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  • Writer's pictureStacie Eirich

Stumbling to Love



Photo above by Tim Gainey, available on pixels.com


I.


Gone is the little boy 

who would rush to me with smiles 

and laughter, who snuggled into my lap 

for stories and always asked for another song. 

 

Gone is the elementary school boy 

who flew down the soccer field

elated to pass the ball 

to his teammate. 

 

Gone is the middle school boy 

who requested Harry Potter nights, showed me tricks 

on his skateboard and jumped endlessly 

on the trampoline. 

 

Here beside me is a junior high boy 

on the cusp of high school and manhood — a boy 

who wants to be both boy and man, 

both teen and child at the same time. 

 

Here beside me is the son 

I spent 12 months missing 

as his arms and legs and chest and hair grew, the son 

who now stands taller and speaks louder, hugs harder. 

 

I see him holding so much in, fighting 

against crying until it spills out in gasps. 

He wipes it away, hides his face 

shuts the door to his room. 

 

I watch him stand in a spot of sunshine 

in the yard, turning a rubix cube around and around. 

I call out but he tells me this is where he goes, what he does 

when he wants space, when he wants silence. 

 

I nod and gently close the back door, watching him quietly 

through the shades. He turns slowly in the sunlight 

hair hanging over his forehead, disheveled 

and darker brown than before. 

 

His shadow in the grass is sturdy, outlined with girth 

and muscle that wasn’t there a year ago. I see the small boy 

in my memory on the soccer field, chasing and kicking 

and passing with ease — 


II.

 

I remember how he played on the grass 

at St. Jude’s Target House over the summer, with a group of younger boys 

from Ukraine and Mexico, siblings of other young patients 

in treatment, patients who were also living there. 

 

As I walked the path around the green space, I heard a tangle of voices 

in Ukrainian, Spanish and English — my son’s among them, leading the plays 

as the eldest, most experienced player on their small, makeshift field 

with one net and a borrowed ball. 

 

I remember how quiet he was 

as he finished his meal upstairs, quickly asking 

to go downstairs and find the boys 

to play afterwards — before darkness fell. 

 

I remember the hush of the evening 

as the sun slipped, the lights around the house 

clicking on, the boys 

still playing at dusk. 

 

I remember how he looked up and saw me walking, his hopeful look 

as he asked if he could keep playing, how I told him 

yes, circled around and watched how he and these boys 

who couldn’t understand each other’s languages played. 

 

I remember how they rushed and kicked 

and laughed and whooped, voices ringing out 

in a tangle of linguistic exclamations 

as they played. 

 

And played. And played —

until a father and a mother’s voice, 

one in Ukrainian, one Spanish

called them inside. 

 

I remember the trail of dirt from my son’s shoes 

in our room that night, and 

how it felt afterwards to sit beside him — 

my son who seemed still a boy and yet no longer a boy. 

 

My son who could reach beyond language 

not only to play a game, but to spend time outside when he knew 

it was what he needed, that it was what his sibling needed 

that it was what I needed. 

 

My son who knows what it is to be without his mother 

who knows what it is to have his needs and desires 

seem to melt into the background 

while life focuses on another. 

 

My son who is no longer a boy, not yet a man — 

the teenager I am learning to know all over again, the teenager 

I am stumbling to love in what ways I can, stumbling to acquaint myself with 

across the miles of this room. 


Copyright @Stacie Eirich, January 29, 2024.

 

 

Last night I noticed my son’s sadness, noticed how he quieted when I sat beside him, eyes downcast. I didn’t know if he wanted me there or if he was ready for me to leave the room. I wondered if he would close his eyes and sleep when I left, or if he would lie awake and think.


I thought of how long he has been alone with his thoughts, of the many nights he has stayed up watching endless YouTube videos and playing countless Rocket League matches, his only company a gaming friend’s voice on a headset or background electronica, or his own thoughts. I realized I know so little of his thoughts, I know so little of how he felt in the last 15 months of transition from what was our family’s life then to what is our family’s life now.

 

I’ve had a poem brewing inside me about my son for months; I’ve spent so much time thinking of him, watching him when I did get to see him — but finding it hard to really see what was going on behind his eyes and connect with him. In 12 months of living mostly away from him while his sibling went through brain surgeries, rehabilitation and cancer treatments, he turned 13, completed seventh grade and his final season of soccer, then started eighth grade. 

 

On the outside, he’s the kid who still showed up for class, made straight As, and made significant plays on the field. But everyone around him noticed how he not only changed dramatically physically — gaining over four inches in height and a few shoe sizes — but also how quiet he became. He took on more responsibilities at home because he had to. He was shuffled between caregivers, and was the only kid in the house for the first time because it was necessary. 

 

As an only child, I know what it’s like to have always been the only one there to take care of your things and help with chores, and to have to learn how to be comfortable with being alone if your friends or parents aren’t available. For my son, this was all new — and the changes happened immediately, just a couple short days before he officially turned into a teenager. 

 

It seems appropriate, then, to say that his whole world — both inner and outer — changed in the 12 months of his 13th year. The only thing that remained the same was that he remained living at home, except for the few times he either had to stay with others or was able to come visit us in the hospital and housing at St. Jude. These times were few because of his school and soccer schedule, as well as how much of a risk it was to have him near his immunocompromised sibling. 

 

There were times when he begged to have me come home, or begged to come see us. There were also times when he didn’t want to come to Memphis but we had no alternative for him, times when he would repeat to me “I just wish you were home.” In that phrase I also heard what he wasn’t saying: that he wanted things to be “back to normal,” as they had been before his sibling’s diagnosis. 

 

It’s what we all wanted, but the only thing we couldn’t have. Even now, 15 months later — it is a “new normal” we step into, a way of life forever changed, just as we are forever changed.


The truth is that he would’ve changed dramatically even without his sibling’s diagnosis, growing over four inches, gaining weight and hair and all the emotions of a teenager. Odds are he still would’ve gotten more interested in video games and still chosen to leave his soccer days behind him at the end of the season. 

 

But it’s also true that my son has become a different teenager than he would’ve been without living through the upheaval of our family’s last 15 months. And he’s going to navigate the rest of his youth, and adult life, differently than he would’ve if he wasn’t the sibling of a brain cancer survivor. 

 

My son will always be aware of things his friends aren’t, and know acutely what it means to face the possibility of losing a sibling you don’t know life without. A sibling who seems both different than and the same as before, someone who he is learning to know again — just as we are all stumbling to love each other every moment of every day, aware that though every moment we are given with each other may be challenging — every moment is also infinitely precious. 

 

Thank you for being here, for reading, for supporting my family and the arts. Writing poems, sharing them and the thoughts that come with them is a process of healing for me as we navigate life after our child’s cancer. I’m grateful to have time in which to write, and breath in which to share.


To listen to the audio of this poem and thoughts afterwards, visit my podcast website, Poetry for Peace, Season 4: A New Dawn — to find it on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Google & more.


In love ,

Stacie


*Post Script* My child is a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  If you’d like to follow our journey to a cure, visit: https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/hopeforsadie

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