SAN FRANCISCO -- Saturday was a good day for 3-year-old Nate Wagner.
Everything that went in him stayed in him and his Dad took note of that. What once was so common is now so cherished. A facial gesture not contorted, an emerging word not tripping on the tongue, a hand movement not wobbling. Lenny Wagner notices it all.
Wagner, defensive coordinator for the Santa Rosa Junior College football team, is stockpiling, bit by bit, optimism that the worst is over for his son.
It started late Tuesday night when Nate awoke from his 9?-hour brain surgery.
"Daddy," Nate said, "I just want to play with you."
Yes, that'll be the day all right when Nate can play again, when he can resume his obsession with Thomas the Train, when Wagner and his wife, Catrina, don't have to be at their son's side as they have been for the past 16 days on the ICU floor of UC San Francisco's Children Hospital.
Last Tuesday, a team of pediatric neurosurgeons, led by Dr. Nalin Gupta, removed a malignant brain tumor the size of a golf ball from Nate. In about two weeks, Nate will begin 18 months of chemotherapy that ideally will kill any remaining cancer.
Nate had a pineoblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer. About 2,200 children under age 15 are diagnosed each year in the U.S. with tumors of the brain and spinal cord, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of Cancer. Only 15 to 40 will have pineoblastomas, an aggressive cancer.
As reality goes, this is as real and horrible and frightening as it ever gets for a parent.
"Are you kidding me?" Wagner said when he first found out about the cancer. "I have lost a lot of people in my life already. But it's not going to be Nate. It just isn't. Nate is the greatest person I have ever met. Before the surgery I told the doctors, &‘You guys are going to be famous one day because you are about to save a star!' Nate is destined to help. I know he is."
The son already has helped the father.
"I have a nice car and a great job," said Wagner, who also is SRJC's department chairman for physical education, dance and athletics. "I have a nice home in Bennett Valley. All of that, it doesn't matter. You can just throw it all away. Those are small things in comparison."
Wagner always has been a doting father, but in the daily rush to hire and evaluate a faculty of 60 people, to write 80 percent of the curriculum and to pay attention to his football players, priorities get reshuffled. Out of what appears, at the time, a necessity. Focus fluctuates.
"Knowing what I know now ... if I only knew then ... but how could I have known?" Wagner said.
Wagner opened himself up for the second guess. It's an understandable response.
A year ago, Nate threw up in the car.
"Nate, did you eat Play-Doh?" Wagner asked Nate.
"Sure, Dad," his son said. Wagner now realizes he could have asked Nate if he had eaten the Golden Gate Bridge and his then-2-year-old would have said yes.
"But I didn't think anything of it," Wagner said. "It was random. No other symptoms. Nate went back to play in the car seat."