The Trouble with Silence

He crossed his arms and sulked, then threw back his head and exhaled a sigh brimming with contempt. I shot a look in the rearview mirror. Silence thickened the mood, adding drama to an already tense morning. Jordan ignored it and returned to her singing.

“Those blue eyes are going to get you in trouble. I fell in love with those eyes…”

She inflected her verse with a flavor of Billie Holiday, improvising the lyrics to Them There Eyes. She ignored her brother, choosing to scat while our car weaved along Interstate 5 en route to Children’s Hospital. A new chapter in the journey is about to unfold, but the leading characters are not who you think.

My son is blessed with many gifts. He is smart, creative and thirsty for knowledge. He devours new subjects and immerses himself in sometimes obscure projects. But one of his greatest gifts is his perception. When not completely self-involved, he is keenly capable of sensing how people feel, and he is usually quite good at saying just the right thing. Two years ago, at my sister Kelly’s birthday party, friends and family took turns saying something memorable about the birthday girl. Most of the stories were witty anecdotes designed to rib. When it was Lucas’ turn, he smiled at his aunt and said, “What can I say about Kelly. Well … she’s beautiful. And I love her.” Every female in the room swooned and dabbed at their eyes.

So it has been unsettling to witness Lucas’ behavior these past few days. He seems to be out of touch with his gift. He is often rude, selfish and insensitive to the tension that lingers in our household. I dismiss most of the behavior because deep down, I know that he is hurting. I realize that he is attempting to be strong. He has bottled up his fear and his anxiety, and the pressure is smoldering out in an unwelcome form of defensive self-preservation.

We are all unlike ourselves these days. We bend and stretch to eccentric differences in personality far more than we normally would. Our family is healing. The wounds have scabbed, but the sensitivity remains. But Lucas’ behavior is disruptive to the healing proceess. It was at its worst today.

It was our first trip back to CHLA since Jordan was discharged last week. The oncology team would examine her and consult with Jeanette and I on the changes in the chemotherapy protocol. We dreaded the conversation, for we knew that it would force us to accept the realities of cancer treatment. She will probably get sick. She is likely to lose her hair. She may need blood transfusions when her body’s immune system is compromised by the destructive effectiveness of the new drugs. It started today – we had to face facts and prepare ourselves for a long fight.

Jordan was animated. To a casual observer, it would be easy to surmise that she was unaware of what lay ahead. But we knew the real story. She was too chatty. She was too wistful. Her attention drifted too often. She was nervous. She knew that being a cancer patient was about to take on a new meaning. It scared her and created restless energy she had to expel. For her, that meant singing.

Lucas was annoyed that he had to go to the hospital with us. He wanted to stay with a friend. Knowing that Jordan would start her chemotherapy the next day, a process that takes several hours, we reasoned that it was better to situate him elsewhere tomorrow and keep him with us today. He did not appreciate the logic. He whined and nagged all morning long. By the time we dragged him down to the car we were twenty minutes behind schedule and our nerves were frayed.

Looking back at him on the drive, anger welled inside me. Where was my bouyant, sensitive young man? How could he behave this way today?

Then, he surprised me again. He started chastising his sister. He barked at her to stop her singing. When she wouldn’t, he ordered me to turn the radio on. Not wishing to capitulate to a bossy child, nor to stop Jordan from singing, I refused. He groaned and sighed with a great sense of exasperation. I bit my tongue. Jordan continued her song. Her nervous energy needed to stay in motion, and truthfully, I enjoyed hearing her sing. But Lucas hated it.


I snapped.


My response escaped so quickly I had no time to consider how strongly it would come across. I never tell my children to shut up. I rarely yell at them. They are precious to me, and I’ve never wanted to groom them by way of intimidation. But I had never before been so angry with my son. My mind was racing with harsh logic I wished to crush him with. I held it back. My outburst proved effective. The car was silent. Lucas’ eyes were wet as he looked away, out the window toward the passing streets.

I pulled the car into the hospital driveway. Lucas started to exit the car with the girls, but I told him to stay. They headed in while we went to park. For a few minutes, we drove silently. I chose my words carefully, slowly articulating with measured emotion.

“Lucas, I would never let anyone talk to my children the way you just spoke to your sister. I am disappointed in you. On a day when she is very nervous you chose to bully her.”

He wailed from the backseat, tears streaming down his face. The outburst was sudden and full of hysterics. I continued on, working up steam.

“You are sending the distinct impression that you aren’t happy with this family. You show us your displeasure every chance you get. Perhaps you would prefer to live somewhere else – somewhere that won’t burden you so heavily. Even though I think you are really just as afraid as the rest of us, you’ve chosen not to talk about it, and I’ve respected that decision. But, I’ll be damned if I let you take it out on your sister. Do you have any idea how scared she is? How would you feel if you were in her shoes?”

He let out a gutteral cry and sobbed. I realized it was the first time he had cried in front of me since Jordan was hospitalized. I suspected that all of his pent up emotions were now pouring out. I knew my words were harsh. I wanted to hold him and coax him to talk, but this was a lesson he needed to learn, and I didn’t want to send mixed signals.

We sat in the car for a few minutes. Then we got out and headed toward the oncology ward. Lucas joined Jordan in the play room while Nettie and I met with the doctor. We faced the harsh reality of intravenous chemotherapy better than I expected. Perhaps it was because we knew what was coming. Dr. Jabron was patient and supportive. It was somehow comforting to hear a doctor speak so frankly – to talk of “the disease” and discuss the side-effects of treatment. When it was done, my mind was blank. Only the gravity of my interaction with Lucas remained.

Later that day, he revisited the subject. Jordan was napping, so Jeanette and I sat him down and talked. The silence that had plagued our house lifted. We were more open with Lucas than we had ever been. We told him what the doctors had told us: this would be a 15-month treatment that would be very hard on Jordan’s body. We told him how we felt about him: that we loved him very much, but were disappointed that he seemed so unhappy. We encouraged him to talk about how he felt – to ask questions, to address the awkward observations, and to cry. When the talk was done, I looked over at him, slouched on the sofa. His eyes were pink and he looked uncertain of what to do next. I grabbed him by the forearm and pulled him close. He clutched me round the waist and cried for several minutes while I gently stroked his wild platinum hair.

It was not a problem easily solved. I have no idea whether it is solved at all. It wasn’t about me being right and him being wrong, It was about keeping the family together. Lucas is at that age where autonomy grows in importance. But we need him now. At nine years old, I’m sure there will be many more tense discussions between us. But for this moment, we were reconnected. I wanted him to perceive again. I wanted him to be strong for Jordan. I learned that I needed to be stronger for him.

He apologized later that night … and hugged his sister before turning in for bed.