Before I begin this post, I want to make it clear that I don’t want this blog to seem to have taken a sudden turn for sadness. It has been a rough few days, but I am, truly, doing quite well despite of it. Sometimes, though, a touch of sadder memories is a good thing, that helps us appreciate the things we have. I’ve got a story I have been thinking of writing for here for a while, and though it has its harder moments, I hope you’ll read it through to the end. Unlike most of my work here, this piece is absolutely non-fiction.
I remember it clearly, the day my son was diagnosed with cancer.
I was working two jobs at the time, trying to make ends meet while paying a ridiculously high amount of child support; don’t get me wrong, I begrudge my children nothing, and would give every cent to see them well-cared for, but even the judge who passed the support balance commented that he thought it was ludicrously high and did not know how I was going to live on the remainder. Well, truth be told, I couldn’t. So I found myself, a career professional, in need of a second job, one that would be flexible with hours and let me bring in just enought to ensure that me and my wife and step-kids kept a roof over our heads, while ensuring my bio-kids kept one over theirs.
So I took a job delivering pizzas. It wasn’t a bad job, but it was rough, hot work in the middle of summer, and when I wasn’t hurrying about town dropping off pies, I was in the back room, washing dishes in scalding hot water and sweating like mad. I was in the washroom when my phone buzzed. The manager did NOT allow calls while at work, but I glanced down, saw it was my ex, and due to our rather combatative divorce, we never called each other unless it was something to do with the boys. I went to my manager, explained the situation, and he was unusually understanding in giving me the time to step outside and return her call.
I apologized for missing her call, and asked what was up. She explained that Riley, our then five year old, was running a fever again, and that she was taking him to the med stop, as it was Sunday and our normal pediatrician wasn’t open. Riley’s regular illnesses had been a point of contention for several months at that point. My ex invariably blamed me, saying he always came back from my house sick, and I invariably blamed her, saying he always came to my house sick. It was always passed off as a cold or allergies or whatever the bug of the week was that was going around. I told her that was fine, and to call and let me know when she found out what was going on. She agreed, and I returned to the dish pit.
A couple hours passed. I was scheduled that night to work from 5:30 till midnight, though that typically meant I’d actually be there till 1 or later with post-evening clean up. She had called right as I had started my shift, and I was beginning to get a bit irked that she hadn’t called back yet. Finally, though, my phone rang, and again I cleared a break and went outside to take it.
She told me they were on their way to the Children’s Hospital.
Instantly, my nerves were on end. I asked her why, my voice slightly a tremble. She said that the med stop had taken some blood samples and that they didn’t think their equipment was reading it right, but to be on the safe side, they wanted her to take him to the Children’s Hospital and have them check him out. She was irritated at how vague they had been, and I was worried about it, but there wasn’t much to do. She promised to keep me updated, and I went back to work.
Worry consumed me for the rest of the evening. My stomach knotted up, my heartbeat pounded furiously. I made a few mistakes, got chewed out. I apologized profusely, and though he was irritated, my manager was fairly understanding. Unfortunately, we’d already had another driver call out, so he couldn’t afford to send me home. I worked the rest of the night in a mood of underlying doubt and worry. At 1:30AM, I was finally off. I called my ex immediately, and she told me that they had taken blood, but that the lab wouldn’t be able to process it for a while and that for now, they were just waiting in a hospital room. I asked if she needed anything, and she said no.
I remember, clearly, the difference in her voice at that moment. Her normal tone of underlying anger was absent, replaced by worry, stress. For a moment, we were no longer a messily divorced couple – we were parents, sharing mutual concern for our child together. She promised to call me as soon as anything came up. I thanked her, sincerely, absent of paranoia or anger or doubt at her word. I went home and went to bed, as I had to be up in about five hours for my day job.
I’d been asleep for two and half hours when my phone rang. I had barely been able to get to sleep, and the sleep I did get was fitful and unsettled. The buzz of my phone had me up with a start. I answered it.
The line was silent.
I said my ex’s name, afraid we’d lost the connection. Faintly, I heard sobbing. I said her name again, panicked.
“What’s going on? Are you there?”
“Well,” she said, her voice wavering between sob and sound, “they know it’s not a virus. They’re just trying to figure out what kind of cancer her has.”
I don’t know that words can fully capture the absolute devastation that those words can deliver to a parent. The best I can manage seems clumsy and no where near strong enough to convey the feeling, but I will try. Initially, it felt very much like someone had just slammed me in the chest with a sledgehammer. Pain, actual physical pain, wracked my body, and the wind was knocked out of me. I had trouble breathing.
“Cancer,” she said, and then broke into unbridled sobs of anguish. Unwanted, unbidden, mine joined hers. My wife woke with the sound, and joined us.
The week following was a roller-coaster of emotions. Tests upon tests were performed, and finally, they came to us with the “good” news. Riley had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, type Pre B. Of all the cancers that strike in childhood, it was considered the “best” to have. At his age, it was highly treatable, with a large chance of being beaten back permanently. It didn’t make the process easier, the emotions less painful, but it was a glimmer of hope. He had a great team of doctors, who explained that treatment for leukemia had come so far in the last ten years, and that it was going to be tough and he couldn’t promise anything but there was hope.
It has been three years now since we found Riley’s cancer. The stuff that was hardest in the beginning became strangely routine. The monthly lumbar punctures, the chemo, the regular bouts of neutropenia where we had to scrub everything in the house with Lysol, wear masks, and keep away even the most well meaning friends and family. It all became part of normal, daily life. We had some stumbles, some real scares. Once, his liver began to go into failure, but we caught it quickly and changed the course of his treatment. Another time, his brain began swelling, but again, the docs caught it and we changed paths again. Now, we are only six months away from being done with his treatment, hopefully forever.
There have been blessings and losses along the way. Some of the children we got to know during his treatment weren’t so lucky. Some didn’t respond as well as he did. Others did wonderfully, like Riley. My ex and I became more understanding with each other, work a little bit better with each other.
So there it is. I don’t know why I felt I needed to tell it here, but I did. I think, perhaps, because Riley is one of the many reasons I need to write. I don’t want to leave him a legacy of his father being bitter at his mom, who never tried to live up to his potential, his dreams. I want Riley to see in me an example, a man who dreams and reaches to accomplish them. I want him to see that, just like his cancer, he can overcome the obstacles that life places in his path, and do what truly makes him happy.
And so, I’ll write. For Riley. For all my children.