knew what had transpired the hours before. As she read the scripture to me in Spanish, I interjected and asked if it was Psalm 73:25. She was surprised (because Catholics don’t typically know scripture by memory ...haha!) but she said it was in fact that scripture verse.
At that moment, I felt chills go up my spine. My eyes watered. I knew that the Lord was present in our circumstances. That he was sending me a very personal message that was meant for me, at that very moment, even if the original recipient was intended to be my mother. To a non-believer, it may be merely coincidence. But to a believer, it’s a moment of intentional communication with the Devine.
Psalm 73:25 is my absolute favorite scripture verse. I love it so much, that after my brother passed away, I made sure to specify to my husband to make sure to add it to my tombstone. You talk about that kind of stuff when death hits so close to home.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
I was delivered a piece of much needed grace at the exact moment I needed. I knew I wasn’t alone. No matter the outcome, I knew that God would help me through it, even if the fear and pain made that hard to see sometimes.
Dealing with the anniversary
This year, the entire month of November, I could feel the memories trying to surface and threaten my slowly healing heart. How could I experience Thanksgiving without reliving my son’s week of diagnosis? Reliving the month of November, where I searched for answers the entire month, where I was delivered the worst possible news on a day that is celebrated annually, was inevitable. No amount of activity or distraction would keep the thoughts from interrupting my peace. And I had to work very hard to not dwell in those thoughts or memories.
And this week, exactly one year after we found out about our son's Rhabdomyosarcoma , I found myself incredibly humbled. I am still trying to make sense of everything we have endured this past year, but I know one thing: how incredibly humbling this has been.
We are blessed that we have more time, but I know not all families can say the same. That although we celebrate his cancer being in remission, that another family had to hold their child as they took their last breath. The joy I hold for my son’s remission is always mixed in with the thoughts of other children who were gone to soon. And with that comes complete humility. That I had no control over the outcome. But thankful for where we are.
As we sat down with family for dinner and we were ready to say a prayer of thanksgiving before eating, my eyes immediately welled up and I couldn’t utter a word without choking on the tears I was holding back. I asked someone else to say the prayer for our family and I silently took deep breaths as I listened, trying not to pour out the relief, the sadness, the joy, and the gratitude through a waterfall of tears. We all bowed our heads and I knew we all held a moment in our hearts for this blessing. I didn't need to vocalize the prayer of my heart. The Lord already knew exactly what my heart held.
One year ago, I didn’t know if we would be sitting here together. I didn’t know if we would have more time with my son. And today, my brave little warrior is still living, and what a year it’s been. We have all come out changed in ways not visible to the eye- My warrior, the siblings, my spouse and myself.
This year has been my most meaningful Thanksgiving yet, as I reflect on the weeks of November 2109 leading up to his diagnosis, hearing the words "your child has cancer" and enduring 11 months of treatment praying for more time, and transitioning into "off treatment".
This year has been one I will never forget and forever be thankful for.
My eyes gaze upon my beautiful son and my beautiful family. Words fall short. Grateful and thankful doesn’t even come close to describing how I feel.