The Magazine

A Brush with Eternity

Mark Hemingway, grateful.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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My wife called me from the pediatrician’s office to tell me they were concerned our youngest daughter might have cancer. A short while before, I’d been playing with her when I’d noticed a small lump on her neck. Her annual check-up was approaching, and I told my wife to ask about it. There was much knitting of brows in the examination room, and multiple doctors were consulted. 

Hemingway

Matt Collins

When I got home that night, we celebrated Linden’s third birthday. She had helped her mother make the cake and was so eager to show me the finished product that she was jumping up and down. The impish creature whose tousled curls barely reached above the mound of flames and pink frosting placed on the table in front of her did not seem sick. She certainly had none of the symptoms of lymphoma. At her age, she does not know the meaning of the word lethargy.

Every parental instinct in my body screamed there was nothing to worry about, but the slightest display of doubt by medical authorities is a powerful thing. I wouldn’t wish the anxiety I felt at that moment on anyone—so I’ll skip ahead and tell you that my daughter doesn’t have cancer and is perfectly healthy. The whole episode turned out to be much ado about a renegade lymph node.

Unfortunately, it took two weeks— a veritable eternity—and a number of medical tests to figure this out. In the meantime, my wife and I were left to contemplate the worst. And there are a lot of horrible things that readily come to mind once you’re forced to confront them. 

Complicating matters, Lindy was just old enough to start to sense that her parents were uneasy and to want answers. I wasn’t around for the series of blood tests, but my wife held her in a special chair while the doctors stuck her repeatedly—tiny veins are hard to find. When I asked my daughter about the tests, she demanded to know why the doctors had hurt her so much.

I reassured her, which turned out to be easier than I expected. I really did believe on some level she was going to be all right. Still, I wasn’t quite able to convince myself. I wish I could say I’d handled the episode better than I did. All the worry started to affect my mood. Jokes about the impending birth of a friend’s child became something I took personally. I spent a lot of time brooding and not enough time working. At one point I confessed to my wife I was afraid I wouldn’t handle it well if it turned out that our daughter was very sick.

If you expected my wife to empathize with me, I should probably explain that she’s a better person than I am. My wife stared me down and matter-of-factly explained, “Anyone who thinks they can’t handle it if something bad happens should probably ask themselves whether they were grateful enough for what they had before they realized that anything was wrong.” Most married women will have to contain their surprise at this admission, but it usually takes a while for me to grasp when my wife is right. Yet, this time it quickly dawned on me that having a lot to lose is a blessing, not a problem. For the record, thank God I am married to someone who is much, much wiser. 

I came to realize that gratitude also entails having compassion for those who aren’t always as fortunate. Shortly after my conversation with my wife, I received an email from an acquaintance. Tom had a child born the same week as Lindy, only his daughter was born with a host of health problems his family is still dealing with to this day. He dropped me a line just to say that he had heard about what was happening and knew I was probably worried, but he could tell me from experience that it was important not to neglect your job and other household responsibilities. Little did he know I’d spent much of the last few days staring at the wall on the other side of my desk. I also realized I hadn’t given much thought to Tom or the other parents I knew who had gone through genuinely difficult problems with their children. Shortly after Tom’s email, I buckled down and got back to work. 

I’m glad to report that this story is anticlimactic. Once we finally got in to see a pediatric surgeon, he quickly determined there was nothing wrong and there was no need for a biopsy after all. Poor Lindy almost seemed confused about why everyone was so happy, but she soon got over it. When I took her and her sister out for ice cream that afternoon, she seemed particularly grateful.

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