My wife and I often share an affectionate joke that our young son seems to be a ‘scaredy cat’.
It’s born of the fact that he seems to be afraid of much of the world around him – afraid of the dark, afraid of riding his bike without stabilisers, afraid of trying anything new. Afraid of the richness of his own imagination and the possibilities it creates.
As parents we always strive to meet these challenges with love, good humour and support. Reassuring and gently nudging him in the right direction while reminding him that we are always there in the background.
One of the manifestations of this fear has been an unwillingness to participate in any extra-curricular activities, to join any of the classes that could broaden his social base and strengthen his confidence.
But recently we had a breakthrough when mummy introduced him to a martial arts class which he loves. Now most days begin with him asking if it’s the day for ‘ninja school’.
Like all seemingly insurmountable problems, you succeed by chipping away at it a little day by day.
Some months back we noticed a small lump on the back of his neck, like a wound that hadn’t healed properly.
We monitored it for a couple of weeks but the condition seemed to be worsening, rather than improving. It was often bloody and looked painful, although he assured us it was not.
Eventually we took him to the doctor. The GP wasn’t sure and referred my son to a specialist. The consultant identified the lump as a granuloma. We were told that while the benign growth was not serious, it would need to be surgically removed and tested.
And so this week we arrived at the children’s hospital for the scheduled appointment. The doctor who was due to carry out the tiny surgery was kind and full of empathy. He was also, it seemed, a little surprised by a referral for a procedure to be carried out under local anaesthetic on a child who was only five years old. He told us that a general anaesthetic would be more normal for someone as young as our son. The logic being, presumably, that you’re not quite sure how such a young boy would react to being awake while something is being cut off his body.
At one point the doctor disappeared briefly to talk to one of his colleagues. The discussion, I later surmised, was him raising the possibility that he might need some assistance because of the age of our son.
Then he told us about the small risks involved and my wife signed the consent forms. My son had been quiet up to this point. I put this down to some natural fear on his part.
We were then taken to another room and my son was asked to sit on a bed. I had brought along my iPad to distract him and he played happily on it while the operation began.
I watched as the doctor twice inserted a needle, containing anaesthetic, into my son’s neck. He didn’t make a sound but I noticed a little tightening of his features. But when my wife and I asked him if it was sore he simply smiled.
‘It’s ok mummy and daddy, it doesn’t hurt at all.’
He continued playing his game while the doctor worked at the back of his neck with a scalpel, first cutting off the growth and then scraping away several further layers of skin to make sure the whole object was removed.
Undoubtedly the anaesthetic had deadened most of the pain but, it might be assumed, the very process of feeling a knife cut into your neck may be enough to cause alarm and fear. My son didn’t move or demonstrate the slightest hint of worry.
At this point the other consultant, the one the first doctor had spoken to about requiring assistance, entered the room to ask if any help was needed. Our doctor simply smiled and pointed to my son.
‘Look at him, he’s incredible. We’re just fine here.’
Finally the wound had to be cauterised so a glowing stick was held against my son’s neck to seal the wound with burning heat. Again he didn’t move a muscle.
Afterwards the nurses and doctor was effusive in their praise for our little boy. The doctor then told us he was the youngest child he had ever carried out such an operation on using local anaesthetic. He said we were lucky to have such a brave son.
Then we went to buy a toy and get a McDonald’s. As my son munched chips and played with his new action figures I kept asking him how come he wasn’t afraid? He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to the Happy Meal.
Later that night both my wife and I were exhausted because we had exerted so much mental energy on the day. There was the small worry about the operation but a much greater worry about about how our son would cope with the operation. As it turned out, he was the only one who was not a scaredy cat.
As I lay unable to sleep in bed that night I tried to make sense of it all. How could this be the same boy who howls in fear when mummy goes to cut his toenails? Had he merely been putting on a brave face or was he genuinely immune to any concern about having a knife inserted into his neck? I’ll probably never know for sure.
What is clear though is that courage can be measured in many different ways. No doubt there will be further occasions when my son scares himself by inventing one of his spooky stories or when he sees a spider.
But when it really mattered he was the bravest of us all.