Thursday, January 26, 2012
Loss works a painful hindsight on your actions. You become acutely aware of all the actions you could have taken, but did not. With the perfect clarity of your present knowledge, unencumbered by the demands of actually acting, you suddenly become aware of all of these contingencies that in the moment you never even thought of. I find myself going over things again and again, racking my mind for something, anything that I could have done differently.
There's a thousand thoughts about how he got sick. Did I expose him to something, when I held him in my lap with my phone in my pocket, did it give him cancer? Should I have let them do the catscan when he was 4 months old? James' tumor was a random one. Some ATRTs are the product of a mutation throughout all the cells of the body, an innate flaw that lurks patiently in DNA, until tripped by some random event or another. James wasn't that. The only sick cells in his body were the tumor cells. He was perfect in every way otherwise, just as God made him. So I keep asking myself what did it? What tripped that first cell into an ATRT cancer cell, especially one like James' ATRT? A furiously aggressive tumor, even by ATRT standards, it burned through his body and killed him in less than the time he was supposed to have to recover from his craniotomy. That one illusory success we enjoyed throughout our whole stay at the hospital. This is all foolish of course. He didn't get cancer from a catscan, a phone, or something in the water- if anything that catscan helped us because we wound up having a benchmark when James first got to the hospital, so the doctors knew better than to treat him for something else. You hear nightmare stories of parents in and out of the hospital for months without an ATRT diagnosis, their children suffering. We found out in just over a week after James got sick. Nothing caused James' tumor that I or anyone else did. It just was. Somehow knowing that just doesn't help.
Then there's the guilt about when he was sick. When he first got sick I didn't really take it seriously. He's a sick baby, babies get sick. He's throwing up, what's another summer bug. I just didn't worry about it. We went to the pediatricians and I patiently waited for them to confirm my suspicions, toss some zofran our way and send us on our way. I never pushed them to do more. I never thought- hey, could this be serious? Even when we went to Medical City Children's, I remained supremely unconcerned. Here's where the first real guilt creeps in. Shouldn't we have gone to Children's? They found his tumor there. We only saw a doctor right before we left at Medical city and they barely even examined James. They just gave him fluids and got hacked when we made them stop trying to give him an IV after they screwed it the first few attempts. They had an IV team at Children's that did it in one take. I should have been more aggressive, I tell myself. I should've gone somewhere else, found the diligent and sharp intern (never believe people who tell you not to go to teaching hospitals) who first noticed James' symptoms at Children's. I should have pushed for more treatment faster. I should have made them find it, instead of sending us home with James still sick. He deserved a better father than that. Still, I remember being by and large supremely unconcerned, if annoyed by the care we received. He's throwing up, I remember thinking to myself, we'll get fluids, medicine, and life will go on. It's not like he's dying. I probably even made some stupid jokes. I don't remember.
Even on the way to Children's, stopping by the house to pick up clothes and toys for a quick one night stay I remember my worst case scenario having evolved from the weekend to that Wednesday from stomach bug to stomach parasite, as WebMD warned me. WebMD did not suggest brain cancer. Still, I assumed a night of observation would translate into a quick solution and an easy out. Just need to pick out the right med. If anything, I thought I was overpacking, with at least half his toys and about a week's worth of clothes. I remember talking to someone (can't remember who- I remember very little about that day before the hospital) at work that day about James being sick and them asking if it was serious, and my lackadaisical response of no. How could it be serious? He was an eight month old. What happens to eight month olds? My mother asked me if I wanted her to come down and I said no, he's fine. And fool that I was, I believed it. I feel so guilty about that. He must have been in so much pain and here I am, his father, brushing it off as something not that serious, a bump in the road and a one off night at the hospital. I feel so guilty about that, about how "ok" I was until the differential started narrowing. I know we caught it "early" relative to a lot of people, that we were diligent with 4 pediatrician visits and 1 ER visit in a week before getting admitted. Still, I feel like I could have done more. Should have done more.
When he was sick, there's still more guilt. Not pushing the doctors hard enough to get another MRI after his post-op MRI, contenting myself with feeble catscans and still less useful medicines. I worry about how much pain he was in, how little medicine we gave him. My poor little boy. I feel guilty about each and every night I went home to sleep. I had barely three weeks left to spend with him, and I spent more than one night away from his side. I would give anything for just one night in the PICU again, with James stubbornly refusing to sleep, pawing at his leads and his IVs. I'd kill to try to spend another night on the worst of those PICU beds, the uneven vinyl pullout with less padding than my cheapest sleeping bag, barely long enough lay down on, more comfortable your leg hanging off it. I feel so guilty about that. About the Rangers game we went to, the meals out we had. Every moment I spent away from him. I feel guilty about the end. Did I give him the right medicine? Too much? I followed the directions but what if I screwed it up? What if I made it faster.
Above all, I feel guilty about the time I missed with him while he was still here. There are so many things I wish I'd done that I thought I'd have time to later. So many experiences lost. I really don't have words for that. I could lie to you, but why bother? I know better. I assumed I'd have years to learn to be a better parent, and I just didn't get there.
I've read enough on grief to know at this point that guilt is "natural" and part of the healing process, that I'm projecting and deflecting, attempting to avoid the reality that there is no one to blame, no one to be angry at, and no one to seek satisfaction from. As always, academic understanding is useless. I know I'm not going to die on a roller coaster, but my body often disagrees. The guilt I feel about James is a bit like that. I know it won't help anything, I know it can't. I know it won't help me, but there it is, whispering in my ear reminding me of all I could have done. So I just feel it. The silly thing is that nothing I could have done would have mattered. If they'd found James' tumor that weekend, he'd still be dead. If I'd spent every night with him, he'd still be dead. Nothing I or anyone could have done would have made a difference. But I was his father, his protector- I was supposed to be able to do things like that for him. Sometimes I feel like guilt helps me remember that, helps me connect to him in an odd way. It's a link of responsibility. I miss that.
Thank all of you for your continued thoughts and prayers.