Seven years ago I found myself in a Shands hospital room struggling to wrap my head and heart around the words, “Your son has cancer.”
The struggle had begun just days before our hospital arrival. As I stood in the driveway, I took a call from our pediatrician. The x-ray of what had seemed a simple bump on the leg after a bike fall was likely more ominous–a tumor.
Clichés can become so very real when you hear the worst of news. I felt my world turning upside down there in that driveway. Somehow I gathered myself to go back inside and tell Marshal that tomorrow we would be going to a hospital two hours away. What could I say without explaining the reasons, the fears, the awful likelihood? Cancer. I wasn’t sure that he even knew what cancer was or how much he had heard about it…because he was just now mine, adopted less than a year before. All his childhood knowledge and history was uncharted water on the map of his past I was still learning to read.
Marshal and I had barely begun learning the language of family. Now we would learn a whole new world of words, routines, and scary things we would face together. We had not asked for anything but the chance to become family and start anew. Now we would build upon bonds barely fastened–hoping they would become strong enough for this.
From late April to May, everything was a blur. I had no feel for the calendar of days. We had become a “cancer family” and were hospital regulars before either of us knew it. A friend and former student of mine with young kids of her own encouraged me to start an online journal on a site called Caringbridge to update family and friends. I knew I would want to do more than just update. This journey would be one to share, to document, and to learn from.
I struggled with what to call it. “Marshal’s Story”? “Marshal’s Mission”? I sensed that this road would be a long and challenging one, so I needed something unique. At some point, I ran the question by Marshal.
He calmly suggested that I should name it “Marshal’s Party.”
What the heck–a party? How could a life with cancer ever be a party? Was he serious, or was it just playful small-talk from the mouth of a naive child? How could anyone mistake four years in and out of hospitals and treatment for anything remotely resembling a party? But Marshal said that to call it a party would challenge us to find laughter. It would remind us to keep smiling and loving each other, welcoming others continually into our little party of two. It would help us live in the present moment, because that’s where the party was after all.
He had convinced me. We went with the name.
Weeks after receiving that worst of news in the driveway, I wrote my first entry on May 27, 2014. I started simply, “…and so it begins.” I described how we were right where we needed to be, together. We didn’t like parts of being a cancer family. In fact we liked little of it, but we were already getting better at it.
For four years we were blessed with all sorts of visits at home and in hospitals. Friends, family, volunteers, doctors, nurses, child life specialists, Arts in Medicine staff, and so many more became our new family, important guests to the party. He had gone from being a child tossed around and confused by countless changing faces to a young man curious about people and able to see the good in them. And always, art and creativity would be at the very heart of the pARTy for four years, until Marshal’s death in May of 2018.
As I live my days without Marshal, I try to find ways to carry on his legacy, his enthusiasm for creativity and cherished time with people. When I feel empty and alone, I think of how, through all his struggles, he never stopped forming friendships, building things, making connections, and celebrating the moment at hand. Neither will I. I am learning to make more from ordinary days and circumstances. He did it so naturally, hosting the party of his life, extending an open invitation to us all. I will continue to share his story, and I hope you feel invited and inspired to celebrate, too.
Betsy Fisher is a mother, writer, and champion of Arts in Medicine. During her time as a caregiver to her son, Marshal, she wrote from her point of view about Marshal’s experiences in a healthcare setting where the arts and healthcare often intersected. This collection is based on her journal entries.
Special thanks to AIM writer in residence Andrew Hix for serving as blog editor for this collection.
Read more by Betsy: Artist’s Journals