Family gathering, Melbourne, 1996
My elder son, Daniel, was an adventurous child.
At age eight, he broke his arm in a fall from the school monkey bars. While the doctor plastered it, Dan cried inconsolably. I assured him the pain would pass. That wasn’t the issue.
“My Superman cape doesn’t work!” he wailed.
He’d worn that damn cape to school every day since we’d bought it the week before. Now, it hung limply from his shoulders, having failed to save him as he plummeted to the ground, shattering his arm, along with his confidence in his superhuman powers. But, he recovered quickly and when, just after his ninth birthday, Dan mentioned having a sore armpit, I figured it was another passing childhood hurt. On checking, I felt a plum-size lump, unyielding to my touch. Dan yelped with pain. That moment is etched in my memory. I knew our lives were about to change. I wanted to push the lump back down, along with all the terror it was about to unleash.
The chemotherapy started a week later. Dan’s hair fell out, steroids bloated him, fortnightly lumbar punctures distressed him. He struggled to walk, he was constantly ill and hospitalised regularly for minor infections that threatened his life and challenged his compromised immune system. Despite it all, he never complained. Thankfully, many months later he went into remission but shortly afterwards, he felt increasingly tired and his left leg ached. When I ran my hand down his shin, a raised area undulated under my palm.
“The tumour has a blood supply,” the oncologist said grimly after more biopsies.
It had food, nourishing itself and sending cancer into Dan’s muscles, into his lymph glands. The specialists warned that the coming rounds of chemotherapy would be brutal. We discussed survival rates. None of it good. Dan hadn’t quite turned ten when he came home from the hospital after that relapse. It was two days before Christmas. Easily the worst ever.
One night, Dan wanted to talk about the possibility that he might die. I didn’t want to have the conversation with him, but I did because he wanted to; needed to.
“I’m not saying I am going to die Mum, but in case I do…”
I was overwhelmed by his serene curiosity, his lack of fear. Afterwards, I phoned a friend who listened to me sob down the line for hours. There weren’t any words.
Another gruelling twelve months passed and Dan went into remission again. I remained hyper-alert to any change in his body, his appetite, his temperature, his mood, terrified that cancer lurked in his system, still hungry for an opportunity to destroy our embryonic hope. We hung on day-by-day. It took nearly three years to start to let myself believe he’d be okay.
It was around that time that I first heard Guy Clark song The Cape from the Dublin Blues album. The song told of an eight-year-old who ties a sack around his neck and tries to fly from the garage roof. The stuff of parental nightmares. It reminded me of Dan’s broken arm and his disappointment in his own cape’s failure. Then Clark sang, he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith, and I recalled that conversation with my young son who hadn’t been afraid to die.
A switch flipped in my head. We needed to celebrate — revel in Dan’s survival and affirm his presence. So when he turned thirteen a short while later, we had what my Jewish friends jokingly called a ‘gentile Bar Mitzvah’. A civil celebrant friend conducted a ceremony — a rite of passage in which Dan left behind the pain of his childhood and entered adolescence. We invited friends and family, feasted, took photos, hugged and as each guest handed Dan a wish they’d written for his future, we played The Cape and we cried.
His first childish cape hadn’t worked for Dan but now he’d draped himself in a metaphorical one of a different sort, one that he’d fashioned himself. He was wrapped in the certainty of his resilience and determination, perfectly captured in Clark’s lyric he did not know he could not fly, so he did. He had caught the wind’s changing direction and been carried into adulthood.
Daniel’s a strong, fit and doggedly determined man in his thirties now. He doesn’t talk much about his cancer. He doesn’t like Mum being mushy. But when he’s unaware of me, I sneak a look at him and think of that song.
Yeah, he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith,
Spread your arms and hold your breath, and always trust your cape.
Through those lyrics, I imagine him flying, his cape billowing behind.
My heart always catches in its folds.
© Lucia Nardo.
Guy Clark died on 17 May 2016. His death came after a long illness, including a 10-year struggle with lymphoma. See The New York Times