My friend Shannon’s husband has lived with a brain tumor for the last nine years. Most of those years he has managed to live a fairly normal and productive life, continuing to work, fathering children, building, gardening, and driving. But the tumor has grown, quality of life has gone downhill, and this last week they made the decision to no longer fight the tumor; Hospice has begun to do home visits, and Shannon and Wayne told their three children (well, not the littlest—he’s too young to understand yet) about their decision and that daddy will not live much longer.
Though Shannon and I are extremely close, I do not know Wayne very well. My grief comes out of the situation itself and out of my love for Shannon. I’m surprised by how much I cry about this. Knowing it was coming doesn’t make it any easier.
My children relate to Shannon’s children on a regular basis. We both homeschool, and Shannon is my go-to person for childcare, parenting problems, etc. Unlike many people, Shannon doesn’t blanch at the thought of my four active children infiltrating her house for hours at a time. Her house is a second home for my children, and as a result, they know Wayne better than I do. And quite frequently her kids come out to my house to spend the day. Just last night they were here for a sleepover.
This last week, following Shannon’s lead, I told my children about Wayne. It was awful, intense, and hilarious, and sometimes all those things at once. I’ve never been through something like this—death, up close—before, and neither have my children. This is new territory.
I told Sweetsie first. She was sitting on the sofa and I was puttsing about the kitchen. Her first comment was, “Is Jalyn crying?” and her second comment was, “Will she get married?”
“You mean Shannon?” I asked. She nodded. “Well, maybe, later. But she’s not thinking about that right now. She still loves Wayne very much.”
Sweetsie talked a bit about when her Great Grandma died, and about Miss Beccaboo’s guinea pig’s untimely death. And then she said, “We could share our dad with them.” She paused, and then added, with a grin, “Daddy could have two wives.”
“I don’t think I would like that too much,” I laughed.
Sweetsie retorted, “But Daddy would!”
Good grief! She’s only six years old!
After The Baby Nickel woke up from his nap, we drove to WV to pick up Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo who had been staying with my parents for several days. In the car, Sweetsie informed Nickel that Wayne was going to die.
Nickel, “Mama, is Wayne going to die?”
Me, “Yes, but we don’t know when. The doctors can’t help him with his brain tumor anymore, so they’ve decided to stop giving him medicine for it.”
Nickel, in a small voice, “But that’s sad!” He said that more than once, almost chanting it.
“Can’t we share our medicine with them?” Nickel asked. “You know how when I’m sick and you give me water and medicine—can’t you give him some of my medicine?”
At our meeting spot in West Virginia, I visited with Mom while the kids played in a creek before finally stuffing them all back in the van and heading home. After about ten minutes of listening to them bubble about their adventures in WV, I informed them I had some sad news. “Wayne and Shannon have decided to stop treating Wayne’s brain tumor. He’s going to die—not just yet, but maybe in a few months.”
Yo-Yo immediately burst into tears. He cried hard, gasping out little sentences here and there: “It makes me think Papa is going to die. . . How will they survive. . ? What will it be like to go to their house after Wayne is dead. . ? Jedrek won’t even remember his dad. . .”
I responded the best I could through my own tears. (Note: it takes skill to reach behind your seat to pat your son’s knee, steer a van, and cry, all at the same time.) “They will survive just fine. They have some money from the government, insurance type stuff, that they can live on for awhile till Shannon can figure out what to do . . . There will be a lot of people with them at first and it will be really sad, but then life will be pretty much the same, except Wayne won’t be there anymore . . . Jedrek won’t remember his dad, I know, but he has older siblings and they have lots of photo albums and they will talk about Wayne a lot—they’ll make sure Jedrek hears plenty of stories about him . . .”
Sweetsie’s lips were wobbling and Miss Beccaboo was looking out the window. “Is Wayne a Christian?” Miss Beccaboo asked. “Is he saved? Will his soul go to heaven?”
“Yes,” I assured her, despite my religious hang-ups and that I’m not actually up-to-date on the status of Wayne’s soul.
“We don’t even know there if there is a heaven,” Yo-Yo said. “And anyway, what’s a soul?”
“Jesus will come to him,” Nickel said.
The van was silent except for Yo-Yo’s sobbing. “Jedrek won’t even remember him,” he repeated, almost angrily.
“Will Wayne fall into pieces?” Nickel asked.
“Maybe there will be a miracle,” said Yo-Yo.
“Can’t they cut open his head and take the tumor out like they did in that movie we saw?” Miss Beccaboo said.
“No, it’s all through his brain, and if they cut it out, then he wouldn’t be able to talk or walk anymore.”
“But that’s okay!” said Sweetsie. “He could just lay there and we would take care of him!”
And so it went, for about fifteen minutes, until they started talking about the nonsensical things that kids talk about on car trips.
I was a little fearful the kids would stay up at night crying about this news, but that hasn’t been the case (so far). Instead, they come up to me and ask random questions.
Miss Beccaboo left off some dress-up game to come ask me if the whole church will go to the funeral. “Yes,” I said, trying to see her eyes under the two tutus, one red and one blue, she was wearing on her head. “Will we go?” she asked. “Of course,” I said. She seemed slightly anxious, but didn’t say more.
Yo-Yo approached me when I was wiping off the dining room table. “Is it okay if I tell Justus that I’m sorry his dad is dying?”
“What exactly would you say?” I asked.
We talked it through, figuring out a way for Yo-Yo to let Justus know Yo-Yo knows and cares, but that doesn’t require Justus to talk if he doesn’t feel like it.
Another time when Yo-Yo was working on his math problems at the table, he said, “What do you think Justus feels like?” I ticked off the list: sad, angry, worried, relieved, afraid, scared, depressed—
“You mean like he’s going to kill himself?”
“Goodness, no!” I said. “I just mean he might feel really sad for a long time, but not that kind of depressed. Goodness. He might want to be alone sometimes, or he might get angry at you quicker, but I suspect he’ll do most of his grieving at home by himself. You just need to be aware of what he might be feeling in case stuff does come up.”
Yesterday afternoon, before Shannon was to arrive to drop off her kids, I sensed that along with the normal eager anticipation of playmates and a sleepover, anxiety levels were high. This would be the first time the kids would be together since the bad news went out. Thought they didn’t say it, I could tell they were nervous. During rest time Yo-Yo came tiptoeing downstairs and voiced his concern. “What will Justus be like?”
“Honey, he’ll be fine. He’s excited to see you and play with you, I’m sure. It will be just like normal. Justus is doing really well, so don’t worry about it too much, okay?”
The first couple hours the kids were together, Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo were hyper to an extreme. There was an air of giddy relief about them. They could be normal. Life would go on.
That night at supper, all nine of us around the table, we were discussing a movie we had watched earlier in the day about The Skeleton Coast. “Why does it have that name?” I asked.
“Because of all the wrecked ships and human skeletons,” Yo-Yo said.
“They’re dead like Wayne!” Nickel crowed. John moved fast, distracting Nickel with a burrito, and I don’t think the other kids heard, what with all the mealtime clatter and chatter.
Shannon had told me earlier that when she pulled into the driveway, Nickel went running out to greet them, happily chanting, “Wayne is sick! I know Wayne is sick!”
These two outbursts make me wonder if Nickel might think that Wayne has already died. Dying is a pretty big concept for a four-year-old, and a bit of muddlement would be understandable.
Regardless, we have a bit of etiquette training to do before church tomorrow. I don’t want Nickel to go running up to Wayne, yelling gleefully HEY WAYNE! YOU’RE NOT DEAD YET! Even though I have a feeling that Wayne would grin and high-five him right back (Wayne has always been a jokester and a tease, himself), that might be a bit much.
About one year ago: Peanut Butter Frosting.