|I thought I might send emails and notes from our family’s trip to England later this month, to post on the hometown Buzz. But it seems we’ve left earlier than planned, and to a place farther from home. We’ve slipped through a door next to the telephone, and now I sit at my desk or talk to my friends from an enormous, incomprehensible distance. I don’t even try to understand the life I left because this new one is so raw and beautiful.
The phone rang last week and I heard my husband’s voice, incredulous, saying he’d gotten news from our doctor. Our middle son, 17-year-old Nate, has a tumor near his auditory nerve. A brain tumor.We’ve traveled through this strange land of serious illness before. Eleven years ago, our youngest son, Jake, who was four then, was diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor on his optic nerve. Doctors tell us there’s no connection between the two tumors, but I claim a mother’s right to an irrational belief in the poetry of the human body. I don’t know the meaning of these growths near the organs of perception of two of our boys, but it’s significant to me just the same.
When Nate was in middle school, the school nurse called us two years in a row saying his hearing tests showed some deficit in the left ear. We took him to his pediatrician who assured us there was nothing wrong with him. With the faith of someone who believed lightning does not strike twice, I let it go. The possibility of a tumor growing near his brain stem, invading his ear canal, never entered my mind.
Last spring Nate started to complain that his left ear was so clogged he couldn’t hear out of it. We thought he had a sinus infection so we took him to an ear, nose and throat specialist who ordered an MRI.
After we got the results, we spent the week of the fourth of July–which was unseasonably cold, like we were–in the demoralizing, clinical world of office lobbies and patient exam rooms. Doctors were cordial but not personal or compassionate. We grilled them and they answered. They grilled us and we answered. Yes, a tumor. No balance problems or facial numbness. Yes, hearing difficulty in one ear. Yes he should have surgery soon. No guarantees about his hearing. Balance and facial nerves should be fine. No football his senior year.
Nate was a condition, a surgery, a problem to be solved, a schedule to be accommodated. Not a young man with the world in front of him, beloved by his family and friends. The lack of warmth exhausted all of us.
When we spoke to Jake’s neurosurgeon so long ago, he told us he didn’t even want to meet Jake before the surgery. “I can’t do what I do if I have a personal connection with them,” the surgeon said. My husband and I complained to each other about the lack of kindness in the medical world, but in truth, we couldn’t have heard social niceties anyway. We were deafened by the sound of our own heartbeats, pounding out the frantic mantra all parents chant for a gravely sick child: “Makehimwell-makehimwell-makehimwell.”
One day last week Nate and I had to walk onto the ferry because it was overloaded with residual fourth of July traffic. Late in the afternoon, after two doctor’s appointments, we rode the bus back to Colman Dock. If we’d missed the point before, it was unmistakable as we lurched along in the plodding, stop-and-go bus with its kaleidoscope of weary, suffering, laughing, crabby, calm, burdened humanity: we’re not special, not God-protected, not too comfortable or too smart for sorrow. We belong to the same world as everyone else–the weathered, cheerful alcoholic, reeking of urban alleys and stale liquor, the old Pakistani man with with long fingernails and sores on his lips, the young woman staring straight ahead, hugging her backpack, the heavy matron sleeping on a bus that smelled like rotten garbage.
Tumors and diagnoses and cold clinics have stripped us–again–of our confidence and self-importance, and for that I’m grateful. I remember from the days and long nights in intensive care with a screaming four-year-old that a profound healing begins in the realm you can enter only when you’ve given up all your pretenses, when you’ve met the limits of your intelligence, emotions, personality, and worldly position, when you’ve been driven to your knees and see that your very best efforts are not enough. I’ve forgotten so much about the blessing of humility since then.
We’ll go on our trip to England as scheduled, and at the same time follow this journey we did not choose. When we come back, Nate will have his surgery, and we’ll trust his doctors with his precious brain, his hearing, his face and his balance.
And I hope humility won’t be so hard to learn our second time through this unseasonably cold country.