Benign, Not Harmless



In August 2007, I got a phone call that my son Robert was in the hospital for brain surgery.
__At the time, Robert was serving time in Northern California for check fraud. He went into surgery and then was induced into a coma. That week filled me with anxiety, wailing and shaking my fists at the sky in frustration. Then the nurse told me he was walking around. It took another week before I got another nurse to read the pathology report: The tumor was benign, she said. I breathed a sigh of relief. That sigh was premature.
__A benign brain tumor is a group of cells that do not follow normal cell division and growth patterns and develop into a mass of cells that do not have the appearance of a cancer. They usually grow slowly and do not spread, and they rarely develop into cancer.
__In his last letter from prison—in March 2008—he told me the tumor was growing back.
__In April 2008, Robert’s ex-girlfriend drove up to bring him home. That evening, he seemed fine—lighthearted and ready to meet all the obstacles that awaited him. He sat with me until I got him connected with his best friend. (I was in a shared living situation and he couldn’t stay with me.) He called me a few days later. “I nearly died today and went downhill from there,” he said. The conversation got even weirder—I couldn’t make too much sense of any of it, and finally the phone went dead.
__Two days later I got a call from Henry, the friend he was staying with. Henry wanted to meet me. When I showed up he told me that Robert was missing. The night before my son left, he had kept talking about everything under the sun, keeping Henry awake all night.
__I was worn out emotionally. I had a troubled son with a brain injury.
__We found Robert. He’d been picked up by the police. (He had an old traffic violation.) A jail staff member called asking about his mental stability. He was sent twice to the county hospital’s mental ward. On release, he went to a halfway house. He stayed the night and then declared, “I just can’t stay there, Mom.” He took the bus back towards my area and stopped for coffee and a phone call. He called 911 and was sent to another mental facility.
__I phoned several times and went for a visit. I learned to my dismay that he was hearing voices; he told one doctor he had being doing so since the ’80s. I recently learned on a television news feature that brain tumors can cause seizures that aren’t visible unless you are looking for them. I have also seen mild seizures described as “zoning out.” With seizures can come voices.
__During his stay at the two different facilities, it was assumed that this tumor was the result of a head injury sustained in a 2003 automobile accident. His sister recalled strange behavior earlier, during his late teens and early 20s, which might have meant an undiagnosed brain tumor.
__Robert finally got to where he was halfway functioning. He had headaches every day and trouble with his eyes, but no more mental outages. Time marched on with his recovery. He was making plans for his future. He moved a couple of times. He applied, got turned down for social security disability, and finally got an attorney to work on his appeal.
__Robert spent a good deal of his adult life in a casino. Playing poker requires staying up at night. This put him in a conundrum regarding his medication. He needed anti-seizure meds, but they made him drowsy, so he pushed the envelope and skipped them. Sometimes it worked and other times I got phone calls that he had been hospitalized for another seizure. Another little bit of me died.
__The one positive note during this period was Robert going to college. He took a couple of English classes and came to me for homework help. One day, he was upstairs and yelled, “Will you come up here and get this file back?” That was not something that he would have done pre-tumor.
__One afternoon he came over and wanted a glass of iced tea. I went upstairs while he mixed it. The next day the tea canister was nowhere to be found. I called and he had no idea where he’d put it.
__Two months before the end, I had to move, and he dropped what he was doing to help.
__We met two more times, and then I got “the call” on August 15, 2009. It was his girlfriend, and I worried that Robert had gotten into trouble again.
__“Robert died,” were her first words. My heart stood still. Pushing the envelope this time cost him his life.
Every day that goes by, I think of how I should have been looking out for Robert in his early childhood with his behavior patterns. Maybe, as I remember Robert and tell my story, I can help others with the time I have left. [bw]

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