Lessons from Jack

Jack-Big Grin

This is Jack

February 5th began as a normal Tuesday in Paris. Friends were in town. We ate lunch at our favorite restaurant. The sun shone. It was pure pleasure. That evening, I received a flurry of texts. A phone call. In an instant, everything changed. I collapsed into bed convinced that I had just lived the last happy day of my life.

Back in the US, our grandson, Jack, had had phantom leg pain for a month. On February 5th, a pediatric orthopedist had ordered an MRI scan. The scan revealed a grapefruit-sized tumor on his pelvis and innumerable tumors in his lungs.

Diagnosis: Stage four cancer

Age: Three years

If ever I was going to write what the fuck in a blog post, this would be that time.

The next day, Wednesday, we packed while a surgeon biopsied Jack’s tumor.

Thursday, I sat immobile—not eating, not watching a movie, not reading—for eight hours as we flew from Paris to Philadelphia. That evening, we received a preliminary diagnosis of germ cell tumor.

Friday, as we drove to Charlottesville, the diagnosis was confirmed.

Early Saturday morning, Jack had a port surgically installed into his neck and began chemo.

I won’t recount Jack’s journey. This is captured in a beautiful CaringBridge site that my daughter-in-law and son maintain. Jack’s cancer will not become the fodder for this blog.

But for years, I’ve written dispatches describing our far-flung homes: Bratislava, Budapest, Austin, Guatemala, Philadelphia, Berlin, Paris.

This dispatch comes to you from Cancerville. The Pediatric neighborhood. It’s where we live now.

Stay with me. It’s not as grim as you might imagine.

In Cancerville, I have learned to live in the moment. To laugh more. To cry less. As a family, we deliberately create the best experiences for Jack every day, and in doing so, we have slogged through the worst days of our lives, and cherished the best days. I was wrong that night in Paris. I had not lived my last happy day, but no one could have convinced me of that then. Then, all I saw was blackness, and terror.

I have learned to find happiness in each day courtesy of a 32-pound string-bean who has taught me how to wring joy from adversity. He has demonstrated strength beyond measure. He lives in the moment and is teaching me to do the same. He is completely fearless. His default state is joy. I teach him the mundane lessons of life: reading and numbers and colors. He teaches me its essence.

This isn’t to imply I would willingly select cancer for Jack. If I could figure out how to wring the bounty of the last six months from a cancer-free existence, I would, but that’s not the way things work here in Cancerville.

Again, I won’t hijack Jack’s story, so allow me now to turn this post back to this blog.

We gave up our apartment in Paris last month. As I turned the key for the final time, I realized that I hadn’t paused for one last glance. It was over. It had been over for some time. We stayed in Paris well beyond its expiration date because we had no where else to go. I wanted to return to the road full-time. I find a base stifling. Pat wanted a base. He finds our nomadic existence stifling.

The compromise became Paris, but inertia is almost always a destructive life force.

In May, we signed a one-year lease on a tiny, furnished apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia. Shortly after we signed the lease, Jack’s treatments moved to Philadelphia—specifically the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, or CHOP. Through the end of the year, we have an Airbnb here. It’s where I’m writing this post.

We will someday return to our nest in Charlottesville, but we won’t obsess about when. Cancerville is calling the shots now. All we can do is grab tight, and ride.

Paris has reverted to its rightful place as the most perfect spot in the world. When I’m there, I wallow in it. When I’m gone, I don’t miss it. Once again, I love it without condition but willingly accept that my life is elsewhere. It always has been.

My lack of writing has had nothing to do with Jack–at least not initially. For months, a year perhaps, Paris had become staid. In the years before, blog posts had assaulted me. On the street. In the train. A blog post would race through my head word for word from start to finish as though whispered to me by a blog genie. I would grab my phone and scribble as many phrases as I could remember. The finished product never read as well as that which flowed unbeckoned through my brain.

Then the assaults stopped, so I stopped writing.

Recently, the assaults have returned.

Philadelphia was the first capital of the United States. It is a majority minority city founded by immigrants and enhanced by an ever increasing array of new immigrants along with their culture and food. I stand outside the black baptist church on the corner near my apartment. The Italianesque campanile is clearly Catholic. The rollicking choir that I echoes down the street, is clearly not. I wonder what alchemy brought us from there to here.

I ask my Vietnamese Uber driver where I can eat the best pho. And my Iranian driver where I can eat the best Persian food. They gladly oblige.

I rue the loss of Toni Morrison in Shakespeare and Company with people who share my sorrow. (And YES! There’s a Shakespeare and Company in Philadelphia!!)

Virginia is the birthplace of the heart of the presidential batting order. Shortly before we left Charlottesville to come north, we visited James Madison’s home, Montpelier, and stood in the room where he wrote what would become the Bill of Rights.

Am I the only one who didn’t know that James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights?

The surrounding Albemarle County is a haven of every sort of organic, free-range edible. It’s where Michael Pollan went to research the farm to table movement for The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Everything I love in life exists in these two cities: history, food, diversity.

And my 32-pound sensi.

My brain has reengaged with my surroundings. The itch of the road will return, no doubt. The allure of my new home will fade. Cancerville will become, I hope, a distant memory.

But not today. Today, I’m content in this life.

Yet I’m starting to crave structure. Over the last eight years, writing has anchored me whenever I felt adrift. Perhaps it’s time to dabble once more.

In the darkest days of my life, I have found light. Happiness. Spontaneity. Purpose. And now, the blog genie has returned.



Categories: Life in Paris, Ruminations

Tags: , , , ,

33 replies

  1. Wow…this precious boy brought you back..in more ways than one….I wish you all the best to you and yours

  2. Julie, I have no words except to say that I’m praying for you all.

    Cathy Schanck Giesbrecht

  3. Loving makes us so vulnerable. Loving children and grandchildren, especially so. It is good to read how you’ve worked through the shock and horror and have caught Jack’s joyous spirit.

    And that your blog genie has returned! As a blogger, I too have experienced posts running through my brain and the need to spill them onto the screen.
    But also come inspiration droughts and the worst, thinking as I sit down to write, who cares?

    I think readers do care, as I experienced when I spilled my guts during my own cancer scare(.

    Anyway. Here’s to sending hope for manhood for that beautiful little boy.

    • You hit on something (a few things). The harsh vulnerability of love and the trade-offs within. And the ridiculousness of writing about these things.But I wouldn’t trade Jack for anyone else. And I also hope my words help someone.

  4. Heart wrenching and heart warming. Jack is a gift, and so is your writing. Sending your family our best.

  5. Julie, my heart stopped when I began to read your post. Even though I haven’t been very responsive to your previous posts, I have read every one with great interest. We share a love of France (Paris in particular) and you have been in large part responsible for my starting my own travel blog post-retirement. As a fellow grandmother, my heart goes out to you, Jack and his parents. I, and I know many others, will be with you all in spirit during this journey.

  6. Starring “Like” just doesn’t seem right – this is so raw and from the heart. Is there a symbol for “I am with you”?

    I also live in Cancerville (or Krebsbwil, in this case), as I try my best to support my husband who has advanced cancer. It is a really tough place to live, especially as expats, but each morning my husband tells me that G-d has given us another day, another sunrise and we are very. blessed. Suddenly that munane Tuesday or Wednesday becomes the most precious and special day so far. And tomorrow will be even more treasured. Please remember that you are not alone in your pain and anguish and that there are many of us out “here” to support and help when you need it. You, your family and Jack are in our prayers.
    Jacqueline Fierstein
    Basel, Switzerland

  7. It’s amazing what we learn from children. Glad you are writing again but happier that you are able to be with your String-bean.

  8. Julie – I am at a loss for words. It is amazing how much a 3 yr old can teach us. I am sure Jack adores you especially your sense of humor and the creativity you bring to his world. I think of you all so often and pray for Jack’s healing. Love, Pam

  9. I hope you know I hold you all close and think about Jack every day — even pray for him in my own struggling way. I understand where you are and I appreciate that you have shared it with us!

  10. If I can’t have you as my favorite neighbor, at least you’re back as my favorite blogueuse. I look forward to more of your writing, especially the one where Jack has sailed through treatment and is on his way to his first day of school. I think you and Pat will always be right where you need to be in the world.

  11. May Jack heal quickly and completely! I’m glad your indomitable spirit is back to carry you all when someone feels defeated. ❤️

  12. As a recent Cancerville resident, I ache for you. Your writing is beautiful as always, but it’s the picture of Jack with his port insertion scar that got me. Not the hair loss, not the protruding port itself, but that scar that he and I share in common. That was the sucker punch to my gut. I am so sorry you and your family have to walk this path, and I am so glad you are able to find light in the overwhelming darkness.

    • Oh Gina… I’m so sorry you have to go through this. I’ll keep you in my thoughts and send all the best wishes into the universe. I’m sure you have a tribe–including some members you never knew existed. All the best to you and your family.

  13. Dear Julie: As a previous visitor to Cancerville I all to well understand the necessity of living in the moment, letting those who you love know your feelings everyday and hugging often. Jack’s beautiful smile reflects his strength, confidence in knowing he is LOVED and strong will. He is blessed to have such a loving family as I am certain you feel the same for having him as your grandbaby. You are in my thoughts and prayers and I am rooting for Jack’s recovery. Be good to yourself as you continue to find the strength to be one of your family’s rocks. If you ever feel like meeting for a coffee or such, I am just in Wilmington and am a good listener. I enjoyed our other meet ups. Warmly, Ellen Goldstein

    • Hi Ellen… Sure. I’d love to see you. I’ve even told Pat that I need to explore Wilmington since our travels are a bit curtailed (that said, we are about to leave for 11 days in London/Paris… a trip we committed before all this happened). I’ll shoot you an email. Thanks for all the good wishes.

  14. Julie – I’m glad to hear from you again, but certainly saddened by the reason. I have a niece who’s son spent the majority of his early life at CHOP. They are the reason he has a life now. Your grandson couldn’t be in a better place. You and your family will be in my thoughts. I hope you keep us updated. Christy

  15. May you dance at his wedding.

  16. Oh Julie, what a beautiful post. Fresh tears from me, among the many, for this situation that your family is so beautifully battling through. I’m glad words have found you again, and that you’ll share them with us. So much of this was just perfectly written and expressive of where you are – about not taking a last look because Paris was already over, about you teaching Jack life’s mundane lessons while he teaches you its essence, about blog posts flying at you when you are inspired….The writing part that really resonated with me was how the final written text never quite captures the same music of words that flows unbidden through your head, too fast to be caught. I have written prose close to poetry in my head, but it never survives the translation of time and typing.

    When we got back from two weeks in Courtmacsherry, I sat down in my poorly lit cubicle and looked at the years ahead in that seat and the only possible escape I could think of was writing. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I *should* write more, but it is only translated into action if something inspires me, and I realize from your description of writing in Paris that routine daily life just tends to stop inspiring. Or, the words flow when I can’t capture them. I have thought about trying to find an online creative writing class, and then balk at the commitment. So I will sit with the should a bit more.

    We are always thinking of all of you, and sending love and prayers. I will be in Philly for a conference in September. I fly in mid-day on Sunday, September 8th, with the hopes I may be able to visit any/all Callahans that can. I know nothing is predictable, that Jack may not be allowed visitors, or you may all need your focus to be elsewhere. But I’ll check in as it gets closer. I have a lot of hugs ready to bust out, stored up from each time I read an update.

    I hope everyone is enjoying this bit of a break before the next big push. That kid is amazing, as are all of you.

    All our love, Kirsten ________________________________

    • Thank you Kirsten… First, I think your writing is lovely. So if you wanted to do something, I bet you could. Let’s chat about this when we see you.

      Second, everything should be here and we’d all love to see you. Jack will be in the hospital and I’m not sure what the visitation protocol will be. But we’ll sort through that.

  17. The beautiful photo totally matches what you write about Jack. It is inspiring as well as sad, and it is also wonderful to read your well-written blog and that his disease has given so much, teaching you about living in the moment and the essence of life. It seems bittersweet. I wish you, Jack and your family all the best in this journey.

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