I have mentioned it before, but there is a cancer club…a club I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but it exists, nonetheless. Whenever I find another cancer warrior mom, I try to reach out and send her a letter. It always starts out with this same line, “Welcome to the club…I am so sorry you are now a member. I know you don’t want to be here and I know you are heartbroken. I have been there. Still, I promise you that you’ll one day be proud of the journey you are on. You’ll celebrate and grieve alongside those who are a part of this same club, for you are now parents of a child with cancer. You are never alone. You have an army behind you!”
I reached out to one of these moms recently to get her story. I wanted to get a different perspective, outside of my little Hayes. I asked her to write about her experience and I just cannot begin to say how much I relate. I wish I didn’t…frankly, I wish no one did! But we do, and it is important not to turn away because all of these stories deserve to be heard. All of these children matter. I feel honored to share the story of Brendan Peck from the beautiful perspective of his mom, Kerry Peck.
Never Say Never
I must be a slow learner. All my life, it seems, I’ve made statements that have come back to haunt me. Comments like, “I’d never marry an attorney!” and thoughts like, “If I had that many little children, they wouldn’t look like homeless waifs!” (Yes, I arrogantly thought that after seeing a bunch of runny nosed, PJ-clad kids dropped off to be tended while their mom scurried off to a doctors appointment.) Well, I should have known better. I did end up marrying an attorney. (Although, in my defense, he decided to attend law school after we were married.) And I did have nine beautiful, runny-nosed, PJ- clad children who grew up happily running around looking like homeless waifs. You think I would have learned to never say “never.”
In October 2015, our 11- year- old son, Brendan, suddenly lost the vision in his left eye. During the previous week he had suffered a few severe headaches and had even thrown up suddenly one day without any apparent reason. A doctor’s visit, a quick check by the eye doctor, and a rush MRI found an aggressive tumor filling his sinus, pushing through his cribriform plate, pressing on his optic nerve, and getting dangerously close to his brain. Thus began the demolition of all of the “I could NEVER. . .” thoughts I had ever had, starting with, “I’m glad we’ll never have to deal with cancer.”
Everything I ever thought I could never handle stared me in the face during the next 10 months. I watched my child go through two major sinus surgeries, one eye surgery, one craniotomy (brain surgery to remove cancer from the dura,) and a neck dissection to remove strings of cancerous lymph nodes from his neck. I watched him suffer through two bouts of excruciatingly painful meningitis. I suffered with him as he endured five recurrences of C. diff infections, two LifeFlights, five rounds of chemo, six+ weeks of radiation treatments, and one seizure. (Yes, I may have made a comment that sounded something like, “Well, I’ve learned I can handle a lot of things, but I could never handle a seizure.”)
After I found out we could both live through seizures (not to mention brain surgery), I think I learned enough to keep my mouth shut. I never voiced another “never.” But there was still just one, terrifying, unspoken “never” shoved into the darkest, farthest corner of my brain. I knew I’d never say it, and even thinking it felt like a betrayal of faith. But occasionally, unbidden, the thought crept out of the darkness and tried to be heard. “What if my son died? Could I handle that?“ I didn’t want to answer that question. I didn’t even want to ponder it. I never wanted to find out if I had that kind of fortitude. So back that thought would go — banished from the conscious realm once again.
Six months later, when Brendan went from being declared “cancer-free” to being re-diagnosed with metastasized bone cancer, I knew I finally had to face the ultimate “Never Say Never” question. Ready or not, I was about to find out what I was truly made of — and what I truly believed. I found that death staring you in the face shakes you to your inner core. It sifts out all the unnecessary things in your life and leaves only the things that matter most. I never said out loud that losing a child was the one thing I could never do, but I wasn’t sure how anyone survived something that trying. As I finally had to face the worst “I could never” question, I opened my eyes and my heart to see how other mothers had survived.
I returned to stories I had learned about my family. I knew that all of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers had lost a child, some more than one. A farming accident, a blood infection, cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, and typhoid were just some of the things that had taken their children’s lives. I saw how they continued to live and love despite their broken hearts. As a child I had only seen them as “old.” Now, I was looking at them as one mother to another. I’m grateful these grandmothers shared their experiences so I could learn that even the death of a child is survivable.
Then, I began looking more closely at mothers around me. As I looked, I saw mothers everywhere that had endured, survived, and even thrived through all the “I could never. . .” scenarios I could ever imagine. They seemed so strong. I watched as they moved forward through their pain with faith — promoting causes, helping other families, and sharing what they learned from their experiences. And I saw love and empathy. Lots and lots of it.
How did I survive the death of my son? My beautiful, precious child? I don’t know. I’m not sure you ever do. Most of the time it’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Some days I wish there was some way to get rid of the terrible hurt in my heart. Other days I’m so full of gratitude for life and being able to live it with family that I can’t contain all the joy. But every day I’m grateful I had Brendan in my life and that he taught me courage and faith in the face of challenges. And I’m always grateful that he and others showed me the way past “never.”
Of all I have learned, I found that you do what you have to do, and you can always do more than you think you can. The saying is true, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” And, of course, I’ve learned to never say “never.”