Submitted by Paul Tomashefsky
Shrewsbury – On December 15, 2016, our son Jonathan was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was 17 years old, and at that moment, when we heard the news from his oncologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center, it felt like all the oxygen in the room was suddenly sucked out.
As a father, I always felt proud to be able to provide for my wife and family – take care of a scraped knee, or bandage a slightly bruised finger. But hearing the words your son and cancer in the same sentence was unimaginable. You quickly go into an emotional fight or flight spiral, while trying desperately try to remain calm for your child.
This past year was an epic learning curve. My Mom died of colon cancer in 1997, and so I was very much aware of the potential treatments and side effects that Jon would have to endure. You start by telling yourself: “No way, this has got to be a false positive platelet count.” Then asking, “Why did I allow him to help spray weed killer in the garden when he was little?” Then progress to “Oh my God, our child has cancer?” Then, finally, acceptance, as you begin the journey of medical terms and therapy protocol.
The first saving grace was an email I received from a musical colleague that had been diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 12, and was now cancer-free for 30 years. He explained to me what the treatments would entail and that, yes, there would be some very physically difficult times ahead for Jon. I have always considered myself a spiritual person, but found myself bargaining with God, saying things like, “Please Lord, my son hasn’t fully lived his life yet” or “What can I do to take away the pain from my child, and transfer it to myself” – praying often for any small signs that we would get through this together as a family.
Cancer is one of those diseases that has no racial, religious, financial or gender bias. It effects everyone equally, with a vengeance. The side effects of chemotherapy and steroids can be harsh on young bodies and minds. I recall nights at 3 a.m., with Jon pleading with us, why he had to endure the pain and hallucinogenic side effects from drugs that patients have to take to kill cancer cells.
But this is a story of hope, too. One night Jonathan found solace listening to music from “Forrest Gump” by Alan Silvestri (a fellow Berklee College Graduate) who almost lost his own son to Juvenile Type 1 diabetes. Jonathan received an autographed photo and several CDs that he had composed, with a note saying: “Run, Jonathan, run. You can beat this!”
The nurses on 5 West at UMass Medical, who went out of their way to make Jon’s stay in the hospital as pleasant as it could be, are nothing short of God’s angels, and their healing touch and words are life-giving. A social worker who spent countless hours finding financial and therapeutic resources. The oncology doctors who administered spinal lumbar punctures, with humor and gentle care. Neighbors and colleagues at work showing empathy by bringing meals, gift cards for our children on Christmas and prayers of love and healing for our family. Friends of Jon, who came out to shovel our driveway, prayed for him. Our daughter Kathryn, while battling anxiety, helped serve dinner to children on the cancer ward, and did everything in her power to keep Jon happy. And my caring wife, Ann, who put her career and life on hold to stay by Jon’s side, constantly tending to his emotional and physical needs. You don’t fully respect what caretakers go through, until you experience what it’s actually like to administer to a loved one yourself. Memories of my Mom going through her battle would come rushing back often.
And then the snow and ice of winter begins to melt and thaw. Jon’s pain subsides enough to let him feel the sun on his face. His blood counts finally return to normal and he is in remission! The resilience and sheer determination of our son to get through this journey and kick cancer’s butt, was nothing short of heroic. Although he will continue to receive treatments through April of 2020, my Christmas wish has been fulfilled for a lifetime. My belief in God renewed, and support of friends, family and guardian angels that have all helped us come through this, are what truly matters in life. During his first spinal procedure, Jon awoke from his sedation, telling Ann and I that he had spoken to my parents (both deceased), and that they hugged him and told him he was going to be OK.
Paul Tomashefsky lives in Shrewsbury with his family and is a music educator in the Westborough Public Schools.