I was standing outside an MRI machine, something I’d never seen before, holding onto my son’s foot. It looked like a long, fat-walled barrel. Tristan, my 8-year-old son, was inside. We both wore earplugs because MRI machines make very loud beeps and pings. The doctor told me it was a big magnet, and that it was the safest way to look inside my son’s head. The nurse told Tristan it was a space portal from Star Wars. He didn’t believe her. Then she told him he needed to be very still and very brave, because the scan was going to take nearly an hour and a half.
Tristan had been struggling with dizzy spells for a couple months. They’d been making him throw up and miss school, and our pediatrician wasn’t sure why, so she ordered this scan. She was a slightly pudgy woman in her late 40s with a big personality and a little gray. When I asked what she was looking for with an MRI, she casually said, “A large mass in his head.” I felt a pit in my gut like I assumed most parents would when hearing information like that. I must have gone pale, or something, because she took a step back, stumbled over her words, and said, “It’s really unlikely at his age. I doubt that we will find anything. But we need to check just to be sure.”
Tristan’s head was in what looked like a plastic basket. There were cushions next to his ears and tape along his forehead that was supposed to remind him not to move during the scan. “If you move, the tape will tug at your skin,” the nurse said. Tristan nodded, his blue-green eyes a little misty. He was nervous. I could see it in the way his small hands rubbed the pockets of his charter school khaki pants and the way his right light-up shoe rubbed the top of his left.
All I could touch were his black and green sneakers, so I held them so he’d know I was there. They were scuffed from playing soccer, and kicking dirt, and crawling around on the carpet. I looked at the grass stains on his pants from recess, and his red polo that started out in the morning clean and ironed, but by 2 p.m., the time of his scan, was wrinkled and freckled with crumbs from the Happy Meal I bought him in an attempt to make this all easier. He was a little boy getting a very adult procedure, and all of it gave me a pit in my gut.
The night before the scan, Tristan came into my bedroom wearing nothing but white Skylander underwear, his body pink and soft and pudgy with baby fat. I’d been at work late that day, and while I was gone he’d lost a tooth.
He gave me a big open-mouthed grin, and I said, “I saw. Your mom sent me a photo. That’s a big gap in your mouth.”
“Is that why you snuck out of bed? To show me your mouth?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “And I wanted to give you a hug.”
He wrapped his arm around me, and I felt his soft skin, and I thought about losing him. I wondered what was going on inside his head. I wondered how I could live without my little boy, my little man, my little guy.
I didn’t want anything to happen to him. I was terrified of what this scan might show. I have to assume that most parents faced with this situation would do just like I did, consider the worst. It really doesn’t take much to get this fear going and turn a parent into a nervous wreck.
Tristan went back to his room, and I went to bed.
I hardly slept that night.
Tristan flinched as the nurse injected dye in his left arm midway. I held his hand, and he tried so hard to be strong, but the tears came anyway. Scans were redone because Tristan moved his head ever so slightly, but eventually, he was pulled from the machine, his eyes weary and wet, and all I could think about was what they found. I wondered if this would be a tipping point into surgery, or chemo, or a conversation about how long my son had to live.
We left the MRI and got ice cream. And that night, I took him swimming at the local pool. I told myself that I was doing all this because I wanted him to feel better about what he’d just gone through, but really I wanted to savor some moments with him. I tried not to expect the worst, but I did. I was truly and honestly scared that I might lose my son, so it felt good to spoil him a little.
That night I hardly slept, and the next day, I waited anxiously for the doctor to call with results from Tristan’s scan.
They came just after 3 p.m. My wife sent me a text that read, “Tristan’s scan came back normal.”
I took a deep breath and sank into my chair.
It took a few more visits for the doctor to figure out that he had abdominal migraines, which can cause stomach pain, nausea, abdominal cramping, and vomiting. She placed him on a pill to take once a day, and that was that. It all stopped.
Emotionally, this whole event really rocked me. I thought a lot about how Tristan and I have the same short slender hands and the same block-shaped feet. Both our bodies are stout, and our heads are round. He is my son. He is a little bit of me. But I don’t always think about all that. I often think about ways I could help him become better. Or I think about ways I want him to change.
But honestly, that’s just what it looks like being a parent. You want to craft your child into a strong-willed and successful adult. So we try to stamp all the irritating and inauspicious traits. But the moment you might lose one of them, all you can think about is how much they mean to you, how much you value them in your lives. And in that moment, they are everything they should be, and everything you ever wanted from a child.
Once the dust settled, and I knew that Tristan was going to be okay, I sat next to him before bed one night and said, “I really love you. I want you to know that. And I want you to know that I’m happy that you are healthy. I was really scared. You are really special. Just the way you are.”
I cried a little.
Tristan looked at me. I don’t know if he understood what I was saying, but he could tell that I was scared, an emotion he’d never seen in me. He didn’t tell me it was okay, and he didn’t tell me to be strong. In fact, he didn’t say anything. He just put out his arms and I held him for what seemed like forever.