A Question of Cancer: Helping Kids Regain Peace of Mind After the Loss of a Parent

"What's up, dude?" There's a pause, and then my budding heart breaker with the broken heart looks me right in the eye and lobs his latest killer query. "What's going to happen to me and Casey when you get cancer?"
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My younger son, Cuyler, is leaning in the doorway watching me make my bed. For a second I consider turning on the mom charm and saying, "Don't just stand there young man. Get in here and help me!" but the fact is, I don't need help making half a bed. Since my husband's death, I sleep only on what used to be his side. It makes me feel a little closer to him, and a lot closer to the Louisville Slugger tucked next to his nightstand.

In any case, it takes all of three seconds to fluff the pillow, straighten the sheets, and smooth the comforter, and when I'm done I look in my son's direction.

"What's up, dude?"

There's a pause, and then my budding heart breaker with the broken heart and newfound knack for asking me things I wish he wouldn't even think about, looks me right in the eye and lobs his latest killer query.

"What's going to happen to me and Casey when you get cancer?"

Excuse me? Did I miss a memo? Or maybe another proclamation from the Mayans?

"I'm not going to get cancer," I respond immediately, without thinking, once again letting the gumball machine that masquerades as my mouth get away from me.

He shoots me a look, then flings himself onto the center of the bed I just finished making. "You don't know that," he says, his voice tight. "Dad didn't know he was going to get cancer. But he did. And he died. What happens to us if you die?"

"But I'm not going to die," I reply, grabbing his ankles, pulling him toward me, and tickling him behind both knees. "Though I might kill you for the mess you're making of my comforter!"

To be honest, I could care less about the bed and the only thing I'd like to kill is the cancer that wasn't content just to take my kids' dad. It had to take their peace of mind, too.

My eldest fares a bit better. To a degree, his autism has acted as a bubble, protecting him and softening his pain. He has his moments, but because he has the most amazing memory I've ever seen, it's a little easier to comfort him. "Quick," I say, when he calls crying from his dorm because he dreamt about his dad and awakened to the gut wrenching reality that it was, sadly, just a dream, "tell me your top three Dad stories from our first summer on the farm!" In an instant, he's recounting things I haven't thought of in years. (Like the day my husband discovered a black snake napping next to him in his hammock. Did he flip? You bet. The damn thing had also been in his beer.) By the time we hang up, my older son is running full tilt down memory lane and I'm saying a prayer for his roommate who's in for a really long day of Dad tales.

But my little guy is a different story altogether. He's always been one of these people who thinks a lot (clearly not a trait he inherited from his mother), but since his Dad's death he's become a champion brooder. Some days are better than others, but on those other, awful days, he's like an open wound. His grief and pain, fear and worry about the future are palpable. I want to hug him, but he wants none of it. (Note to self: open wounds don't take kindly to being touched.) I remind him I'm here if he wants to talk, and then I do the only thing I can do. I back off. And wait. And eventually he comes around with a question or a statement that makes my head spin.

"Mom, be serious for a second!" He breaks my grasp and lunges for one of the oversize square pillows I keep on my bed. "I'm not kidding," he shouts, trying not to laugh. "Answer me, or I'm throwing this stupid thing to Tug!"

He holds the pillow over the edge of the bed and Tug, our beautiful but intellectually challenged Golden Retriever practically passes out with excitement.

"Cuy," I say, looking from my son to my pillow to the dog, who's drooling like a waterfall all over the floor, "I'm healthy. I take vitamins and," I continue, warming to my pitch and knowing he's going to freak out when I finish, "I'm still young!"

"You're fifty!" he fires back. "You're practically at death's door!"

You know, maybe I did miss a memo. But I didn't miss the split second opportunity to leap, snatch the pillow, and pin my kid to the bed in one fell swoop.

At death's door my butt.

"So here's how it lays out, oh master worrier," I offer, taking a break from tickling him. "If I get cancer, or hit by a bus, or break my neck trying to keep one of my favorite decorative accessories away from your dumb dog, you guys will go live with Aunt Nancy and Uncle Doug, or Uncle Nick. Ok?"

"What about Uncle Dan?"

"Uncle Dan already has four kids."

"And a Camaro." He smiles.

"Oh, so it's ok if I die as long as you go to the family member with the coolest car?"

He laughs a little and looks away, his eyes filled with tears.

"Listen Cuy," I sigh, hugging him, "I can't promise you that nothing's going to happen to me. But I can promise you there's a plan if something does. You'll be loved, and taken care of, and go to college, and do all the things you want to do. Unfortunately, there's no provision for a Camaro, but I think I could swing a king size bed. Any interest?"

"It's kind of a mess," he responds, giving me the sweetest smile, "and I don't want those big pillows, but maybe." Then he hops down, steps toward the door, and stops. "Whoops! Sorry," he says, spinning around. "I meant to help you make it."

And I didn't even have to turn on the mom charm.

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