A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived

Karen DeBonis
Apprentice House Press ($19.99)

by Blair Glaser

In her memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, Karen DeBonis draws upon the various meanings of the word. When a mysterious set of behaviors—lack of focus, odd tics, and declining motor-skills—sprout up in her son Matthew, she must confront her people-pleasing nature and develop the assertiveness required to raise a special needs child in a broken healthcare system. As DeBonis registers the maddening helplessness of searching for what ails her firstborn, we spin with her through the revolving door of mother-shaming doctors, false diagnoses, ineffective treatment plans, and the well-meaning concern of friends and family.

DeBonis parents with the extreme patience of a Buddha, while peeling back the curtain on darker thoughts and feelings: her fear of making waves, her rage and its occasional outbursts, her coping mechanism of binge eating. Growth will especially speak to parents of special needs/chronically ill children, but it is, at its core, a woman’s story; many women will recognize themselves in the author’s struggle with her social programming to be “good,” underneath which—in her case—is genuine compassion. As Matthew’s illness isolates them both from friends and community, she writes, “I ached for his aloneness, knowing intimately the awfulness of it.”

Growth also holds up a mirror to the way patriarchal values operate in traditional marriages. DeBonis’s husband Michael is a loving partner and parent, but the author is often coaxing him into a greater level of concern and action on Matthew’s behalf. When they finally discover the cause of their son’s bizarre symptoms—the brain tumor of the subtitle—DeBonis criticizes herself for not working harder to find answers, but Michael wonders, “How did I not see it?” It is a question we’ve been wondering alongside him, and it validates DeBonis’s long held frustration of carrying the larger share of emotional labor.

DeBonis’s grounded perspective on personal growth helps readers see their own limitations with compassion. Directly after receiving the correct diagnoses, she experiences a seismic transformation when a new part of her she calls She-Bear emerges: “The boundaries of my body were unable to contain the force, so my legs and arms and head stretched and expanded to gigantic proportions. It wasn’t imagined. It was palpable in every cell of my growing body.” It’s one of those life-changing moments, and yet, DeBonis is honest about its fleeting nature: “My foray into assertiveness . . . turned out to be brief and subdued. My skills had not been honed for the long haul.”

In one particularly self-revealing chapter, “My Real, Messy Story,” DeBonis asks an existential question familiar to anyone who’s withstood long periods of crisis: “How does one reconcile such extremes of feeling, thinking and believing?” We find answers in the book’s main theme of self-acceptance. After what should have been life-changing surgery, Matthew’s handicaps do not vanish, and in order to thrive as an independent adult, he must finally come to terms with his disability and accept help from a government jobs program. DeBonis shares with us what she wishes she’d had the courage to say to the pediatrician who initially and repeatedly dismissed her concerns. This is the only time we lose an intimate connection with her, as she asks us to join her in self-recrimination. But at the chapter’s end, DeBonis offers forgiveness for her own—and by extension, our—shortcomings: “the baby steps I took were leaps of great distance.”

With exquisite vulnerability and awareness of interior dynamics, Growth anchors its suspense in a loving family who plays well, fights with and for each other, and ultimately grows together. Towards the end, the author’s parents exhibit polite passivity when a healthcare agency cancels an important appointment for her ailing mother. DeBonis finds their complacency—the very trait that shaped her good girl persona—unacceptable, and, in She Bear manner, swiftly and effectively advocates on their behalf. In this regard, Matthew’s tumor has spurred real change; readers would do well to conclude that though personal evolution can’t be rushed, it is entirely possible.

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