Dylan is six months into his cancer treatment going through the bit called “delayed intensification”. He has recently had two rounds of chemotherapy, is on two different anti sickness meds & has just started steroids. He is groaning in pain in the back of the car which I am driving to take his then seventeen year old brother to school in order for him to sit his final A/S level exam.
By the time we get to the school car park they are both in tears. Dylan is sobbing loudly & Ruari is sitting quietly in the front with tears streaming down his face.
I sit in the car with them, my boys. My mind is imploding with utter despair & I wonder what on earth I can possibly do. I want to take their pain away; the physical pain that Dylan is dealing with & the mental pain that Ruari is suffering. I want to turn the car around & take them both back home. I want to tell them that everything is ok; that it is all going to be alright, but I can’t.
My head hurts, I hold back my own tears because if they see me cry then I am only going to compound their grief.
I take a deep breath. I turn round & tell Dylan that we will be home in ten minutes & that I will carry him out of the car & hug him on the sofa as soon as we get there.
Then I turn to Ruari. I tell him that Dylan’s pain is a side effect of his treatment, that he will feel much better in a couple of days. I tell him that he is so strong, that we can get through this, that Dylan needs our strength & resilience. I tell him that I am proud of him beyond anything I can verbally express & that the fact he is even going in to sit an exam is testament to his inner determination & solid grit.
I tell him that he just needs to do what he can & then I tell them both how much I love them. I tell them that I love them with everything I have within me & that I will always do my best to make sure they are both ok.
Ruari dries his eyes, kisses me & his brother & walks off to sit Biology.
The initial discovery of Dylan’s cancer came right at the beginning of the school Christmas holidays. Ruari had left to visit his father just two days prior so was over two hundred miles away from home.
The minute I know that Dylan has cancer I realise that Ruari also needs to know. I desperately want to tell him myself & I contemplate driving down to break it to him. I know that will be impossible, Dylan has just been admitted & we are yet to have a definitive diagnosis. I am so painfully torn.
I call Ruari’s father to explain the situation & he kindly agrees to break the news to him & will get him to call me once he has. I can only imagine how that conversation will go. My anguish is indescribable.
Ruari calls me. I hear nothing on the other end of the phone but uncontrollable sobbing. Such heavy sobbing that he cannot utter a single word.
I listen for what seems like an eternity & then I speak. I tell him that I am so sorry; that I am so sorry that I could not tell him myself, that I am so sorry that his little brother is so ill, that Dylan is in the best place he could possibly be & that although we do not yet know the exact diagnosis the staff at the hospital are working furiously to get Dylan exactly what he needs. I tell him that I am glad he is with family & that if he wants to then he can call me anytime of day or night. I tell him how much I love him & that whatever happens, we will be ok. Through all of this he is still sobbing. I have to end the call, I reiterate my love for him, hang up & walk back down the long hospital corridor on the children’s oncology ward to be with Dylan.
I feel so weighed down & utterly heartbroken.
Six days after Dylan’s confirmed diagnosis Ruari comes home; when Ruari left for Christmas everything was as it should be & when he returned his world was upside down. I take him straight to the hospital. I talk animatedly to him about Dylan’s progress & about how well he is responding to treatment (in truth I know nothing). I tell him how excited Dylan is to see him. The problem is, nothing can prepare anyone to enter a children’s cancer unit especially when you are there for the first time to see your six year old little brother.
I walk him down the corridor, past small bald children pushing their IV pumps around, past children in wheelchairs, past hollow looking parents & I know exactly what is coming.
As we enter Dylan’s room Ruari breaks down.
His shoulders go & he tries to take a deep breath but the tears start to come & the sobs return. I lead him back out of the room. I hug him & tell him that it was always going to be a shock. He cries that he cannot bear to see Dylan like that & I tell him that I understand & that it’s ok. I keep talking, calmly & clearly about how well he is doing & that he now has a treatment plan, that he had been allowed off his drip the day before & actually wandered about for a bit. I explain as much as I can to try to reassure him. I cannot tell him everything simply because I know he would never get back up. He listens to me & nods, composes himself, gets back in the room & lies on the bed next to Dylan.
For the past twelve months Dylan has been in & out of hospital, often overnight for three to four nights at a time. During these periods it is rare for anybody to be home when Ruari gets back from school. I will have left him meals in the fridge that he would just need to heat up. He will have played copious amounts of rugby matches that none of us will have been able to go & watch. He will have had nobody available for parents evening at the new school he started three months before Dylan’s diagnosis. He will have had very little contact with us much before nine in the evening where one of us would leave the hospital to come & see Ruari for an hour or so & to see if he is “ok”. He will basically have had to spend much of his home life alone. When not alone he will have spent the rest of the time watching Dylan go through the nasty side effects of all the chemotherapy & steroids. He will have seen his little brother in copious amounts of pain, he will have seen him struggle to walk up or down the stairs, he will have seen him lose all of his beautiful long hair, he will have seen him vomit & he will have watched him get paler & paler. He will have had to watch us trying to cope with our very sick child. Sadly he will have had pretty much no help at all from any of us.
I can see he has had nights where he has not slept & days where he has broken down in tears with worry for Dylan. He has had days where I can see he just does not want to do anything but he knows he must.
I can see he has had many days very similar to mine.
At not one moment during this entire time has Ruari ever complained or ever asked us for anything. Through it all, he has singlehandedly kept his head above water & patiently just kept on going.
I am so lucky that he likes his new school & has a wonderful bunch of mates. I am so grateful that he is in an environment that I know he feels a part of.
I am so lucky that he has not just gone off the rails with all the dreadful stress he has had to (& continues to) endure, he has in fact done the opposite.
I have spoken to him about counselling but he flatly refuses & I understand; this is such a long waiting game.
He is a teenager, who at just seventeen was beginning to emerge from that peculiar teenage tunnel where most people over the age of forty forget they once were. Then his little brother gets diagnosed with cancer & he is forced onto one of the steepest learning curves. The teenage wall that was just beginning to come down is replaced with an altogether different wall; he needs protecting.
Ruari is 6’1”. He eats six square meals a day.
He may be a giant in stature but he is painfully sensitive & he tries so hard not to show it. He has a protective wall up around him for much of the time but you only have to scratch the surface & you will see a young man with so much emotion. He struggles to open up but when he does he cries with both happiness & sadness. He also has a quiet, incredible steely determination. I see all of these as beautiful qualities & it is this wonderful balance within his honest nature that has helped him stay together & strong whilst dealing with his brother’s cancer. Every time I apologise to him for not remembering to do something that I’ve promised he tells me not to worry & that he understands. Every single day without fail, he tells me that he loves me.
I could go on about how truly wonderful I think he is; he really is one of those genuinely good blokes.
It is all too easy to forget that the pain & stress he is going through is as real as mine. It is easy to forget because he has behaved like an absolute dream despite the fact he shares the same intense nightmare.
This was so painful to write because in between each & every line of this post, there is an indefinable agony that as a mother I cannot properly put into words. Both of my boys are hurting & I cannot fix them. All I can do is try to help them navigate their way through this dreadful indeterminate journey.
Ruari George O’Flynn is basically an unsung hero.