Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived – today’s featured book excerpt by Karen DeBonis is Worth Reading!

Karen is a happily married, slightly frazzled mother of two when her eight-year-old son, Matthew, develops a strange eye-rolling tic. Matthew’s tics quickly multiply. He becomes clumsy and lethargic, a gifted program dropout. Karen tries to get her husband and their pediatrician to acknowledge what’s happening, but they dismiss her concerns. As a people-pleaser, Karen lacks the skills to assert herself and stifles the growing dread in her heart. For three years, Matthew steadily deteriorates while Karen questions if she has the fortitude required of motherhood. Finally, desperation breaks through her fear of conflict, and she demands answers, only to be horrified by the truth: Matthew has a brain tumor. A delicate surgery and promise of complete recovery convince Karen her battle is over. But she is wrong. The ensuing years launch her on a journey of perseverance and personal growth she never imagined, teaching Karen just how weak she is–and then exactly how strong.
I first noticed Matthew’s eye-rolling the summer he turned eight. It wasn’t the typical “Mom, quit bugging me” look. It was more like an ocular Ferris wheel, brown eyes circling around and around, taking in the view, enjoying the thrill. Up. Right. Down. Left. Up right down left. Uprightdownleft, several times, until it came to rest as if to take on new riders. Then the ride started up again.
Sprawled on the living room carpet, Matthew was oblivious to me watching from the kitchen. He hand-surfed through a pile of Legos, making a ruckus of clickety-clicks. The funny cowlick that defied hair gel and spit protruded from his crown, and his Goosebumps T-shirt grew a soggy ring at the neckline where he chewed and sucked on it in concentration. “There it is!” he proclaimed, his eyes taking a joyride as he held aloft a tiny yellow helmet.
Bringing attention to a child’s troublesome behavior often exacerbates it, so I said nothing. But I registered eye-rolling in the part of my brain where back-to-school paperwork, grocery lists, and work deadlines already overflowed. I could hardly imagine adding to my mother-load, but I filed Matthew’s unusual behavior under H for “Hmmm,” dated August 1994. Then I turned to the fridge to figure out what to fix for dinner.
Nearly thirty-six, I thought I had my working mom act together—two kids, one husband, an old house, and a hyperactive border collie mutt. But some days, I looked at the calendar and thought, I just have to get through this week, then I can breathe. Sometimes I “just” had to get through the month until I could breathe, and I wondered if I’d remember how.
That evening, Matthew played in the backyard with Stephen, three, and Sparky, our adopted dog. Mike, my husband of twelve years, sat on a kitchen chair in shorts and a ratty T-shirt, lacing up his work boots.
“Did you notice Matthew’s eye-rolling during dinner?” I asked.
“Yeah, I did.” He didn’t look up, and I stared at a tuft of his thick, brown hair sticking out from the back of his New York Yankees hat.
“I think it’s a tic,” I said.
“What does that mean?” He glanced at me curiously.
“I don’t know.” I twisted my hair in a knot, then let it fall, unsure of what I wanted to say. “It’s probably not a big deal, but I’ll mention it when Matthew has his physical.”
“Good idea.”
He stood and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. “I’d better get out in that garage before it gets dark.”
Mike easily put the conversation aside. Not one to overthink or analyze things, he returned to what he knew—that our ramshackle garage was falling down, that it might be salvaged with cables and braces and his architect’s ingenuity. A tic was an oddity he didn’t understand and couldn’t fix. He easily pushed it into a corner of his mind like our Christmas decorations in the attic, forgotten until I asked him to drag them out again.
At Matthew’s annual well-child visit the following week, he sat on the padded table in his underwear, still too young to be bashful. Swinging his legs, he alternated butt cheeks in time to an invisible marching band. Giggling at his inventiveness, he crooked his arms and swung along.
I smiled, shaking my head. “Silly goose.”
As soon as the doorknob clicked, Matthew stopped all but the leg-swinging. He always wanted to behave, especially in public.
“Third grade already, Matthew?” Dr. Peterson exclaimed, bursting through the door. “You’re getting to be so grown up!”
When Mike and I were expecting in 1986, we weren’t savvy enough to interview prospective pediatricians like parents often do today, and it probably wasn’t an option anyway. Our health plan, a local, fledgling HMO (Health Maintenance Organization), limited their coverage to a finite group of in-network doctors. They had one pediatrician on staff, so that’s who we got.
We got lucky. Around ten years my senior, Dr. Peterson had a friendly face with a big smile full of big teeth. A mother of three older children, she had doctored hundreds of babies. More importantly, she never condescended to us due to our inexperience. Whatever the ailment or concern, she educated us in terms we understood without being patronizing.
Matthew politely answered her casual inquiries about his summer, his friends, the upcoming school year. When she finished, Dr. Peterson gave him a canister of Star Wars stickers to choose from and turned to me.
“Any new concerns in the family?”
“Did you notice his eyes?” I whispered from behind my hand while Matthew dug in the jar.
She stared at Matthew for a minute.
“Matthew,” she said, “are your eyes bothering you?”
“Uh-uh.” He shook his head back and forth vigorously.
“Are they itchy?”
“When I was a little girl,” she said, “I rolled my eyes when they felt itchy.”
I knew that wasn’t the problem, but she continued in a friendly, matter-of-fact tone.
“You can stop it, can’t you, Matthew?”
Don’t you know any child psychology? You can’t ask a kid a leading question and expect an honest answer.
For ten seconds, while Dr. Peterson counted, Matthew stopped eye-rolling. As soon as she finished, his eyes made up for lost time.
Doesn’t that tell you something?
But my face revealed none of my annoyance, my smile plastered in place. When the doctor concluded that Matthew had a “habit tic”—a growing pain he’d outgrow—impotent words dribbled from my mouth. “Oh, good,” and “That’s great,” two of my go-to responses for just about everything. And of course, “Thank you,” not only to be polite, but to stay in the good graces of a person I liked, in hopes she’d like me back, which was everything.
Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth. This entangled mix comes to life in her debut memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, released by Apprentice House Press in May 2023. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, HuffPost, , and numerous literary journals. A happy empty-nester, Karen lives in upstate New York with her husband of forty years. You can see more of her work at .