It started over the summer.
We’d known for awhile that my sister had cancer, and though I’d offered to talk it out, he seemed okay about things. We’d go over to visit my sister, and he’d laugh and smile and talk and give hugs and play with her dogs and we would leave and I would watch him…..and he seemed okay.
Until mid-July, when my sister was in the midst of her last hospital admission, and the children begged me to take them to see her….that’s when things changed.
And he seemed okay while we were at the hospital, visiting. I made sure he had breaks from the sick room, and had snacks, and opportunities to talk. But after several hours, we left and went to a store, and in the middle of the store, he started a yelling argument with me, over a seemingly innocuous comment.
I thought, “What is going on?”
I felt angry. And hurt. And – much to my shame – I fed right into that argument….an argument with an 11-year-old little boy.
Until, in a very quiet, broken little boy voice, he whispered, “This is very sad! This is very, very sad, what is happening with Aunt Charlotte. This is very, very sad!” and then he hiccupped and wiped his tears and some runny nose snot with the back of his hand, and hiccupped again.
And I thought I understood, so the next day when we planned to go to the hospital, I arranged for him to go to a friend’s house to play and stay overnight. I thought the sight of my sister, bald and ravaged by this horrific disease that was pulling her away from us far too quickly, was what had him upset.
But while we were gone, I received a phone call from his friend’s mother, who told me Brennan was “a little upset, and wanted to come home,” and she put him on the phone.
My own stomach twisted into knots as I heard his tiny, tear-soaked voice over the phone, begging for Mommy, for time with his family, for home, home, HOME….he just wanted to come home. So I picked him up, and brought him home, and he explained to me that he felt he was having an asthma attack that didn’t get better with his inhaler. He explained to me how his chest felt heavy, but he didn’t wheeze or cough, and how he suddenly felt he would never be able to take another deep breath for the rest of his life, and how he looked around his friend’s new house and everything seemed unfamiliar, and bad, and sick, and he just needed to get home as fast as he could.
And I thought, “My God. He had an anxiety attack.”
I felt like I had been kicked in the face, my own breath taken from me, and my own chest felt burdened with a weight too heavy to bear.
I knew then that I hadn’t handled the situation appropriately, but I felt helpless to fix it. How do you do it right? How do you tell a young child that yet another family member he loves and believes will always be there is in the painful process of being ripped away from us?
How do I give him back the veil of innocence, the childhood security that should be his right? How can I make him feel safe, and that I will always be here for him, when it seems like everyone else is disappearing?
I don’t know. I really don’t know.
My adventurous, energetic, always-up-for-anything little boy had – seemingly overnight – become shy. More reserved. Afraid to accept invitations for play-dates. A trip to the dentist for a routine cleaning was suddenly something to be frightened of, and he insisted I hold his hand and bring a chair back to the room with him and stay.
Once my sister had come home on Hospice, he insisted he wanted to stay at Grandma’s house with the entire family. He wanted to be there for her last days, however many more we might have. He seemed confidant in this decision, and I thought, “Who am I to tell him no? Maybe this is what he needs.”
And so we all moved in to my mother’s house, and slept on the floor. He seemed to be doing okay.
Then my sister died. My little boy seemed so adult that night, patting our backs, bringing the adults bottles of water as we held one another and wept, bringing us tissues and whispering reassuring words.
He played at the funeral home. I heard him laughing.
But as this summer has progressed, I notice my little firecracker sleeping more. I notice my laid-back, cheerful boy starting ridiculous arguments over nothing. I notice he laughs less and cries more, and when I question him, he says it feels like everyone in the world is being mean to him.
Last week, we were driving home from a far-away doctor appointment and he fell asleep in the middle seat of our SUV. Curled up against the door with his pillow doubled-up against the window, he began to weep.
My daughter said, “Mom…he’s crying in his sleep.” She tried to wake him up, but he continued his fitful slumber.
It lasted over an hour, and I remained helplessly in the driver’s seat, maneuvering along on the crowded expressway, slapping at my own eyes as they burned and watered and eventually dragged some mascara down my cheeks.
My son sobbed. Hiccupped. Wept with great, gut-wrenching gulps. Tears streaked his face and his nose ran, leaving a giant, wet puddle of liquid agony on his pillow and blanket.
I listened to him shudder and sigh, weep and gulp….and then snore. How could he possibly not wake himself up?
I’m not sure when my heart has twisted so painfully as it did that day, hearing my youngest child’s grief pour from him in such a pitiful manner.
And then he woke up and wiped his face and looked around. Disoriented. Dazed. He looked out the window and said, “Hey! We’re already almost home. That was a fast drive!…..why is my blanket so wet?”
I told him he had been crying in his sleep, and asked what he had been dreaming about.
He told me there was no dream, just blackness in his sleep. There was nothing to remember.
I don’t know how to do this right.
Somebody tell me what to do.