77: Fear

77: Fear

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery


Instead of counting your days, make your days count.

~Author Unknown

“Mom, I have cancer.” These four words catapulted my son and me on a journey that lasted two years. On that day I felt a wave of paralyzing fear.

Scott was the oldest of my four children. He was 33 years old and a successful assistant principal at Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena, Texas. He and his wife Carolyn were busy raising four active children. Scott was 6’ 2”, weighed 200 pounds and had never been sick a day in his life.

A few months earlier a mole on his neck had changed color. “Dr. Warner called,” Scott said that spring morning. “It’s melanoma.” I tried to reassure him, naming all the people I knew who had survived skin cancer. Yet, I felt small tentacles of fear begin to wrap around my chest.

Our next stop was MD Anderson, the famous cancer hospital in Houston. Scott had surgery at the end of May and was scheduled for radiation treatments over the summer recess. “There’s an 80 percent chance it won’t reoccur,” the doctors said. At the end of the summer, all his tests came back negative and Scott was back at school in the fall.

However, in December, Scott discovered a lump on his neck. It was biopsied and the results came back “malignant.” We now realized that Scott fell into the 20 percent category. I could feel the tentacles tightening around my chest. He entered the hospital for an aggressive treatment, a combination of interferon and interleukin.

After five months of treatment, he had radical surgery on his neck. The test results were encouraging, only three of the 33 lymph nodes removed were malignant. We were very hopeful.

For the next six months, Scott’s follow-up visits went well. Then in October, X-rays revealed a spot on his lung. The spot was removed during surgery and the doctors tried to be optimistic. It was a daily battle to control the fear and panic each setback brought.

In January, he was diagnosed as having had a “disease explosion.” The cancer had spread to his lungs, spine and liver and he was given three to six months to live. There were times during this period when I felt like I was having a heart attack. The bands constricting my chest made breathing difficult.

When you watch your child battle cancer, you experience a roller coaster of emotions. There are moments of hope and optimism but a bad test result or even an unusual pain can bring on dread and panic.

Scott was readmitted to the hospital for one last try with chemotherapy. He died, quite suddenly, just six weeks after his last diagnosis. I was devastated. I had counted on those last few months.

The next morning I was busy notifying people and making funeral arrangements. I remember having this nagging feeling that something was physically wrong with me. It took a moment to realize that the crushing sensation in my chest was gone. The thing every parent fears the most had happened. My son was gone. Of course, the fear had been replaced by unbearable sorrow.

After you lose a child, it is so difficult to go on. The most minimal tasks, combing your hair or taking a shower, become monumental. For months I just sat and stared into space. That spring, the trees began to bloom; flowers began to pop up in my garden. Friendswood was coming back to life but I was dead inside.

During those last weeks, Scott and I often spoke about life and death. Fragments of those conversations kept playing over and over in my mind.

“Don’t let this ruin your life, Mom.”

“Make sure Dad remodels his workshop.”

“Please, take care of my family.”

I remember wishing I could have just one more conversation with him. I knew what I would say, but what would Scott say? “I know how much you love me, Mom. So just sit on the couch and cry.” No, I knew him better than that. Scott loved life and knew how precious it is. I could almost hear his voice saying, “Get up Mom. Get on with your life. It’s too valuable to waste.”

That was the day I began to move forward. I signed up for a cake decorating class. Soon I was making cakes for holidays and birthdays. My daughter-in-law told me about a writing class in Houston. I hadn’t written in years, but since I was retired I decided it was time to start again. The local college advertised a Life Story Writing class that I joined. There I met women who had also lost their children. The Poet Laureate of Texas was scheduled to speak at our local Barnes & Noble. I attended and joined our local poetry society. I never dreamed that writing essays and poems about Scott could be so therapeutic. Several of those poems have even been published. In addition, each group brought more and more people into my life.

I don’t believe you ever recover from the loss of a child. Scott is in my heart and mind every day. However, I do believe you can survive.

Scott fought so valiantly to live and he never gave up. He taught me that life is a gift that should be cherished, not squandered. It has taken years to become the person I am today. The journey has been a difficult, painful process but certainly worth the effort and I know that my son would be proud.

~Barbara Ann Carle

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