A group of young children sat around a table in room at the Cummer Museum, each child intently working on a card.
At first glance, the scene — kids grabbing art supplies and making something to give Mom or Dad — seemed familiar and ordinary. But inside these cards, in the children’s writing, there were open-ended statements followed by responses that started to explain why they were here and why this is different.
I wish … you didn’t have cancer.
I hope … you get better.
Aidan Bethea opened his card and read the kind of blunt sentiment that comes from the mind of a 7-year-old. Adults talk about beating cancer, or finding a cure.
“I wish,” Aidan said, “that cancer was not real.”
There are all kinds of support groups for people with all kinds of cancers. But until about four years ago, there wasn’t a local support group for children whose parents had cancer. Kids Together Against Cancer was created to, as it says on the group’s website (ktacjax.com), offer “support for families dealing with a parent’s cancer journey.”
In Aidan’s case, though, it isn’t just one parent. It’s two.
His father, Marco, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1998. It was in remission when Aidan was born. When it returned several years ago, when Aidan saw his father having a seizure, he hid behind his mother.
“He knew something was wrong with his daddy,”
Valerie Bethea said. “I said, ‘OK, Lord, I need you to give me the right words so that I don’t scare him and can explain to him what is going on.’ ”
Taking Aidan to the support group meetings, she said, helped do that. She did her best to try to explain what was happening, to reassure him that it wasn’t contagious and it wasn’t his fault. But it was one thing to hear it from her and another to hear it from others, especially others in similar situations.
He took comfort in knowing that he wasn’t the only one with a parent who had cancer — and in knowing that his mother didn’t have it.
Then last March, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
‘HE WAS A TROUPER’
Valerie Bethea, 39, remembers sitting in the doctor’s office, the nurses who knew about her husband crying, a question swirling around in her head: How do I tell Aidan about this?
“I was ready for him to scream and cry and fall apart,” she said. “He was a trouper. I was the one who was falling apart. … He gave me a big hug and a kiss and kept going. That gave me strength.”
She needed every bit of it. When she began chemotherapy, she was working full time handling medical records, taking care of Aidan and then-1-year-old Aliera, getting her husband, who can’t drive, to his medical appointments and making it to her own. She did take a few months off from work last fall. And at one point, she began radiation just weeks after her husband finished his.
In the middle of all this, she and her children — including 14-year-old Elijah, a stepson who moved from New York to Florida — returned to Kids Together Against Cancer. The organization holds four five-week sessions a year. Many children attend one session and try to move on. But some want to keep coming back.
“They really bond,” said Jennifer Maggiore, who leads the program. “We’ve started doing social activities in between, because they really want to spend time together. The kids will text during the week. They’re like instant friends.”
Sitting in the gardens at the Cummer Museum, waiting to have a family picture taken as part of the final meeting of a session, Valerie Bethea laughed as she recalled getting a text earlier that day. It was from Elijah, making sure she didn’t forget about the latest gathering.
“After the first session, I asked him what he thought,” she said. “He said, ‘It’s cool.’ Of course, there are some pretty girls in there. And he liked that.”
NOT JUST ART
But it’s more than that. It has helped her children open up about what they’re dealing with. After Elijah spent time in a teenagers group, he said, “Before I came here, I was pretty much an outcast. I was always isolated. … I found other kids that have the same problems at home that I have.”
For Aidan, those problems have at times involved sleep. Valerie recalls a dream that he had. Well, what she knows about it. He came running to her, saying he had this nightmare that his dad died. He didn’t want to elaborate. But when they got to the next KTAC meeting, he and one of the social workers went outside and had a talk. When they came back in, the social worker gave Valerie a thumbs-up.
“When the session was over, she pulled me to the side and said, ‘Look, he asked me not tell you everything, but I want to tell you some of what he told me,’ ” she said. “Which was OK. I told him if he didn’t want to talk to me, talk to one of them. … I love this group. I absolutely love it.”
They make pottery and cards that are about much more than art. They talk about hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares.
Valerie Bethea says she is cancer-free. And the latest treatment for her husband has given them hope. But still, as Aidan says as he opens his card and starts explaining it, the ultimate wish is that cancer wasn’t even real.
“My dad would feel better,” he said. “And that would make me happy.”
Read more at Jacksonville.com: http://jacksonville.com/news/health-and-fitness/2013-07-06/story/first-dad-then-mom-support-group-helps-kids-cope-parents#ixzz2YSyaW5ag