Bad Parent: Free Ride. I couldn't bring myself to discipline my sick son. By Kim Mance for

At my son Peter’s first birthday party, I thought it was amusing that he played with tags on his newly opened toys rather than the children who surrounded him. When he lined up his peas and carrots in a row each time before eating them, I just thought he was smart. But as his disinterest in playmates continued, the amusement passed and I grew concerned. It turned out my son had autism. 

A couple of years after my second son was born, I watched my two boys on the playground with a swarm of other children while I breastfed my young daughter. As I looked on, the all-too familiar semi-repressed feeling of alarm cropped up inside me. But this time it was not for Peter, it was for Stephen, my younger son.

It seemed that Stephen had been falling down a lot lately. Even the slight breeze caused by another excited toddler running by knocked him on his cute little rump. I leaned over to my aunt, a nurse, and asked if she’d noticed. “Yes,” she replied, “I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you.”

After a few visits to the doctor, where I was written off as a hypochondriac, I finally ended up taking Stephen to the emergency room while visiting relatives out of state (the kids’ dad was deployed to the Middle East). This doctor took me seriously and ordered an MRI to be done immediately.

When the doctor returned with a social worker, both looking somber, I didn’t expect happy news. Yet I still couldn’t have foreseen what they were about to tell me: Stephen had a very serious and rare condition, a tumor inside his spinal cord.

I was shocked, too shocked for tears. All I could do was pet his little head and watch him sleep in the hospital bed. In the distance, I could hear what sounded like my mother and the doctor discussing how well I was taking the news, but it was hard to hear through the sound of my head pounding. Watching Stephen’s chest rise and fall with each breath consumed me. I was startled by the sound of the room returning to normal volume, the doctor asking if I wanted to transport him by car or ambulance to the children’s hospital for a biopsy surgery. When we got to Children’s Hospital, I felt relieved. Here he’d receive the most appropriate care for his age. But upon arriving at the neurology ward to be checked in, my optimism quickly faded. We were surrounded by children with horrible and debilitating diseases.

Stephen was hooked up to a number of monitors and endlessly poked and prodded. He shrieked every time a doctor or nurse entered the room and pleaded with me not to let them touch him. They tried their best to put him at ease, but he wasn’t buying.