As a victim of a poor memory, I remember only flashes of our first weeks in the hospital. Visits, conversations, tears, rooms, tests, scans – they all run together in my cloudy mind. There is, however, one event I recall with perfect clarity.
He texted to ask if it was okay if he stopped in on his way home from work. I wasn’t sure we needed a visitor, but Kylie agreed. Freshly diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, we were in the pediatric cancer wing where Kylie had begun her first round of chemo. By the time he arrived, our patient was sleeping and I got up to greet him quietly. I remember he put his backpack against the wall and opened his arms to hug me.
I am not a hugger…
This is weird…
He’s here for Kylie, not me…
Do I hafta??? Why????
I’m okay, I don’t need this…
Not a word was spoken and I promptly fell apart in his embrace. I cried like I had never cried in my life. He just held on for the ride.
* * *
What my friend Steve gave me that day was the very essence of what to say when there is nothing to say:
Love is all there is. It can speak volumes without an audible syllable. It can be felt in a quiet room where words aren’t welcome. It might be simplistic, but love is all that can break through the hard shell of pain and fear after a parent has heard the dreadful phrase, “your child has cancer.”
Let me say again, there are no magic words that instantly sooth, but here are some things that resonated with me when Kylie was first diagnosed:
1. An expression of regret – “This really sucks” (or “stinks” for the less crass. But I assure you, it does suck!)
2. A profession of love and friendship. How do you say that? Um… “I love you.” For those uncomfortable with the ever-personal “I”, you can always lean on the family crutch for support and say, “We love you guys.”
3. Presence. “I’m here.” There are few positives in having a child with cancer, but one is that your calls rarely go to voicemail. Availability can be sensed. I knew very little in those traumatic first weeks, but I knew who was there for me, and I called on them when needed.
4. A promise of endurance. There is a long road ahead of the family. Like anything, many people with good intentions begin the fight full of fervor but life gets in the way. No judgments here, I get that. A promise such as, “I am here today, tomorrow, and in six months,” means a lot when given sincerely.
5. A specific offer of assistance. Sometimes, this isn’t even verbal. If you see a need, meet it.
- We once came home to find a huge painted pot full of yellow flowers on our porch.
- Sometimes our lawn just got mowed.
- A woman who bakes incredible cookies would just stash dozens in our mailbox without a word.
- Friends organized meal calendars, ballet rides, and school carpools for our other daughters.
This is the action side of love. Love does! Love molds unique talents into lavish gifts. Doing love doesn’t have to be grandiose or expensive and is often best when anonymous.
6. An assurance of prayer and/or positive thoughts. To know that my little girl was on the forefront of people’s minds was huge. Knowing that children included Kylie in their nightly bedtime prayers was humbling – especially when my prayers couldn’t get past a groan and balled fist.
Nobody knows what to say to the parents of a child diagnosed with cancer. We didn’t know what to say or what we wanted to hear – it was uncharted territory we’d rather not have explored. I assure you we were glad to not be travelling alone. If you have friends who find themselves on this heartbreaking voyage, I would urge you not to be afraid to approach them. Just step out in love, the right words will come. You might start with a silent hug. Even the bristliest of us cancer parents could use a hug from time to time.