Anything Mentionable

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.

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  • Rita Catalano / 13 February 2018 10:17

    Thinking of you and praying for you, Rick. Your amazing family and your positive attitude will get you through.

  • Jim / 13 February 2018 11:36


    Your story with your daughters was truly moving and left me in tears. Being mindful of my earlier email to you, so much of your narrative played back in my mind, what I, myself, experienced with my family during my bout with cancer forty-five years ago. Family is all. Keep them close as you already have. Without my family (being one of 13), I don’t know how I could have endured. You’re absolutely right. If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable. And your eleven year old daughter had the perfect response to your fear and concerns when she gave you that beautiful assurance, “You know you will be okay.” I echo the same sentiment. I also embrace the compassionate wisdom in her words to her younger sister, you’ll be a “cool bald dad.” Jim

  • Jeni / 13 February 2018 11:43

    Love you, Rick.
    Sending hope and peace, and prayers.
    — Jeni.

  • Michele / 13 February 2018 11:49

    What a beautifully written story about dealing with illness and sharing with your children. It sounds like you did everything right and your bond with your daughters is inspiring. It is true that our children surprise us with their wisdom and ability to understand. They are truly the greatest comfort in times of stress.

    Thank you for sharing this, it will definitely be a help to anyone going through a similar experience.

  • Julie / 14 February 2018 12:56

    This was beautifully written, Rick. It isn’t easy telling your children you are going through something like this. I was one of those children many many years ago. I wasn’t told much, wasn’t shown much, nor were my fears listened to. Had this been the approach taken by my family, I wouldn’t have struggled so much later in life. Thank you for being courageous and sharing your experience with us, and with your children, they will be stronger for it. As a former Fred Rogers Fellow, it warms my heart to know that someone like you is at the helm.
    I wish you health and happiness,
    Julie Polvinen

  • Joanne / 14 February 2018 2:37

    Thanks, Rick, for your generosity in sharing this deeply moving story – such an important part of your journey with cancer. It is inspiring, to say the very
    least! I know everyone joins me in sending
    all best wishes as your treatment continues to cure you from that horrendous disease! Cheers!

  • Chris / 14 February 2018 3:53

    Rick – I didn’t know…

    Such a warm, uplifting story. Children really are capable of so much. I’m so glad to hear that the prognosis is good. Hang in there!

    Chris Cardillo

  • Simon / 14 February 2018 9:47

    You are an inspiration – not just to your two daughters, the rest of your family but to many of us around the world who are constantly touched by your rich humanity, humility and wisdom.
    With love

  • Liz Avanzato / 14 February 2018 12:32

    You are an amazing father and you know what, you’ll be okay! Kick that cancer in the butt!!!

  • craig / 14 February 2018 7:13

    This is a great lesson and story Rick. Thanks for sharing ! How are things going for you?

  • Ed / 14 February 2018 10:25

    Thank you for sharing your story with your friends. As painful as it was to read, I found it comforting to know that you are taking care of your family as they are taking care of you. I pray for your recovery and I look forward to seeing photos of you with that thick head of hair growing with wild abandon. Bless you and your beautiful family

  • David / 20 February 2018 12:44

    Fred taught us to be real, speak with eyes and voice and to be gentle in our words with children. All these life lessons have helped me communicate with people in the most difficult situations. Keep centered and be mindful of God.

    Pastor Merritt

  • Chris Sawinski / 21 February 2018 1:13

    The sharing of your story is a gift to so many . Fred would be proud…

  • Marousse / 25 February 2018 10:42

    Rick Fernandes, thanks a lot for the post.Really thank you! Much obliged.

  • Craig Stewart / 20 April 2018 6:00

    Rick, thanks for sharing that beautiful story. You are an extraordinarily loving Dad with a beautiful family.
    Thoughts and prayers headed your way for a complete recovery. And your stories will go on…

  • Susan / 6 March 2019 11:58

    Dear Rick,
    You are so courageous to share your story. You gave other parents really tangible ideas about how to talk about difficult subjects with their children. I love the home barbershop!
    Your girls are precious.
    Wishing you good health, and continued healing!