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I apologize in advance if this one is disturbing for you, but I feel it’s a necessary part of our full story. On Austin’s birthday last week, Mark and I took a moment to look through the photo album that contained images from his first birthday, and to reflect for a minute on just how far we’ve come. As we flipped through a few months’ worth of photos, I realized that those of you who started reading after I launched this blog, but never read the CarePage, missed out on some of the most serious days — and most disturbing images — of his and our lives.

So, here they are, in all their gory (“L” purposefully omitted).

This first one was taken the morning of August 1, 2007, our third day in the hospital. You can see that his belly is a bit distended, but not alarmingly so. This was the last moment his skin was unmarked by scars, as he was preparing to go into his surgical biopsy which left him with two inch-long incisions on either side of his abdomen and a Broviac line in his chest:

Sleeping post-surgery with his mama. It was now confirmed that he did indeed have cancer:

And with Caryl. You can almost see one of the scars under his hand:

And with his Gram. Poor sad baby, he held on to that juice box for dear life:

But after eleven days, we went home and he started to get back to normal. The Broviac line under his shirt is what causes all that lumpiness:

Still smiling:

Still playing:

And then things began to change. When he was supposed to be getting better, he instead got worse. Over Labor Day weekend, right after a blast of three chemo drugs, his belly just kept growing. Growing and growing, bigger every day. I literally tied a piece of ribbon around it and measured it on Saturday. It was one centimeter bigger on Sunday. And another on Monday. And by Tuesday, we were back in the hospital:

The next day we learned the truth: the tumor, which at diagnosis was 7 by 7 by 14 centimeters, was now 10 by 15 by 21.

And yet he still tried to smile:

But it wasn’t easy:

And then there are these next ones. Taken on Friday, September 7, 2007, two weeks before Austin’s first birthday and mere minutes before we brought him to the pre-op room for a six-hour surgery that would remove his right kidney and a five-and-a-half pound tumor:

I know, I know. I was there. I saw these images with my own eyes. In my own child. So believe me, I know how bad they are:

And hours and hours later, he was returned to us, nearly six pounds lighter:

And so he was lighter and, we hoped, healthier:

But it was six days before we knew why it had grown so horrifically and a full ten days before he was allowed to eat again. Ten days with no milk, no food, no water, except for the few ice chips I sneaked him one day (which he promptly threw up):

He was a mere shell of the boy I once knew:

Those were the worst days for me. Of my life, I think. But he still managed to smile:

Finally, we got to go home, for five days, where we celebrated his first birthday:

And when those five days were up, we were right back in the hospital, getting ready for another surgery. But this time, Austin’s belly was fat from all that cake:

I know these are sad and I know they’re shocking. But I’m okay with looking at them. In a way, I think it’s good: we should never forget. But that was then.

And this is now:

And we are the luckiest.

We could tell Austin’s life story through his hair.

At birth, he, like his brother before him, had a head full of dark bushy hair. (And yes, for what it’s worth, I did have heartburn.)

At about six months he, like his brother before him, exhibited classic signs of male pattern baldness:

It slowly grew back and by the time he was diagnosed, he had these two spectacular sprouts of hair caused by a double cowlick.  We called them his horns:

Then of course, he was rendered completely bald during his first rounds of chemo. Innocent bystanders used to comment about how their children had also been bald as babies and I could just never let it go and instead had to say something like, “Oh, he wasn’t bald as a baby. This is because of chemo.” I always said it in a cheerful voice so as not to make them feel too bad, but they rarely knew how to respond after that.

Early chemo days

Still smiling even though he had to bathe in a shirt
thanks to that damn Broviac line!

And then, by the spring of 2008, my cancer-free toddler grew new hair. And, whaddya know, that trademark Gallagher black grew in blond!

As time went by, it darkened but the first growth was still lighter than the rest prompting an amazing number of people to ask if I “did his tips.” Really? He wasn’t even two. Who would even think to color a two-year-old’s hair?

By last summer, it was mousy brown and extremely long. Here he is getting his shaggy rock star locks trimmed by Grandma Gallagher:

Then winter arrived and with it that brutal rogue that is cancer. On the verge of losing all his hair again, Austin helped out with shaving Braedan’s and Daddy’s:

Shortly after starting chemo, I was coming away with clumps every time I ran my fingers through his hair. Look closely at the sheets behind him in this pic taken while he was sedated for radiation:

Lintbrushing the sheets just wasn’t enough any more, so a shearing was in order:

Then a very strange thing happened. His hair began to fall out. No, that’s not the strange part, we were expecting that. The strange part is  that it began falling out in bits and pieces with these bizarre patches left behind.

Each day, the patch changed slightly as a few more random hairs fell out. It reminded me of a computer generated image of the polar ice caps shrinking over time due to global warming. Day by day getting smaller and smaller until there was simply nothing left.

And then, within a few short weeks, it was gone, with only the eyelashes and eyebrows remaining. Another six weeks of chemo and those too had vanished.

Until one morning last week, when he woke up, felt his head and announced, “I think I have more hair today. I need to look in the mirror.” Which brings us to today (yes, he’s wearing a cape — and why shouldn’t he?):

And somehow, through it all, what remains is that smile.

and a little paint on his nose

Speaking of a “final push,” we’d like to welcome our new nephew Hill Kipton Dietrich who, despite all efforts to postpone his arrival, was born Thursday morning. Mom and baby are happy and healthy and expect to be heading home today or tomorrow. Plus Sarah’s parents have arrived from Atlanta and will be staying at least until my parents return from New Zealand so all is well for the Dietrich clan.

Welcome to the world, Hill!

February 2020
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February 2020
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