Yes, Daddy has Cancer in his Brain, Now Eat Your Dinner

Yes, Daddy has Cancer in his Brain, Now Eat Your Dinner

On Sunday, we had a few friends over to celebrate a birthday. Sort of mine, sort of somebody else’s… it can be hard to get people together with chaotic schedules and busy lives. My friend who quite nearly shares my birthday is rarely in the area- he’s either working at a research station in Antarctica, or in the Galapagos, or touring North America on a motorcycle. (He’s kind of my hero.) But we managed to get together for dinner and cake and pie and drinks for a night.

There was one guy over who my kids LOVED. I don’t know what it was about him exactly, but the twins adored him. I’d never met him before- he was a friend of a friend, that sort of thing, and he was great with the kids. Over dinner they took turns showing off for him, doing their best jokes, songs, stories. They were all looking for the best reaction, the best praise, to be thoroughly liked and appreciated by this new person. I get that. Kids are like that.Children crave validation and affection. It’s pretty simple.

In the middle of dinner, DD decided she had the perfect nugget of information to redirect his attention towards her. She leaned over, grinning, and said conspiratorially, “Daddy has cancer in his brain.”

This guy, smiling, attempted to decipher what she said. “Did you tell me your daddy has… cancer in his brain?”

He said it casually, and she grinned and nodded, incredibly aware how thoroughly she had captured every ounce of his attention. He glanced across the table at me and our eyes met for a fraction of a second. Long enough for me to give him a look that said, “Yeah, that’s right, keep it light, buddy.” And to his enormous credit, he did. He kept it light. He moved on.


Eventually we did have that talk again, the one where we talk about brain surgery and chemo and all that, but for the most part, we laughed past it. Of course DD told a new favorite adult that daddy has cancer in his brain. It’s the new exciting piece of information.

Only the thing is, it’s not. It’s not new or exciting. It’s not something I particularly want to talk about with every adult in every situation. And I know for a fact I won’t be able to mete out meaningful glances every time this happens. But my options are limited.

If I have a serious conversation with my children, explain that telling people daddy has cancer in his brain will make them scared or sad, it will tell my children that they also have a reason to be scared or sad. If I don’t, they run the risk, however low, of having another adult react to the news in a way that guarantees they will end up scared and sad.

It’s a confusing place to be in.

I am utterly exhausted by all this. By knowing what’s coming, by knowing what it means, and by refusing to acknowledge my potential wrongness. Let’s be honest, this kind of pig headed optimism can take a lot out of you. I am confident that M will be fine, that he will roll through his surgery and treatment and come out of it all stronger, better, and healthier than before in pretty much every way. But maintaining that? It’s hard. It’s really fucking hard.

It’s hard because emotional energy is still ENERGY. It is depleting and wearying to feel your heart start racing and to force it to slow and say out loud, “Yeah he has brain cancer, BUT…”

There is an intentional cognitive dissonance in deciding everything is going to be fine. And it takes work.

And I am not prepared to teach that kind of work to my five year olds.

This is so hard to explain to adults, let alone children. I look okay. I sound okay. I will tell you I am okay. And none of this is a lie. But it’s not the effortlessness of being “really” okay. It’s not waking up in the morning feeling pretty great about everything and moving forward with the business of being. It’s a daily marathon of training muscles in your jaw and shoulders to relax when they tense, of finding ways to force endorphins to fall once they rise, of telling your own thoughts they’re bullshit and they don’t deserve your attention, and then taking a breath and smiling and getting something else done.

This isn’t easy, but it’s the only alternative. And it means that when my children ask, “Is daddy having surgery right now?” I have to treat that question as mundane and misinformed as, “Is Michigan in Chicago?”

And that is also work. That is also hard.

“Daddy has cancer in his brain.”

Statements of fact I must divorce from emotion in order to function on a daily basis.

On a momentary basis.

“Daddy has cancer in his brain!”

“Sure does! And he’s going to have surgery to take it out and then he’s going to get some medicine and get better. You’re very clever. Now eat your beans and then you can run and play.”

These are things I must say, and mean, every single day.


I say them. I mean them. And I am depleted by doing so. I am exhausted by the work of positivity.

I am exhausted by the fact of positivity.

I am exhausted by smiling and saying “thank you” to every offer for help and support, by maintaining lightness in the face of the dour looks on the faces of friends and strangers, teachers and neighbors, by the endless meaningful looks I manage to convey that say all of this is true, but you must pretend you are as unconcerned as if we were talking about a cold.

But I do not have the luxury of exhaustion. I have long weeks of recovery and months of chemo and years of monitoring ahead of me. I do not have the luxury of early burnout.

So yes, daddy has cancer in his brain. And he’s going to be just fine.

Now eat your damn dinner.

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