He was a toddler who played with plastic dinosaurs, Tonka trucks, and dirt. My eldest made me feel like an accomplished mama because whenever I reminded her not to touch the house plant, one of the few pieces of greenery I kept alive, she obeyed. “No, no,” she’d say, standing yards from the cascading ivy. He didn’t care. Not only did he knock the plant stand down, but he watched the wet soil seep into the carpet. Then he jumped on all four into the mess, even gnawing a leaf to see how it tasted. If there was a puddle on an afternoon walk, he walked through it; if there was a lone stick, he seized it; an ant hill, he crouched to observe.
Outgrow this curiosity? I hoped he’d become tame; I thrived on order, calm, and sleep. He battled sleep nearly every night. Whenever he ended up in a horizontal position with eyes closed, I felt I’d conquered city hall.
One afternoon when I thought he was sleeping, he found a self-inking stamp in my desk drawer and used it to mark his legs. When I turned the corner, a dozen blue thank-you covered his pale limbs. He gave me a sheepish grin and I transformed from what did you do to let-me-get-a-record-of-this. I grabbed my camera and laughed as he sat on the bottom stair and posed for a picture. He held no embarrassment even though all he had on was a striped blue shirt and a pair of white underpants.
“Look what I found!” My mother-in-law presented me with a gift, a short-sleeved boy’s shirt with zigzags of vibrant color. I had never heard of the brand printed on the tag: Wild Boy. She beamed. My wild boy was eager to wear the shirt. I could tell by the way he admired it and himself in it that he knew he was wildly wonderful.
On a spring morning Wild Boy was in his car seat when I noticed a bump on the side of his neck. I made him turn his head to the left and then right.
He didn’t want me fussing over him. “Let’s go play!” He wanted McDonald’s breakfast and time swimming through the fast food chain’s playland of colored plastic balls. Our local McDonald’s didn’t have a play space; we had driven across town so that he could enjoy this one. I watched him play, drank hot coffee, and swallowed worry and uncertainty.
The next day I took him to the pediatrician. She couldn’t figure out what the lump under the skin was. She prescribed amoxicillin, and when it failed to shrink the lump, a surgeon ran a hand across my son’s neck. “We’ll lance it,” he said. “Surgery will drain the fluid inside the gland.”
I bought this doctor’s confidence and surgery was scheduled.
But relief evaporated when following the operation, I received a phone call. Numbness coupled with shock caused me to stare at the light blue curtains in the family room as I heard the words, “It’s a small blue round cell tumor.” Vicious cells with the purpose to multiply and malign had taken residence inside my son’s body. “Neuroblastoma,” she said, giving a name to the cancer. But how had this happened? How could my energetic boy be sick?
Summer followed, and the pediatric ward became our home away from home. My husband, family, friends, and I entertained Wild Boy with books, videos, breakfasts from McDonald’s, and other activities that emerge to curb boredom—gluing Froot Loops to paper plates. One night after my son grew nauseous from the chemo and threw up his dinner into a pan by the bed, I wiped his face with a damp washcloth. When he whispered, “Thank you, Mommy,” I thought how even in pain he remembered not only his manners but gratitude.
There was a protocol for dealing with this cancer—more surgeries, scans, and chemo. He had a birthday party and turned four. In the autumn two weeks of radiation were scheduled because the monster within his neck needed a demolition team. But a little boy, even a wild one, has limits to what his body can withstand. The winter days turned dreary. He had lost the energy to be wild, to jump into dirt, to race his trucks, to make-believe with dinosaurs, to ponder the travel of ants.
When the light left his blue eyes and he was reduced to a still state, friends, and family told me to tell him goodbye. I begged him to stay, but he was often not one to do what I asked. When he took one last faint breath and his heart gave up, I waited for mine to stop. But I lived on because adapting and adjusting was the only path before me. I walked through every puddle, even those that felt like tidal waves.
From his bedroom, I gathered all of his cotton shirts, including two that were significant—the blue one he had worn the day he tattooed his legs and the one that held his name in the tag: Wild Boy. I boxed and mailed them to a quilt maker in Nebraska. Over the next months, she cut and stitched and worked her magic to create a treasure. Yet, after the memorial quilt arrived, I was unable to admire it. So I draped it over the back of a chair, allowing only the blue backing to show. The squares of his life held too much pain, too much heartache, because they were reminders of his absence. Until I was ready—if I was ever going to be ready—I could not reminisce with fondness.
In a support group, I found others like me who missed their child and shared their stories. The veteran grievers had maneuvered through the rocky journey of parental bereavement long enough so that they were able to focus on how their child lived instead of how their child died. I listened. I learned. At home, when I recalled the laughter my wild child and I had shared, I picked up the quilt and walked outside.
Seated under the expanded night sky, wrapped inside the soft cotton, I blinked back tears. The stars blinked, too, as I contemplated the lessons my son taught me. Sometimes houseplants topple over and self-inking stamps decorate legs. And when a broken heart gets warmed by cherished memories—priceless nuggets that nothing and no one can steal—there is gratitude. My son was gone, but, oh, what joy there was that I got to be his mama! And with a glance toward heaven, I whispered, “Thank you.”
Alice J. Wisler is an award-winning novelist whose work has appeared in The Lutheran Digest, Guideposts, The Banner, Today’s Christian Woman, and Plough. She lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband and boxer.