February 15, 2013. The twins and Willy were gone to school and work for the day. Three-year-old Eric and I were doing our usual thing: he played on the couch while I gracelessly heaved my way through a Jillian workout because “this time I’m going to finish the whole program!” Not quite through the end of the 23 minute video, the phone rang and it was my dad, the boys’ doctor. I don’t think I could forget the words if I tried: “Joel’s bloodwork implies leukemia.” He pauses, while I default into denial. Only later did I grasp how difficult a message this was for a dad to deliver to his daughter. “You need to get him to Anchorage right away. They want to see him immediately.” More pause. More denial. “Listen, it’s not what it used to be. I’m sad for Joel, but I’m not scared for him. I’m going to call Willy now, you pack up to go. You will be staying there a while, so pack a good bag.” So, head spinning, I called my few close friends because the burden was already too heavy, only minutes in. I sobbed my way through a shower, not yet knowing how familiar I would be with the act before the next three years were past. Willy met me at home with the boys, both of us trying to put on numb “this is completely normal” faces; Willy being much better at it than my puffy, red face was, but only because he was taking the first leg in our marathon of strength. Driving to the hospital was the only time in my life where I’ve felt like dying wouldn’t be the worst thing ever. Joel was playing on my phone, asking why we brought along his birthday presents when his birthday wasn’t for four more days. We explained he was going to need to be brave a few times today, but presents always help with that. When we got to the pediatric oncology clinic, they explained where we’ll park from now on, they’ll give us a permit, more stuff, other details, all foggy. It was very considerate and helpful, but, we won’t be regulars here! We’re actually just here to take a more advanced blood test that will show this is all a mistake, but thank you! My glass box of denial was smashed by a sweet, soft-spoken young lady doctor. “Joel has leukemia.” I turned to Willy’s shoulder and cried into it like everything inside of me was emptying out. My brother and his wife were outside the door while Joel watched another patient play xbox on the clinic TV. They had a coffee for me– the first of I don’t even know how many that day. IV. Elevator. Hospital room. Can we get you anything? Compassionate glances. Sarah will be your nurse. Now we find out which kind he has. We may need to move to Oregon for a year. We’ll get in a port after his PIC line. I hated the smell of the hospital, I hated the walk to the car without Willy, leaving my baby behind. I had to go get his brothers after I drove the 45 miles home in the first blizzard of the winter. It was slow going, but that was good. I would have been dangerous to others if we were full speed. When I got home to the boys, my friend greeted me with a hug. Nathan asked where Joel was and I told him Joel had to stay, no, I don’t know how long. No, I don’t know if he’s going to be okay. All I want is to demand these answers from someone myself. Nathan threw himself to the kitchen floor and cried the tears that only a brother who has never spent a night without his Joel since they shared space in my belly could. Then, he got up and started filling out Joel’s P.E activity log that was taped inside the cupboard door. “He hates when this gets behind,” he cried as he frantically filled in squares. I tucked him and Eric in and felt my heart rip out of my chest seeing an empty bunk. All of us were not home. All of my babies were not safely tucked away under my roof. We were not whole, and I didn’t know if we would be ever again. I poured a glass of wine and read through the Psalms over and over. These writers know pain, anguish, anger, questions. Given I had more coffee that day than I had ever had in my collective years as a coffee drinker, and that I had received the worst news I could imagine, it was a restless night. “My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him.” Silence. That was the goal. Don’t let those thoughts creep in. Don’t let those images play. I prayed this over and over and put a picture of Joel bouncing on his trampoline into my mind. Wait in silence.
Over the next days, weeks, months, our reality became that of a cancer family. I grieved the loss of our old normal. I hated our new normal. But slowly, this new way of being became our day to day. And then it left. And now here we are, on the other side. I still have moments of processing some of the unimaginable times that involved powering through and not letting it sink in. Now it sinks in. Now that my mind feels safe from the dragon of watching my child suffer more than I will allow myself to accept. This is where I would like to start. I want to appreciate the present in a way that I never would have before our world was rocked. That’s where I’ll start.