Cancer, cookies... and a little boy’s first time visiting his dad in the hospital
That Thursday was a day of transition. My husband Steve, whose colon cancer had returned six months earlier, had already undergone 28 radiation treatments and still looked forward to 5 months of chemotherapy. But Friday was going to be the Big One. Doctors at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia planned to completely remove his rectum and re-route his remaining colon to a permanent stoma in his abdomen.
In a way, it was the thought of how scary this surgery would be that had brought us to this point. Two years earlier, when our son Kevin was two years old, Steve had gone into the local ER with severe anemia, and doctors found a large tumor in his lower colon. They removed the tumor and recommended that he have an Abdominal Perianal Resection (APR). But then Steve consulted with Fox Chase Cancer Center, who removed another section of tissue and said that the APR may not be necessary. Steve decided he did not want to go through with the operation unless it was completely necessary. The doctors said he had about a 10% chance of the cancer coming back.
But it did come back, in the neighboring lymph nodes, and now he was about to have the big APR surgery after all. Wednesday night, on his 37th birthday, he checked into the hospital at Fox Chase to have a final colonoscopy on Thursday morning.
On Thursday, I stayed at the hospital while Steve’s parents watched our son, now 4. We had decided that this day was the best time to introduce Kevin to the hospital and seeing his father there. This was an important moment; the impression made here could make a real difference on how he handled the ensuing weeks of seeing his dad in recovery.
In the afternoon, after Steve had recovered from his early procedure and settled into the room that would be his uneasy home for the next two weeks, they came.
Kevin is normally a confident, outgoing child, but he came around the corner and into that room cautiously, with an awkward, nervous smile. This may be the only time I’ve ever seen him looking unsure of where to stand, what to look at, what to do with his hands. I saw his eyes move up and down as he surveyed the image of his father in bed wearing a gown. He said, “Hi, Daddy”, and Steve gave him a smile and a kiss on the head. His eyes continued to travel around the room: the mechanical bed, the chest of drawers, the TV mounted on the far wall, me sitting in the visitor’s chair and smiling at him, the IV towers in the corner, ready for the next day’s work.
Steve invited him to sit on the bed, and for a few minutes they played together with the buttons. Kevin giggled nervously while he went up and down on the bed, which made a funny buzzing noise as it moved. Bzzz up, Bzzz down. After a while, the novelty of the funny bed, and the nervous smile, wore off, and he just looked plain nervous. There was nothing else there to entertain him and too many lingering questions that he didn’t know how to ask and we wouldn’t know how to answer.
So I suggested we go for a walk. He and I held hands as we walked down the hall to the elevator. Intermittent beeping noises emanated from most of the patient rooms, staff bustled around the nurses’ station, and strange pieces of equipment sat in the hallway. I can’t remember if we talked, but at some point, I thought of getting some ice cream to lighten the mood. We went to the snack shop, where we each picked out a treat from the freezer. As we walked some more and ate our ice cream bars, we came upon the door to what looked like a small garden. We crossed the threshold into a sunny spring day and found a bench to sit on.
Kevin’s ice cream sandwich soon melted into a sticky mess, and I had forgotten to get napkins from the snack shop. We got up and walked down the stone path looking for a garbage can and something to help clean him up. We discovered that the little garden opened into a huge lawn that stretched between the patient care center and the cancer research facility. We threw away our ice cream wrappers and tried to wipe his sticky hands on the grass.
I was just sitting down again under a tree when Kevin ran off to capture a paper plate blowing in the breeze. As he held up his prize, we heard laughter coming from behind the tree. Kevin had already followed the sound when I turned around and saw several young men and women sitting together at a picnic table. They called out to him, and he brought them the plate. I saw that a cookie had appeared on his plate, and he looked at me, asking with his eyes if he could eat it.
I walked over and found the picnic table covered with bottles of icing, novelty sprinkles, colored sugar, and a tin of flat white cookies. They laughed some more, told me how cute my son was, and invited us to decorate cookies with them. I put a cookie on a plate and surveyed the decorating options while a young woman helped Kevin pick out icing colors. A man explained to me that they all worked together in the research laboratory, and they had decided to spend their lunch break decorating cookies on the lawn, just for fun. The conversation was easy, the sun glinted through the leaves above, the breeze smelled fresh and lovely, and the heaviness of the afternoon lifted. I made one cookie; Kevin made three and ate one of them. We laughed and chatted with the young lab technicians. I thought about telling them that we were there as my husband was about to have major surgery that would change his life, but hopefully save it, and that my son was visiting the hospital for the first time and nervous about seeing his dad there. But I decided not to say anything and just let the moment be light and free.
After a while, it was time for our new friends to go back to work. We helped them pack up their supplies and said goodbye, then made our way back into the hospital holding our cookie masterworks. We chatted about our adventure as we ambled down the hall. Kevin pushed the elevator buttons, which was hard to do as he was holding an iced cookie in each hand. We sauntered into the hospital room and told Steve and his parents all about the ice cream mess and the beautiful lawn and the friendly lab techs and the cookie decorating, and then showed them what we had made. They were quiet, and did not eat our cookies.
Soon after that, I took Kevin home and Steve’s parents left for their hotel. Steve was left alone in his room to think about the big surgery scheduled for the next morning and the recovery to follow.
One year later, Steve is still adjusting to the changes in body, as well as recovering from a long year of chemo, radiation and the general trauma of major surgery. I asked Kevin the other day if he remembered decorating cookies on the lawn of the hospital, and he said he did not. I think it was all just too much for him to take in. But I think often about those lab technicians who shared their picnic and their bright spirit with us on that fine but terrible day. For an hour at least, a scared little boy, and his scared mom, got to think about cookies.
Elizabeth Roland lives with her family in Philadelphia, where she squeezes in a full-time career with the defense department while also caring for all the various humans and animals in the family. She is happy to report that as of today, her husband and son are both healthy and busy causing all the trouble that boys, big and small, are supposed to cause.