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The not-so-terrible twos

Unlike everyone else, my toddler son doesn’t know I have cancer — and that’s a relief.


‘No, Da,” he said, aggressively pushing my hand away.

The terrible twos, it seemed, had come along on our family vacation. In an effort to acknowledge his growing sense of autonomy, my wife and I had been providing our toddler with options, but he met my offers in particular with a single response.

“Can I hold your hand?”

“No, Da.”

The emphasis was on “no,” but it was the “Da” that resonated.

“Do you want some juice?”

“No, Da,” he replied, clearly offended. “Mama, juice.”

“Can I change your diaper?”

“No, Da. No dipe.”

Our son is the only person in my world who doesn’t know that I’m sick, and so he doesn’t get bogged down in false pleasantries. He is totally authentic with me, and for that I’m thankful. It’s a blessing that he has no capacity to understand cancer or the anxious uncertainties that come with it.


Will I survive a second year now that I know the kidney cancer had its tentacles in my lungs all along? Will my wife and I celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary in a hospital room? Will I make it to our 10th? Seeing our son enter school would be a feat, but being there to watch him graduate is where my dreams lie. Or are they fantasies? What will happen if I die before our son is even able to remember me? Will he and his mother be OK?

These questions have invaded every corner of my mind. I can’t escape them for more than a moment at a time, even on a beautiful beach in Grand Cayman thousands of miles from our real life in Boston.

Our son doesn’t know to cherish the time we do have together, though. He’s just a little boy who right now only wants his mama. He can’t know how valuable these months may be.


So it surprised me when without cause or warning our boy decided to say yes. I had asked if he wanted to go to the pool so his mom could finish her book at the beach.

“Yes, Da. Pool.”

We walked up to the pool deck hand in hand and spent the next half hour gleefully swimming together in the shallow end. He gripped my thumbs and asked to be dragged across the surface of the water over and over again, laughing louder with each effort, and by the end I cradled him like a baby and sang to him as I danced us in circles. I gazed into his eyes, knowing that nothing could top that moment, and asked with a hint of sadness in my voice if he wanted to go back to the beach.

“Yes, Da.”

I handed him off to his mama, whom he hugged tightly with a satisfied grin. Then I walked toward the shoreline and stepped deeper and deeper into the calm surf until I was almost completely submerged. I gave in to the Caribbean’s chill and felt the numbness creep over my body, as it had when I was a boy.

Turning back toward the beach, I spotted my wife and son sitting quietly on adjacent chairs. They were waving at the boats as they passed. The surf gently swayed my body forward and back, bringing me a bit deeper with each pull. My eyes were fixed on my family, now just two tiny specks on the beach growing smaller and smaller. My toes lifted off the ocean floor, and I began to float. There were magnificent blue skies overhead, and for a moment I completely gave myself to the tide. I felt at peace; they were OK.


A faint cloud passed in front of the sun, signaling that it was time to swim back to shore. As I emerged from the water, a little voice greeted me.

“It’s Da! Hey, Da!”

“Hey! Can I sit here next to you two?”

“No, Da.”

Adam Philip Stern is a psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School. Send comments to connections@ globe.com.