Caring for an Ornery Teen
There is nothing natural about a baby with cancer. I think pretty much everyone would agree with that.
But taking care of a baby with cancer is actually a completely natural, extraordinarily ordinary act. It is everything you do when taking care of a baby without cancer, just multiplied in both practice and reverence.
You hold, rock, feed, wipe, bathe. You monitor all that goes in and all that comes out. You protect and you comfort and you nurse, in both senses of the word.
And I know because I’ve done it. I cared for a healthy son. And then another, until he got sick. A rare cancer in both kidneys at ten months and again at age 3. And while the psychological impact of having a baby with cancer was something I would never get used to, the practical, daily, physical act of caring for him felt totally natural.
I’d long made the comparison of how caring for a seriously sick baby was easier in many ways than caring for a sick spouse or a sick parent. There was no embarrassment or resentment on the part of the patient, there was none of the confusion or mind shifting that comes along with altered relationships, reversed roles, the flipping of who cares and who’s cared for.
But … what would it be like to care for a teenager? A moody, surly one at that, who shuffles along in untied sneakers and retreats to his room at every opportunity?
You see, that baby with cancer grew up, into a completely happy, mostly healthy, remarkably normal 15-year old. But that happy, healthy, normal teen is one who (like so many other normal teens) responds to me with grunts and monosyllables, moans and groans about the meals I make, and huffs and sighs when I dare get too lovey or personal. This is a kid who delights in freaking me out; “triggering mom” is an endlessly funny game, one that usually involves completely made-up reports about the various health crises he’s (not actually) suffering or telling tales about how he dropped all his meds on the floor and the puppy gobbled them up (which has thankfully never happened).
But now that he needed a new kidney (childhood cancer casts a long shadow), we would again return to our old roles of caregiver and patient. Roles we had played so easily and so well for too many years but then eagerly put behind us. He’s always pushed for independence and I’ve mostly welcomed it. (It’s hard to feel sad watching your child grow up when you feared they would never be given the chance.)
Since my husband was the donor (and would be cared for by his own mother once released), I would serve as the sole caregiver for our child during his eight-day stay in the hospital. And I wasn’t sure what that would be like. Would he resent my constant presence? Would he be embarrassed by his vulnerability at a moment when he wanted to prove his maturity, his toughness? Would he just want me to go away already?
But he surprised me. Or maybe I surprised me.
He let me massage his feet and comb the tangles out of his long hair and scratch the morphine-induced itchiness on his back. He talked to me, in perhaps too much detail, about the trials of his “weanie tube,” the foley catheter he had for six days. I read aloud an entire book during our stay, another of the World War 2 novels he’d enjoyed when he was younger.
He teased me still, as so much of our relationship is built on good-natured ribbing. And sometimes he was like, “Yes, you can go for a walk, quit asking!” But around day six when I thought he was well enough that I might spend one night at home, he hemmed and hawed and eventually said, “Or, I mean, you could stay … ”
So I stayed. Because after all, he’s still my baby. And that’s only natural.