A few days after Joel’s leukemia diagnosis, we started using the “C” word. Willy and I were planning to avoid it, but the staff assured us it would be better for us to put it out there for the boys, since they would be hearing the word “cancer” swirling all around them in this new world of ours.
When we told our sons that Joel had cancer, Eric quietly kept to himself that this meant Joel was probably going to die. Nathan reacted with tears. Joel was thoughtful for a moment… His fears and questions that flooded his 5-year-old mind manifested in the form of hair. “Will my hair fall out?” Yes, Joel. “Will it fall out right away? How long do I have?” Well, it depends. Chemo affects kids differently, but it should start in a few weeks and then happen again this summer. “Will my hair ever grow back?” It will, but it might be different. On and on for the next day and night were random questions about his hair. It was really bothering him.
The nurses told us that it can really upset kids to see it all over their pillows and bedding when the hair first sheds, so shaving and getting it done with– though difficult– is often less emotionally stressful. So it was settled: I’d bring the clippers to our hospital home the next night and after supper, we’d have a shaving party. No baldness was going to sneak up on us and steal our spirit! We would rally together and make it an event.
After dinner, Willy was the first to go, followed by Nathan, then Joel. First a stripe down the middle (because laughing kept us Sheltons), then the rest of the melon. Nurses brought us sheets to sit on while I swallowed tears and shaved my boys. Eric was beside himself, because I would not let my baby be bald. Nope. Cancer will not invade that. I’m keeping it selfishly to myself and no amount of tears will make me release my grip. Joel consoled Eric with “Aw, it’s okay Eric! Someday, when you are my age and you get nukeenya, you can shave your head too!”
We shared the pictures of our new baldies and some moments from the shaving party with Joel’s new Facebook page.
Fast forward to the summer. Joel’s hair had thinned and turned red (!) during his initial rounds of chemo, but it had grown out well from the shaving party. We had begun an intense round of methotrexate and the doctors warned us that this time he’d probably bald all the way. We held onto our optimism that Joel was actually doing well! He probably won’t bald! He’s stronger than other cancer kids, so he’ll probably keep his hair… And then.
I would regularly run my fingers through Joel’s hair to subtly check for shedding. There had been a little, but my fingers would come back with just a few hairs. Not this time. Once again, in a gas station bathroom for an emergency stop (this time for Joelly), I had a gut punch low moment. I ran my fingers over his head, as was habit at this point, and my fingers came back filled with tufts of my baby’s hair. I felt like I had been hit in the stomach with a wrecking ball. Tears stung my eyes as I made like it was nothing and subtly shook the hair into the garbage. I’m sure it sounds small, but this was a moment that reminded me that my little boy was fighting cancer. It wanted to kill him, but we were poisoning his growing body just enough to keep him alive.
This time, our shave party was not welcomed by Joel. He hated being bald. He felt stared-at and weird. But he was losing so much so fast, that it was time to rip the Band-Aid off and be done. To console Joel, we let him shave Willy’s head. And Eric was finally allowed to join in the buzz cut love with his brothers and dad. Like before, we shared the pictures of our shaving on Joel’s leukemia updates Facebook page.
Why did we keep sharing these private moments? Attention? Did every “like” or comment make us feel more popular? No. Willy and I knew from the moment my dad called and told us to get to the hospital, that we were not able to bear this burden alone. And we were not meant to. That’s not how people are made. Every time a stranger would console my son through Facebook and let him know how strong and handsome he looked with a bald head, Willy and I felt love and community… like our cramped little hospital room was not as isolated as we thought. When Willy would send out a desperate request for prayer for his fevering son in the middle of the night and a church in Ireland would respond with “We’re here and praying”… his burden would be lifted enough not to crush him. That’s why we shared. Because we are called to bear one another’s burdens and sometimes we are on the receiving end.
One time in particular, when someone reached out to help me stands out as pretty special. (There are many, many of these moments, but this one is on my mind today.) A friend from church, who I only sort-of know, delivered a loaf of homemade sliced banana bread to our hospital room. Sliced. Such a small detail made all of the difference to me. My boys, wound up from being stuck in a hospital room, could just grab a slice when they were hungry. No asking mom to run down the hall to find a plastic butter knife in the parent supply room so that I could ugly-cut it on a paper towel from Joel’s wash station. Sliced.
Having our burden shared, being cared for by the people around us, is humbling. And it is the beauty that shows itself in the ashes of cancer.
In the spirit of the beautiful mom who brought us sliced banana bread, I share this muffin recipe and hope that it is used to care for someone in your life who needs it. With it being breast cancer awareness month, I can’t help but wonder how agonizing it would feel to be a mom out of commission. To hope that someone would reach out and care for you and your family when you need relief from a crushing burden.
These muffins freeze well, travel well, and fill little tummies with good stuff… which can make any mom sigh with relief. If you’ve made it this far in reading my ramblings, I applaud you. Way to stick in there! Without further ado, muffins:
Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Muffins
Add to one bowl in this order:
1 C kefir or buttermilk
1 C oats
1/4 C maple syrup
1/2 C butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Stir well, then add:
1 heaping Cup whole grain einkorn flour or whole wheat flour
4-5 oz. high quality milk chocolate, chopped into very small pieces
Mix until the flour is just combined. Let this sit at room temperature for a half hour, or refrigerate overnight. When ready to bake, line a 12 cup muffin tin with wrappers or spray with cooking spray. Fill each cup 2/3 full (or until batter is evenly dispersed) and bake at 375 degrees for 12-14 minutes. They are done when the muffins are brown around the edges and cracked on the surface.
If you want to freeze the muffins, double bag with freezer Ziplocs and suck all the air out. I know that sounds weird…. but air is the enemy. You don’t want those yucky crystals forming on your beautiful muffins! The freezing, of course, only applies if the muffins make it that long without being gobbled up by your family. I recommend you double the recipe for leftovers 😉
As always, thank you for sharing the posts and helping to create home-cooks and community.