I remember one night when he was just weeks old. Me, exhausted at 4 AM trying to feed and soothe him when I heard footsteps on the dry leaves outside the window, along the side of our house. At first I thought it was a person, but at some point I realized by the shuffle-shuffle sound that it was likely an animal. As I looked out, there peering back up at me were four tiny sets of wide eyes, their little bodies riding on their mother possum’s back as she made her way through the night foraging food. What struck me was how instead of leaving them unprotected in the nest, she carried them with her. This night came just as I was adjusting to motherhood, and the notion that always, always… this child would go wherever I went, both physically and mentally. I was grappling with the hugeness of that responsibility; it seemed so immense in those early days. Then and even still at times, I questioned my ability to be strong enough to carry him through everything that life threw his way.
It was then I realized that no matter a possum or a person, we are meant to carry our children, always. Little then did I realize the power in this sweet infant boy to carry me.
Colton came to us in his own due time, not ours. At 40 weeks of pregnancy, I was drumming my fingers on my desk at work. At 41 weeks, Pitocin drip, drip, dripped, bringing its monster contractions, yet he still refused to budge, as if saying from inside, “I’m good.” Finally at 42 weeks they went in after him and he, at almost 10 lbs, came quietly into the world. I had wanted a boy and was over the moon, but I won’t lie; he was a hard baby, very colicky and he did not sleep through the night till almost a year. He and I went through a lot of wars together in the wee hours of the night. But what I remember most sweetly were the long quiet nights together, both of us wide awake, gazing into each other’s eyes and at the stars from the porch swing. Nights when he was peaceful; happy and calmed for me to just hold him. Nights when he wanted nothing more than to be carried, really needing nothing more than to know I was there for him and to satisfy his need to feel the strong support of his weight in my arms. Those were the nights where he fed on nothing more than the deep human gratification that comes with the sense that someone who loves you is nearby, and will swaddle you in warmth and safety in the storm.
As I carried him through the house on those nights, singing, rocking and just holding, those dark, dark brown eyes would peer up at me. In them I saw the depth and steadiness of a child who would quietly and solidly change the world. At times his force took my breath away, his field was so powerful. I knew this in my heart. He was and would become one of the quietest and calmest, yet strongest forces of nature I have known. He was what we folks in the south call, “an old soul.” Wise beyond his years, born with an inherent map of the world and people, and a natural moral compass that has rarely wavered. Needing nothing more in return but at times to be carried, fueling his force with that human connection.
As soon as Colton could talk, he’d reach his tiny hands upward and say, “Momma carry me.” Not in a demanding way, never tantruming about it, he just wanted to be carried. Don’t we all at times, when the world is new and uncertain? Don’t we all see things better from that perch that is the elevation we experience when someone lifts us up? Don’t we all feel less tired when carried?
Colton has never been a demanding kid; he really asks for nothing to be honest, almost to the point you are finding things to offer him. Each year Santa has to come up with his own list for Colton, as one is never made. I regularly have to make an effort to stop and be sure the attention and time is equal with he and his little sister, as he asks for so little. And even now, 17 years after week 41 of gestation, his typical response to any offer of anything new or change, is still, “I’m good.”
He’s not a doormat or milquetoast by any means; quite simply he is the opposite; sure… solid and even. Very little rocks his boat, perhaps because he has had to learn early in his young life how to keep a boat steady in a storm. Perhaps because at a very young age, he learned the difference too, between a real hurricane and the summer storms that are life.
A tremendously compassionate kid, it seems he was born understanding the complex equation of how our actions add up and provide impact on others and with an innate grasp of the delicate balance that is behavior and feeling. In the equation of A + B = C, where many kids are overly concerned with C, Colton is more apt to be wondering about A and B. Once when Colton was five he asked me a question about the stars in the sky. He said, “Mom, if there was nothing before God created Adam and Eve, does that mean there were no stars in the sky before them?
He reminds me of the quite cool Violet in the movie, The Incredibles who had as her super power of “the invisible force field.” Violet (like Colton), black hair over one eye, is a tad shy and prefers living life behind the scenes. Invisible is where she does her best work, where her super powers shine. Inside her force field, there is no gravity. The field allows her to appear seemingly out of nowhere (although she was always there) with this Pixar invented sound of “schhhoooommm.” Colton likes to be invisible at times; that is where his zone is, there, behind the scenes where I imagine he thinks his deep thoughts, observes and processes. Invisible is where he does his best work too, and his powers shine. And he like Violet, often appears out of nowhere. We go into a grocery store and Colton disappears, yet the minute we hit the door to leave, we girls giggle, because without fail, schhhoooommm, he’s right there behind us. Quite apparently, having been watching over us the whole time. Schhhoooommm.
Colton was in sixth grade, a 12 year old boy when his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. He was a kid who was just rounding third on a really rough stretch in his life, adjusting to a brand new middle school, and having just gone through a difficult adjustment to a very sudden divorce. The cancer diagnosis was made just two weeks before Christmas. And his dad had left when? Two weeks before Christmas. Santa had yet again brought this child a mother who was in an emotional heap on the floor. And home plate was moved… yet again.
When I got diagnosed, I undeniably experienced immense angst and anger at God on Colton’s behalf. I felt like this kid just couldn’t catch a break. He had so much on his plate already; it had already been loaded full of emotional stuff that he had barely digested. And then I got sick. Shit. Then I got sick. And it was heaped onto this quiet soul’s plate. Here was the one time in his life when offered more that he didn’t say, “I’m good.” He just accepted it, allowing as he once described about his class losing marbles from the marble jar, “scoop after scoop of a grown up sized hand” of yuck to be piled on his plate.
I remember thinking, “How will I ever keep this little guy’s head above water now?” I felt like I had been treading water for years already, barely keeping this little head next to me above water, and now the cosmic world was putting rocks on his head. I wondered, “How do I carry this soul through this storm and keep him afloat?” especially when I was so whooped from chemo, especially with the powerful gravity that rocks create.
For the second time in this still fresh life; a new and uncertain world came suddenly upon him. And for the second time, he couldn’t reach up and say, “Momma, carry me,” because momma was a puddle on the floor.
I just wanted the cosmos to quit picking on my kid.
When you are a single parent and this sick, you must mind the urge to parentify a kid, especially an older kid in the house. You must corral the tendency to make them an emotional partner where they should not be; or to give them too much added responsibility to carry as a result of the illness, because illness alone is well, a lot for a little kid to carry.
But with that said, I underestimated his swimming ability. Big time. I underestimated his ability to step up to the plate, even if it was chock full of yuck. Big time. I underestimated his ability to stand up to the bully that is cancer. Big time. I underestimated his ability to defy gravity. Big time. And I totally underestimated his ability to carry me.
For it was then, in those early weeks of treatment that I suddenly felt the catch of my weight on his still growing arms, as he held not one, but two heads above the water.
Colton did not like to talk about the illness. He did not ask what surgery I had, he only knew I had surgery. He did not ask how chemo was done; he just knew the chemo days and dynamics of two days after being hell. Never once did he ask if I would die, or what would happen. Colton did not want to see my bald head, ever… perhaps wisely estimating the toll of that image in his mind’s eye forever. Colton watched cancer from behind the scenes.
Despite what he did not ask to know and did not ask to see, he was not blind, nor ignorant to the cancer. He knew there was a monster in the house, the old soul in him knew it was serious; that there was a freaking four headed, fire breathing dragon in the house.
He knew that cancer wielded as one of its weapons, the ability to cut through the invisibility field; to find you and make you quite visible, spotlight visible, in spite of your preference for invisibility. At 12 your whole peer life is about finding your place in the world. The last thing you want, especially if you tend to toward the background, is to become more visible. Having your mom come to your school program in a wig with no eyebrows pretty much dissolves the invisibility field.
I remember coming down to the kitchen, very sick one afternoon in the early days of AC, when the kids had come in from school. I vividly remember him looking at me as I took his sister’s coat off, and his even voice simply saying, “Not feeling well?” I said “No,” and went back upstairs to lie down. It was what happened that afternoon and every afternoon after that day, that defined this tender heart. He thought of something to do and did it. I woke up around five to the smell of food cooking. I walked into the kitchen and there he was making teriyaki chicken, his sister at the table with her homework (assisted by him) complete. He filled in the blanks. Schhhoooommm.
Colton’s ability to almost instinctively, see a blank and fill it made it possible for me when asked what was needed by neighbors, to say, “I’m good” and mean it. I remain certain that his sister managed my illness so well because although her mom changed, her own day to day life had no gaping holes because Colton was there. Because Colton swooped in… shhhoooommm… seamlessly with A and B, she had C. Amelia was a busy, busy kid to entertain, and Colton kept her busy every afternoon. I’d hear him playing her favorite game, Pretty Pretty Princess over and over with her, doing homework with her, playing outside with her, and watching TV with her. At 12, watching a Barbie movie with your 7 year old sister while wearing the crown from the princess game is so not what you want to do. Schhhoooommm.
I look back on those days too very sweetly; and remember the gift of how he allowed me to float and rest and heal and breathe. How he kept us alive. How he formed his field around us and allowed us to hide from cancer, to be invisible to cancer so many of those days, simply by finding a way for life going on as normal.
This strong and solid force of nature provided the outer ring of care, the force field around us; giving us the ability to defy the intense gravity that is cancer.
It takes a heart that is a force of nature to make us invisible to cancer, at least for a while.
It takes an incredibly strong heart to carry others. It takes a compassionate heart to know what someone needs before they need it and an empathic heart to intuit someone’s blanks seeing what is not there, and instinctively fill them in. It takes an unselfish heart to allow visibility when you prefer invisibility; to sacrifice your invisibility to make someone else’s world normal.
It takes a wise heart to gauge how to slay a dragon on your own, and a more courageous heart still to fight that dragon alone in the kitchen, protecting your little sister while your mother is upstairs sick, poisoned by the dragon.
It takes a thoughtful heart to wonder and worry about stars in the sky, and a tender heart to assure they shine for your family.
Indeed, it takes a grand and tender heart, to absorb the heavy gravity that cancer….swaddling your family in your field and allowing them to float, weightless in the quiet of an afternoon storm.
I see you Colton.