One Friday afternoon in August of 1991, Adam, Mary and I sat waiting for his MRI to begin. I had scheduled the scan myself a week before when his opthalmologist couldn’t explain his double vision and referred him to a neuro-opthalmologist. I had already become secretly concerned. Then that morning the neuro-ophthalmologist called me to tell me he had a condition that was nearly always associated with a tumor. I knew then what the scan would show, yet I hid my anxiety from Adam and Mary and held onto the slim hope that I would be wrong. Mary was a mere six months from surgery for her breast cancer and had one more chemotherapy session to go. We weren’t ready for more bad news.
Then my junior partner called from the operation room. His patient had a rare and life-threatening complication in the middle of an operation, and he asked me to come and help. No other neurosurgeons were nearby; it was me or nobody. I left Adam and Mary blithely ignorant of the pending disastrous results of the MRI and went to the operating room.
The next three hours challenged my ability to segregate my feelings from my thoughts and actions, but that was nothing new. For two decades I had learned that when you’re the one involved in direct patient care, everything else gets stuffed down. You’re hungry or tired or sick? You just had a fight with your wife? Your mother and father are coming to visit?
Nobody cares. Stuff it down.
Dr. Harvey Cushing, widely considered the father of neurosurgery, once did an appendectomy on one of his own children. Another time he received the news of his son’s death in a car accident and took fifteen minutes of solitude. Then he went directly to the operating room and performed the previously scheduled operation.
Stuff it down. Deal with it later. Even when your kid is sick.
After the crisis abated I left the OR and received the expected message that the radiologist wanted to review the MRI. The images had been transferred to the hospital. All I had to do was walk across the hall to radiology. The images hung on the view boxes–crisp, clean lines of black and white on film representing the dark, uncertain future of a boy with a brain tumor. The reality stunned me. The words “evil incarnate” came unbidden to my mind.
I was particularly overwhelmed because I’d ordered the scan myself. Now I had to deliver the news myself without the buffer of an outside authority figure, a professional in a white coat.
I felt terror. I didn’t want to be the doctor; I wanted to be the dad. But I couldn’t be dad. Not yet. I stuffed my feelings down again, and we did our family conference at home. I remember only a little about that night. Mary and Adam and I talked. Then we included my parents and Jay and Brieanna. Then we prayed.
The next morning I cancelled my appointments and spent the morning on the phone with neurosurgeons across the country searching for the best answer for Adam. At the time, therapeutic options for his type of tumor were hotly debated. Which surgical approach was the best? What was the role of radiation therapy? How to deal with tumor-associated hydrocephalus? I had my own opinions, but had at least enough sense to realize my judgement was clouded. I needed someone else to be his doctor. Two days later we checked him into Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and I could be the dad again. Only then could I cry.
The ability to “stuff it down” is important. No one wants a surgeon, a policeman, a fireman or an EMT dealing with their own emotions when they are dealing with your needs. But this ability also has its own consequences, its own scars. Once you’ve stuffed down your own fear and grief, it doesn’t easily resurface. Then if I am insensitive to my own emotions, I could be nothing but insensitive to Adam and Mary.
I was a good cheerleader, but a bad listener. “You have a good prognosis,” I would say. “A ninety-percent cure rate. I looked it up.”
They would stare back at me, sometimes blankly (Adam), sometimes with frustration (Mary). And I would stuff down the fact that ninety-percent now terrified me. A cure rate that sounded so good to me when I told patients now sounded way too low. We had a ten-percent chance of repeating the current nightmare, and the next time would hold no chance of salvation this side of eternity.
Over the next few months Adam underwent two operations, one spinal tap, several weeks of radiation therapy, two weeks of antibiotics. He lost his hair and he lost his strength. I told him the prognosis was good.
The day after we returned from Gainesville Mary went in for her last chemotherapy treatment. Her eyelashes fell out and she couldn’t eat. I told her the prognosis was good.
It was a hard four months. Then the active medical interventions were over for both of their cancers. It was time to get better.
Adam tried to resume normal activities. Chemistry was hard. Sports were impossible–anything requiring hand-eye coordination was downright dangerous. Mary tried to find clothes to fit her new shape. They would tell me it was hard; I would tell them they had a ninety-percent cure rate.
Soon we stopped talking about illness and recovery as each of us drifted into our private world of terror and grief. On the outside we looked like a normal family going about work, school, and community activities like anyone else. Scratch the surface, and any one of us could fall apart.
Then, in the Spring of 1991, I bought a self-help book–not for me, you understand; I thought it would help me provide direction to my other son, Jay. One chapter dealt with the skill of listening. Some people don’t need instruction in this, but I did. Don’t think of your response while the other person is talking. Repeat what they say as a question to 1) make sure you understand, and 2) give them permission to keep talking. This is instruction so simple it borders on stupid to repeat, but there it was. I tried it out on Mary the next time she spoke about her cancer treatment, her scars, her fears. She kept talking; I kept listening.
Her depression started to lift. (She has an amazing testimony about a dramatic moment of recovery, but that is her story to tell.) On the other hand, all the fears and grief I had stuffed down now floated up. I had to start dealing with the fact that I and everyone I loved was going to get sick and die, and that fact terrorized me. I could no longer be the cheerleader with “the ninety-percent cure rate,” since I was now quite conscious that the cure rate was a temporary illusion, a distraction from the fact that life has a one-hundred-percent mortality.
But I became a much better listener.
Listening, I learned, has a cost. If you listen to those who have suffered loss and fear for the future, you will mourn. So I mourned the scars of Adam and Mary, the loss of their hopes, and the fears of what the future would inevitably bring to all of us. But if I mourned with them, we were no longer alone, and if we were no longer alone, we were comforted, and if comforted, loved. And if we had love, we had hope.
Jesus knew this. His first public declaration in his ministry was that the kingdom of God was near. His second was that the poor in spirit are blessed because they would receive the kingdom of heaven. But his third was that those who mourn are blessed because they would be comforted.
There are times to stuff it down, those griefs about things lost and the fears of future sufferings and separations. But do not fear listening, do not fear mourning. Because we are blessed to mourn. Then we shall know comfort. And love. And hope.