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“Mama?” I hear his footsteps coming down the hall.

“Mama?” He calls again.

“I’m in here, baby.” I call loudly from the restroom. But there’s a wall and a door between us. 

“Mama? Mama?” He didn’t hear me. I call him again, my voice now louder—a near yell. 

“What? I’m in the bathroom, Kelly!”

“Mama?! Mama?! MAAAAAAAAA?!” He’s now frantic, pacing. Doors open and close, rooms inspected but left empty. I can’t get up; I’m using the toilet. I scream. “I’M IN THE BATHROOM IN THE BEDROOM.”

Kelly bursts in. He finally heard me. “I didn’t know where you were.” He tells me, seemingly unbothered. The last five minutes, a blur of a dream.

I look at him, puzzled. “Baby, are you okay? You sounded scared.” I’m still on the toilet.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just didn’t know where you were.” He won’t leave my side.

Annamarya Scaccia
Annamarya, Kelly, and Kevin, the kidney.

I feel guilty for having kidney cancer.

I shouldn’t, I know. It’s not as if I took out a “Wanted” ad—“Left kidney seeking chromophobe tumor, roughly 4.5 cm, to help break her out of jail.” But I see the damage cancer has wrought beyond the confines of my body. I hear the fear in my son’s tiny voice.

No one should hold shame for a disease unrequited. Yet, as I watch my cancer experience play out through my son’s eyes, I cannot help but feel culpable for his pain. I cannot help but feel a deep sense of heartache—of ignominy and misery. These emotions are illogical, of course, but no less real.

And it has been painful to watch my 6-year-old son continue to process a reality that I, as a 38-year-old woman, am still working to wrap my mind around.  Heartbreaking to explain to him, over and over, that death is not like the video games—that I will not come back to life if I leave this plane.  Awful to watch his innocence shatter into a million little pieces—to see it crack and spill as he realized I am not invincible.

I want to tell you that it has gotten better—that nearly a year into my recovery, and with three months of play therapy, my son is no longer afraid of my kidney cancer returning. “I’m brave,” he declared recently. “I’m not scared anymore, mama.” I want to tell you that I believe him. But I can’t…

Because I don’t.

My son understands the disease better today, thanks in large part to the counselor at Wonders & Worries, an Austin-based non-profit providing free counseling services to children facing a parent’s illness. Through his therapy sessions, he has been able to confront many of his fears around my kidney cancer. He likes to play hospital, his counselor has told me; he likes to pretend to heal her.

At first, he would act out chaotic scenes—running around, screaming, banging toys, like the inside of an emergency room on your favorite medical drama. But the further he progressed, the less frenzied these scenes would be. My son has learned those important coping skills to help manage the fears that still linger—squeezing stress balls, measured breathing, drawing his worries. He can now put into words what he could only once express through tears and hysteria.

But my son continues to cling to me. He still follows me room to room; he insists on settling in my space. Not as often, but more often than before October 26 of last year. If I leave the area for more than 10 minutes, he will come search for me.

He wants to make sure I am alive, he says.

This guest post is by Annamarya Scaccia, a writer, fitness expert, and kidney cancer survivor. Follow her on Instagram @stillwellfitness.

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