The PhaseJanuary 23rd, 2010 at 14:37
I (who generally never got sick) developed a high fever at the birthday party for one of Emma’s friends and the next day went to the hospital and was diagnosed with a ruptured appendix. It could have been much worse than it was, because my body had managed to create an abscess around the rupture, saving me from possible serious infection and the need for emergency abdominal surgery. Instead, my doctor drained the abscess and had me spend the next three days in the hospital getting intravenous antibiotics while my body recovered. I could have my appendix removed more routinely a couple months later once I had fully recovered.
We had a big family trip planned to go with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles to Colorado for several weeks of vacation. My doctor cleared me to go but said I would have to take it easy, including taking naps every afternoon. For the first time in their lives, their previously (seemingly) indestructible dad was having a significant health issue. I assured them that I would recover completely and be fine, but kids sometimes don’t process the present and future the same way as adults. In August I finally had my appendix out with a very routine procedure and our world returned to normal, at least for a few months.
In early December Sally was diagnosed with breast cancer. She and I discussed whether to tell the kids immediately or wait until we knew more about her prognosis. We quickly decided on the former, which felt more honest to us than trying to keep a dark secret from them, and acknowledged that our kids were capable of rising to a very difficult occasion.
So Sally and I sat Emma and her brother down and shared that their mom had a malignant tumor in her left breast. We told Emma and her brother that though their mom had this very serious condition, she was going to do everything possible to get better. I’m sure our kids felt our extreme stress because, pending Sally’s surgery and subsequent pathology analysis, we did not know in fact if Sally’s tumor had metastasized to other parts of her body, making her prognosis for survival more problematic. We did not tell Emma and her brother of this possibility, but we feared it quietly in our own hearts, and kids have a way of picking up on that sort of thing, even if only sub-consciously.
After surgery and the subsequent analysis, Sally was diagnosed with Stage 1 (best statistical prognosis for recovery relative to higher stages) breast cancer and would undergo six months of chemotherapy. We gratefully shared this relatively good news with the kids. To our adult minds with our understanding of medical matters these results were a great relief, Sally was not in imminent danger of death, and after six months of chemo, which we knew would take a toll on her body in the short run, she was most likely to have a complete recovery.
I don’t think Emma and her brother could process it so rationally (despite our assurances that their mom would get better) as they watched from February to June, while their mom had her treatment, lost much of her hair, and generally grew pale and frail. But Emma seemed to do pretty well during this whole period, better than we expected even. Looking back we feel that the family-like atmosphere of her small pre-school (with kindergarten and early elementary as well) which Emma was still attending during her mom’s chemo, contributed a lot to Emma being able to move along with her daily life.
When Emma’s second grade year ended in June, she continued with the same adult staff and many of her classmates for their summer camp, but the school was not planning to offer a third grade class. So our plan (which Emma was well aware of) was to have her transition from her small, friendly little school to a regular (much larger) public elementary school in the fall.
In early July of 1997, around the time her mom was finishing her chemo, Emma’s brother Eric had appendicitis himself and had to spend a night in the hospital. His was not ruptured like mine, but still a traumatic event, and now every other member of her immediate family had had a significant health issue. So it may have occurred to her, was something going to happen to me?
Her new school was in our neighborhood and just a short walk from our house, but it turned out to be a difficult year for Emma and the rest of her classmates. Their initial teacher seemed uncomfortable with her group, which included some very difficult kids, and left the school after a couple months (returning to the Midwest, from where she had recently moved). For the remaining seven months of the school year, the class had a series of two emergency-credentialed teachers, and then another fully credentialed one, none of whom having much success with the class based on Emma’s reports and our own observations.
Sally and I did our best to support Emma through this difficult year, listening to her reports and concerns, always giving her lots of love and encouragement while acknowledging that her new school was a really big change for her. As we approached the end of the school year, we felt a sense of relief that Emma had made the transition successfully, would be back to her familiar old school for summer camp, and would certainly have a better school year at the new school in the fall ahead.
I recall it was late that spring when Emma first balked at spending the night at her best friend’s house, a place she had previously spent the night at several times, with no problem. Then she refused to go on a retreat organized by her Brownie group that she had previously been excited about attending. I recall she would not even spend the night at her grandparent’s house. A full-blown separation anxiety had emerged.
Emma’s separation anxiety continued throughout the summer of 1997, with her unwilling to pretty much go anywhere except to summer day camp at her Buonora Child Development Center or with her mom and/or dad it tow. She wasn’t willing to spend time at friends’ houses or even at her grandparents, who lived across town, had seen her regularly all her life and loved her dearly.
We tried to continue to give our daughter lots of love and support and encouragement to share with us her feelings. But something in Emma’s nature made this whole experience additionally problematic for her. She had always been shy, and particularly uncomfortable with having attention focused on her when she was not at her best. I can recall that even when she was a toddler and she stumbled, fell and say scraped a knee that she got mad if everyone looked at her while she was hurt and crying.
So “The Phase” continued into the fall when Emma returned to her public school for fourth grade. She became extremely distraught every morning when I tried to kiss her goodbye after walking her to school. She insisted that I stay for 20 or 30 minutes before she would finally let me go and join in with class activities. We found a therapist who met with Emma once a week and tried to help her work through her issues.
Besides the therapy, and the general understanding and support from the adults in her life, what also seemed to help get Emma through this period was starting to identify this whole separation anxiety thing as a phase that Emma was going through now but would come out the other end of eventually. Sally, Emma and I would discuss “The Phase” as if it were some separate entity currently rooming of sorts with her. So at times when Emma was feeling uncomfortable doing something, she would tell us, followed by saying that “it’s probably The Phase”.
Finally, between the therapy, the love and support of her mom and dad and the rest of her extended family, and her own developmental process, we worked out with her therapist to let her go “cold turkey”, and start her school day after a quick kiss and a hug. Her self-confidence gradually returned, and I recall by the winter break she was again able to spend the night at her grandparents’ or friends’ houses and was comfortable being at her big public school on her own. Her mom and dad had no further health crises and life seemed back in balance. Emma continued to wrestle with her shyness, but charted a path forward (perhaps to address that issue) focusing on bringing a more positive attention on herself by doing well on all her schoolwork and the resulting kudos from her teachers.
It continued to be important to Emma during the next couple years to be judged well by the adults in her world, and particularly her teachers (who in a conventional school are so much about constantly passing judgment on their students through their attendance and school work). Emma seemed to get totally focused on cranking out her required school work (on her own without any help from her mom and I), so much so that I became concerned that she was becoming too much of a “trained seal”, just doing all the tricks that the adults in her life wanted her to do. But that’s another story.
It continued to be a topic of family discussion and reminiscence for years about the events of 1996 through 1998, including “The Phase”. In retrospect, perhaps the whole thing can be framed as Emma just doing the best she could, given her nature and her limited experience, to be acknowledged and get through a very difficult period.
Posted by Cooper Zale, in Context