The building I pulled up to looked like any office complex in the US—square, gray, and boring. But this one had a feature that was unlike all the others. It had a billboard on the front with the words Whidbey Children’s Theater. I stepped out of my car. I probably had a latte in my hands. It was winter in the Pacific Northwest. The only sunshine anyone had seen in months came as a liquid in a cardboard cup. On an isolated island where restaurants opened and closed with the tourist season, drive-through espresso stands were only about two miles apart and they all thrived.
I say probably because my memories of that time are sketchy. I didn’t really pay attention to dates. Everything was in context to treatments. I walked into the theater on a day sometime after my son’s second cancer treatment ended and before his cancer returned one last time.
The theater was dark. Of course it was dark, it was a theater—black walls, black curtains, black stage floor. The lights were on, but they struggled against the darkness the way sunlight struggles too near a black hole. The kids were playing in little groups and most of the other parents were chatting to each other, holding second and third siblings. I saw my son, Vasu, pretending to be a tornado upstage. He was in his own world, not an unusual reality for him. He had always been imaginative, one of those “parallel players” that teachers talk about. You know, those kids who want to play near other children but don’t engage face-to-face very often. He took after his mother in that fashion. I myself only ever watched the other parents talking to each other, enjoying them enjoying each other’s company. Both Vasu and I had become even more introverted after his second treatment, which was not entirely a surprise. The amount of chemicals that were dumped into Vasu’s veins (chemicals that the nurses wore hazmat suits to protect themselves from) had magnified his more problematic personality traits, and nine months of quarantine had left me feeling as if I had fallen off the face of the earth. That treatment had just finished up two months earlier, and I was struggling to crawl back to reality.
I stood near the entrance for a few minutes and then stepped forward to claim my son, anticipating the tantrum that would soon ensue when I told him it was time to leave.
Everything seemed fine.
The drama teacher caught me by the arm before I got to the stage. She tugged gently and pulled me into her, leaning her face towards my ear. She said something on the lines of “I need to tell you something important.” But I wasn’t really fully listening. For one, I had already made the decision to get Vasu, which meant that I had to shift my mental gears to stop and listen to his teacher, and after nine months of sleep deprivation and fear and helplessness in the hands of the oncologists, I didn’t change gears easily. More like trying to shift on a 1940’s tractor… that had been sitting in the rain for the last 70 years. For Two, this teacher and I had not played well together since classes started four or five weeks earlier. I had been avoiding her since the second class in.
I smiled at her and nodded. That was my defense back then. Smile and nod. What else could I have learned after months of doctors telling me what to do? Smile and pretend that there isn’t a steady stream of balking and curses in the back of my mind at all times.
The drama teacher said, “Your son cussed in class today.”
She sounded like a six-year-old girl tattling to her parents.
I pretended surprise as if I didn’t know he knew such words. Not because I was trying to hide the fact that he knew, but because I was hiding the fact that I didn’t care. Vasu had loved cussing since his very first words. At two years old he came up to me, put his little hands on his hips and exhaled “OH GOT” in exasperation (he was too young to realize that he was mispronouncing “god”). He didn’t say this because there was something to be exasperated about, but because he loved the expression. He loved the feeling of cussing. He got that from his mother. I had hidden my curses in my mind for years, but cancer had given me renewed interest to let them out.
To the drama teacher I said something like, “Oh really?” with big innocent eyes. But my mind was thinking, “Oh great. How do I explain Vasu’s life?” I didn’t want to tell this person about his first year of treatment at eighteen-months-old, and how that destroyed his innocent outlook. I didn’t want to describe how my mom died of cancer two months after Vasu reached remission, and that I had spent more than two years in an agoraphobic-like state afterwards, with Vasu desperate to find ways to get me to smile. I didn’t want her to know that the reason he was bald, was because he had just finished nine months of some of the harshest treatment a human can have. I didn’t want her to know, because for the first time in a long freaking time I was living almost normal days. I was not going to ruin that by telling anyone who didn’t already know that my son was battling for his life. I wanted normal. And when you live every day knowing your child has cancer, a little rule like no cussing seems awfully trivial.
I asked, “What did he say?”
And she said, “I asked him to go up on stage and act angry. And he got up there and said “Son-of-a-bitch.”
I turned my face to hers, looking her in the eye for as long as I could handle, and said, “Oh.”
I could tell that my response had just labeled me. BAD MOM was written all over her face.
If I hadn’t spent most of Vasu’s life learning to school my thoughts, this is what would have come out of my mouth instead… “Well shit, that seems entirely appropriate to me.”
I would say that to her now. Now is after Vasu died. Now is after I ran away from everything, searching for something to live for. Now is when I know where I stand, and I have acknowledged my vulnerability as one of my strengths.
I saw this drama teacher again two years later. She blubbered and whined about how she didn’t know, and how she would have said things differently if she had, that she wouldn’t have been as hard on Vasu. I told her she wasn’t supposed to have known. I gave her a hug and a thank you because, as difficult a student as Vasu was back then, he had truly loved being on stage. He begged to go to drama class every day, despite the struggle the teacher had with his crazy, post-chemo behaviors.
But I remembered that look of judgment on her face. I remembered how simple minded this woman was that she could see no reason in this world why a child as young as Vasu would have known such words. She said as much at that last meeting two years after he died. She called me a “Liberal Mom” and “Permissive” as if she could explain me away. She still couldn’t see that some of us live a different existence. Some of us live through events where learning to cuss is not only okay, but is actually essential for survival.
Cancer is shitty. Death fucking hurts. Life can be goddamn beautiful, even after the death of a child.
I use my cuss words appropriately now.