As a stay-at-home dad, I saw our son, Ali, deal with a crisis he couldn’t grasp. Even before his mother’s diagnosis, life was confusing. With some difficulty, he had come to accept that people were sick, so he couldn’t go to nursery or play with friends. He loved that Mama was working from home, though.
Our family had been fortunate. Ali was too young for school. Anna’s job allowed her to telework during the pandemic. Unlike many parents, we didn’t have to worry about money or child care. Our little boy adapted well to social isolation. He read, played catch and helped me cook. We explored local parks and ponds, avoiding people and chasing ducks.
But as a wise Englishman once noted, it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced that fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.
After Anna found the lump, I came to resent words I’d associated with other people who were older: mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy. At each step, our fears ballooned, until that calamitous afternoon when the doctor confirmed the worst.
I wish I could say we dealt resolutely with that first blow, hiding our emotional devastation from Ali. But the thought of my little boy losing his mama was unbearable. I don’t know if he noticed my puffy eyes. But he became quieter, more thoughtful.
A whirlwind treatment schedule distracted us from brooding over life and death. But it also brought a practical worry: Who would look after our little boy when we weren’t home?
Our families live far away. With travel and quarantine restrictions, it made no sense for the grandparents to fly in. Social distancing meant hiring a babysitter wasn’t practical. Neither was leaving him with friends. Looming over all of this was the terrifying possibility of Anna being exposed to the coronavirus. Reluctantly, we concluded that Ali would accompany us on hospital trips.
One morning, my boy and I picnicked in sunny Regent’s Park. “Tuck in, everybody!” he announced. We munched on egg salad, carrots and hummus. Across the road, a surgeon was cutting out the cancer from his mother’s body.
There were few childish pleasures in a time of crippling anxiety. Meals became picnics on the bedroom floor while Anna recovered from two surgeries. While we waited for results from a test that predicts how likely cancer is to recur, Ali and I turned the ideal score into a Sufi chant. I felt like a failed version of the protagonist in “Life Is Beautiful,” who feigns a heartbreaking cheerfulness to shield his son from the horrors of a concentration camp.
Anna and I debated if it was sensible to pretend that nothing was wrong. We had explained the pandemic to Ali in simple terms: People were sick, his nursery was closed, the grandparents wouldn’t visit for a while. Anna’s oncologist recommended a similar approach to talking about cancer.
Of course, Ali already sensed something was wrong. We told him Mama was sick. He must be very gentle with her. She needed to rest. Dr. Bear was helping her get well. He listened carefully and asked questions. When would Mama feel better? Did she want Band-Aids? Could he watch “Peppa Pig” on her phone?
When Anna’s radiotherapy began, he drew a countdown sheet in crayon. Each day, after the long drive home, he crossed out a number, getting another step closer to “Blast off!” and the end of a fatiguing phase of treatment. Each day, he and I waited outside the hospital while Anna was irradiated. Sometimes we walked to a nearby garden to smell the flowers. Other times he preferred to wait in the car and listen to music. We had trail mix and milk.
Savory snacks, ’70s songs and the scent of roses — that’s how I’ll remember those weeks. Ali will forget everything. His mother isn’t as fortunate.
On the morning of Anna’s last radiation session, Ali and I baked a celebratory cake. “Chocolate is Mommy’s favorite,” he assured me. He came up with a message to be inscribed in frosting: “We love you, mama!”
That evening, a little boy and his parents blew out candles, ate cake and sipped sparkling juice. It was a rare moment of joy. The cancer was gone.
Experts say recurrence is unlikely, but my fear persists. More than anything, I want my son to know that his parents will see him through any adversity. Instead, the only lesson this horrible year has for him is that life is precarious. And very, very precious.
Zia Ahmed is a stay-at-home American dad in London.