“Some secrets are hidden from health,” wrote John Updike in his poem “Fever.”
I have experienced the truth of Updike’s observation. My excellent health kept me from seeing some things—things that became secrets of sort.
One relates to my son Chris, who graduates from high school on Thursday.
When I lost my health in March, I discovered something I had missed about our youngest child.
Christopher has been a scholar and athlete through high school. He has behaved responsibly, engaged in community service, expressed compassion for and passion about the weak and dispossessed. He has had an impressive peer group of serious students.
He has also pushed and punished the edges of his parent’s religious orthodoxy and praxis, probing relentlessly the why behind what the Christian community believes and does.
While I saw these things, I had missed before what I experienced while in the hospital. Early on, Christopher offered the clearest and most forceful words about my need to be positive and to fight acute leukemia. He never left the room after a visit without extracting a verbal commitment from me that I would be mentally tough and positive.
During the first week, he showed his own mental toughness, researching leukemia and learning what the odds were. He even stopped my oncologist outside the room, introduced himself and asked directly what he thought of my chances. He processed the answer without overreaction.
On many afternoons, he was in the room when the chemo-induced nausea was at its worst, and the resulting physical reaction was predictable. Yet he did not flee what became a seemingly daily occurrence. Instead he waited, encouraged and cleaned up without complaining.
He accepted and understood that I was too tired to watch him open some of his gifts in the room on his 18th birthday, an event that I sorely regret missing.
Christopher did admonish me against my choice of words the first week at home. I had shuffled back into the den from weighing myself, discovering an emaciated figure I did not know. I announced to him and my wife, “dead man walking.” I thought it was a way to lighten the obvious. He saw it as negativity and counseled against such thinking and talking.
On some days when I resisted taking my medication, Christopher formed a “good-cop-bad-cop” team with his mother. Betsy gently and patiently encouraged. He directly and forcefully insisted. He always made the logical arguments for why I needed to take some awful pills.
My health had hidden something from me; my ill-health helped me to see it.
What I saw is a mature young man, who accepted adversity and dealt with it with courage and competence. He showed a resiliency that will serve him well throughout life.
I cannot say a thankful word about ill-health. I can say a grateful word about seeing, through the darkness, a child who is maturing into adulthood and about whom I am most proud.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.