Here at the Fred Rogers Center, we often discuss how to help families build stronger relationships, whether it’s through simple daily interactions, the use of technology, or the act of listening. However, when a personal health crisis changed my life, I had to think about what it really means to listen to your family, and in particular, your kids.
In early December, I went for a routine dental checkup where it was discovered I had a large mass in the back of my throat. Five days later my biggest fear was confirmed: cancer. Suddenly my world was turned upside down. Although I was in a fog, my biggest concern was my two daughters. Everything was happening so fast. How do I explain it and not scare them? How honest is too honest? Even though I am incredibly fortunate to have access to the greatest minds in child development, there was no time to reach out for advice. I was terrified to talk to my daughters.
So I thought about what Fred said, “Be the best parent you can be.” And “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” I needed to manage the situation, so I had to figure out how to mention it.
My daughters are 7 and 11 years old, and I knew I wanted to talk to them separately. There were three reasons for this. The first was that my conversations with them would be different, my older daughter would understand more and I had to tell her everything. The second was that it was easier for me emotionally to face them one at a time, and lastly, I wanted to give them each all the time they needed to talk it through.
I decided to wait to speak with them until I had all the information regarding my treatment plan, including side effects. But once I had that information—I froze. I remember running it through my head, multiple times, trying to be prepared, and every time not being able to get past the first sentence without crying. I just had to do it and embrace however it unfolded.
I decided to speak with my oldest first, and I can truly say I have never feared such a conversation in my life. I was so concerned I was going to say the wrong thing or simply not say anything and pretend nothing was wrong. I picked her up at the school bus stop and told her I wanted to take her out for a treat. When we sat at the cafe, I used every bit of strength in my body not to fall apart. I was looking at my amazing daughter and thinking this was not fair to her. How would I start? And then I remembered something she asked me a few weeks earlier.
At home, she often asks me to tell her a story from my past. She will sometimes give me a word, and then I tell a story around that word. In this particular instance when I asked her for a word she said, “dentist.” Little did we know at the time what a crazy dentist story I would have, just a few weeks later! I decided that this would be a great way to start this horrible conversation. I reminded her about her question, and she laughed and said, “Yes, I stumped you,” because at the time I didn’t have a good story involving a dentist. “Well,” I said, “I actually do have one now.” And I told her about my trip to the dentist and what happened afterwards. And she listened.
After I spoke, I could see the fear in her eyes, and told her I could answer any questions she had. We talked about every possible scenario during our two-hour conversation, and I listened. By the end of the conversation she looked at me and said, “You know you will be okay.” Funny, I heard that same sentence from doctors (who made it clear that my prognosis is very good), family and friends, but it was only when she said it that I believed it. With all my worries on how I was going to comfort her, in the end she was the one comforting me. When we finished talking I told her she can ask questions any time and tell anyone she wants—whatever she needs to help her through the next several months. I was there to answer, and listen.
My conversation with my seven year old was different as I had to make sure she comprehended what I was saying without scaring her. I explained I was sick and showed her the bump in my neck and told her the doctors will be fixing it, but it will take a few months. During that time I may look really sick, but that I will get well afterwards. She listened closely. As worried as I was about her possible questions and how to answer them, she said she understood, but was really worried about one thing: the possibility that I could lose my hair. To her, my hair is a big part of who I am. I forgot how often she loved putting my hair in wacky styles, and losing it, to her, was a sign of illness. It scared her, and showing the honesty that only a child can offer you, she thought I would look weird. I listened and tried to reassure her.
A few weeks later when my hair did start falling out, I decided to talk to her about what to do next. At first, we discussed having my hair cut really short, so she could see a gradual transition. She agreed, and she loved my new short hair. But, I told her, remember that this may not last long. And sadly, a week later, most of my hair was gone with the exception of a few spikes.
I sat down with her and said we needed a game plan. How do we want to deal with my crazy hair? After talking it over we decided to set up a barber shop. The eleven year old would shave one half of my head, and the seven year old would shave the other. My youngest hesitantly agreed. What if she didn’t like me bald?
My eleven year old told her I would be a cool bald dad; she was embracing the new me and bringing the little one along with her. So, the three of us went to the basement, set up a make shift barbershop and went for it. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would let my kids shave my head, but it was a magical experience for the three of us. We laughed and joked about possible hairstyles I could have with the few hairs left on my head. We also came up with possible nicknames for the new hairless me.
In the end, this will bring us closer together. It has reminded me that they are a big part of my journey—and healing—and I know I’ll get there. I also know I’m not alone. Many families are struggling with their own tragedies and challenges. We all want to protect our children and want only the best for them. I think the first step is to take the time to talk and listen. They have a lot of wisdom to share.