It was after midnight before we made the ride from the Emergency Room to the 8th floor.
I don’t remember if I was carrying Jackson or if he was walking. I don’t remember who led us there. I don’t remember which family members were with us and I don’t remember who pushed the button for the eighth floor.
I do remember walking out of the elevator and my heart stopping when I read the sign that we were on the oncology floor.
We passed under it and went left. Through the double doors and left again to an isolation room. A small group of nighttime staff stood quiet as we passed.
We were a new family.
There may have been some parents grabbing ice or asking their nurse a question outside their rooms. But I don’t remember any of that.
I was thinking we don’t belong here.
The head of oncology was coming in around 1 a.m. from home. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it, except I wished he’d hurry because Jackson’s bedtime was hours ago. He couldn’t settle and go to sleep. He had an IV, bright lights, new people…all in an unknown environment. What one year old would settle?
I couldn’t settle and I was 26.
The oncologist was a very serious man. I’m pretty sure I cracked a bad joke to try to lighten him up. I wanted him to smile and reassure me it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Maybe it wasn’t cancer and it was all just a big misunderstanding.
But it was. Oncology meant cancer. It didn’t seem to matter to me that he was an expert. When it’s your child and cancer, the two don’t compute. The things this serious, smart man is saying just can’t be true.
We’d get to know more in the morning. Maybe a biopsy surgery. They needed more scans and tests done to know what they were dealing with.
His advice: just try to take it one day at a time.
What did that even mean? I had to stand a full day of this? There would be more just as awful? Was my child going to die? Would he lose his hair? Would he get chemo? How can a one year old even handle that? Couldn’t you just cut out the lump? What had caused it? Could it be benign? How does a healthy kid have cancer?
Can you just give it to me instead?
Eventually he left. Our shocked family left. And it was just Jackson, Everett and I in this unfamiliar hospital room. Ev fell asleep on the pullout chair.
But I couldn’t sleep. I rocked and rocked Jackson until my butt and legs were numb and he was sound asleep. I laid him down in the hospital crib, afraid the loud latch would wake him, but he stayed asleep.
I laid down on my own.
It was then that I realized I’d been crying for hours. My face throbbed; my sinuses were so swollen that my teeth ached. I had a migraine. But there in that room, alone with cancer, I couldn’t shut my brain off.
Opening the door caught the attention of the nurses sitting outside in the pod. They all looked up at the same time. I was embarrassed to be at my very worst in front of these people I didn’t know. Jackson’s nurse asked if I needed anything. I shook my head no. I didn’t trust myself to talk.
“If you need somewhere to be alone, Mom…” and she gave me directions to private locations on the floor that I would get to know well over the next year.
Down the dark, quiet halls, I walked to a spot that looked out the windows at a sleeping downtown Norfolk. Through the window art drawn by little patients, I wiped the tears that wouldn’t stop and I prayed. Gulps turned to deep, focused breaths.
In. And out. Just like getting through the pain of childbirth.
Eventually I walked back to the hospital room, where my boys needed me. I slipped through the door, onto my foldout chair.
I prayed myself to sleep. Take it away, God. Please.
…And that was seven years ago.