Thursday, June 13, 2013

Out of the Mouths of Babes

"All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
When one adopts a pacifist stance toward the war on cancer the idea of telling "war stories" takes on a new dimension. From the heroic to the horrific, cancer survivors can tell stories that will melt the heart like any Mitch Albom novel, or send Steve King-like shivers down the bravest of spines. The challenge is communicating a healthy sense of respect for the trials and tribulations encountered when facing a life-altering illness, while at the same time honoring the miracle of life, even if that life includes a serious illness.

I found myself facing this challenge this past weekend during a visit with our granddaughter, Elizabeth Grace. Inquisitive like most five-year-olds, she was engaging my wife in a conversation about health and illness. This, on the heels of an in-depth discussion about the wonder that is chocolate milk. Oh to be five again. While quizzing my wife about her health history, Elizabeth asked if she had ever had chicken pox. When my wife responded yes, Elizabeth went on to ask is she had ever had cancer, because chickenpox and cancer are something you don't want to get. Kathy responded that she had not but "Grandpa did, remember?" This started an avalanche of questions that Kathy handled with grandmotherly care.

Tipped off to the conversation, I was prepared as I drove Elizabeth down to the dock for a boat ride. The questions came quickly, “How did you get cancer, how do they treat cancer, will it come back?” Then the heart wrenching, to the point, comment of, "I glad you don't have it anymore."

I learned from our brief, yet very meaningful, conversation that there is a Charlie Brown episode in which, in the words of Elizabeth, "Charlie Brown's girlfriend gets cancer and has to wear a scarf because she lost her hair." I also learned that good ol' Charlie Brown takes up for his girlfriend when other kids make fun of her bald head. This seemed like a good opening for the cancer pacifist in me to respond with some pearl of wisdom regarding how we treat others, even those that hurt us. When asked what I would have done if someone had made fun of me when I had no hair, I replied that I would confront the person the way Charlie Brown did and point out that it's not nice to make fun of other people. Elizabeth agreed, but added that if someone had said that to me she would probably "beat them up."

The conversation left me reflecting on the impact of cancer, and any serious life event, on our loved ones. I thought about how the reflex to defend, and sometimes avenge, the hurt we watch people we care about endure seems so ingrained. It's clear to me that the response of anger comes out of a loving place; which is why I understand that a pacifist's approach is not for everyone and would never suggest that anyone drop the fight instinct unless it felt right for them. It made perfect sense to me when, after counseling a recently diagnosed cancer survivor, (the American Cancer Society tells us that we become survivors on the day we receive our diagnosis) she said, "I've told my oncologist I want a better name than cancer survivor, something more along the lines of Cancer Warrior or Cancer Ninja.

So it was that I spent the rest of the day that day with my granddaughter with a huge smile on my face; picturing my little darling, Elizabeth Grace, beating down some mean-spirited bully in defense of her grandpa's bald head. Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.

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