Sunday is difficult. I am in the Royal Lancaster Infirmary. They have put me in my own room. I have a portable toilet in one corner because they do not want me to go outside. One of the sisters brings a television set, VCR, and several movies. She asks me what other movies I would like to see. I tell her that I should probably call my parents. Could I please use the phone?
"One moment and I will bring one to you," she says.
The phone is on a cart. A long cord dribbling out underneath my door, across the corridor to the office. I had planned on calling much later. Past eleven o'clock again, for the cheaper rates.
But I'm in the hospital. The doctors have already told me, after a bone marrow aspirate yesterday afternoon, that I have "a bone disease."
Several hours after the aspirate, two of the doctors, a man and a woman, stand just inside my room. They both hesitate when they speak, as if they are not certain who should break the news. I forget their names. The woman tells me that they have narrowed it down. The man tells me that it is in my bones. The woman says that they are running additional tests. The man says we will know more later.
This is all that I have with which to call home (I have to call home, you understand):
Extreme fatigue for almost a week. Legs and stomach and back that are covered with bruises . Red dots on my feet and shins, bleeding gums (still), sores all across the inside of my mouth. On my tongue, even. And, finally, "a bone disease."
(if i'd had any kind of sense, if i knew even the slightest thing about cancer, i would have known then that it was leukemia. i was textbook. go to the library. find one of those thick reference books that i was so afraid to find for myself. reading through a list of symptoms will show nearly all of what i had. and still i was clueless. i had no idea what was wrong.)
The phone rings. She picks it up at the second ring.
"Hey, mom," I say.
"Robert. I'm glad you called." Excited. That lift in her voice. "I was expecting your call. But I won't be here this afternoon. I would have missed it."
"Why? Where are you going?"
"To the theater," she says. She is happy, talking fast. It is morning at home. I imagine her pacing around the house, the phone cradled under her neck. She talks with her hands. "We are going to the Fifth Avenue. Donna, Janet, everybody. We're all meeting downtown for lunch, then maybe some shopping -- Nordie's is having a sale -- and then we're going to see... what was that... I have the tickets here. Oh, yes. The Autumn Cycle. It's supposed to be quite good."
"Sounds like fun," I say.
"It should be. You know I always enjoying going out with the girls."
Small talk. The knowledge, in the back of my mind, that have to come out and say it. I have to make the leap. My heart thumps. I do not know how to say this.
There is a momentary silence. I'm looking around the room, realizing that I'm in a freaking hospital, and that my mother has to know. She starts to say something but I interrupt her.
"Mom, I have some bad news. Some pretty bad news, and there's no easy way to say this."
More silence. You know how sometimes it is possible to see the person on the other end of the phone? There is no logical way for you to see her, no video camera recording images, but you know her so well that sight is there anyway. The image is burned into your brain. You have seen silence time and again throughout your childhood, when you and your sister would fight and one or the other would get injured. Or when you would butt heads, you and your mother, testing the limits she'd imposed on your teen wings. You know what that silence looks like. It is visible in the hospital room. You can see it feel it taste it.
I see my mother's jaw tighten. Her body tenses. Shoulders, arms, everything. It is a clear difference; she becomes like a board. Her eyes stare at a point on the wall. They do not focus on anything in particular. Suddenly, the only thing that exists in her world is the tenuous phone line between us.
"What?" she asks.
"I'm in the hospital. In Lancaster. I've been pretty sick. I don't know if Laura told you or not. I've been feeling pretty run down the past couple of weeks."
"Well, the doctors say that they aren't sure yet. They want to run some more tests. But they do know that I have a bone disease. Something in my bones is making my blood go bad."
(she knew then, my mother. she knew exactly what it was. you do not get to be a mother without knowing about leukemia.)
I try to describe my symptoms. She is crying and it is difficult to know if she hears me. I keep telling her that it will be all right that the doctors say I will be fine.
She wants facts. When did you do this? Where are you? What are the names of these doctors, where are you, what is happening?
And then she cannot speak. She sobs into the phone. I can't understand what she is saying.
Paul, my stepdad, comes on the line. We talk about the Sonics and the house and classes. He asks what mother is so upset about, did I flunk out or something (hah hah)? I tell him that I am in the hospital. Nothing serious, just the hospital, and she probably thinks it is worse than it is. You know how she gets (wink wink).
"Hold on, he says. "Your mother wants to talk to you again."
She starts talking immediately. Composed. She has a pad and pen with her. Not that I can see this, but I know; she needs to establish control. Give me the names of your doctors. What is the name of the hospital. How long have you been there. What exactly did they tell you. Are you on any medication. What is that time zone thing again.
There is no tone or pitch in her voice. She is struggling to hold back the flood waters. She asks me what they think it is and I start to answer something about uncertainty. And then she is wailing again. Hold on, she says (i think), I'm going to get your sister. She walks down the hall and pounds on Laura's door. The sounds are muffled, as if she is holding the phone at arm's length. I don't think she wants me to hear her crying.
There are a few more indistinct sounds and then Laura is on the line. Somehow I know what I am going to say to her; I have known for the better part of the day. I'd actually rehearsed it. It was earlier in the day, after the doctors had left, when I knew that I was going to have to call home. You have to understand that I dreaded making this call like no other phone call in my life. I'm in a small room in a small hospital in Northern England. The room looks out onto an alley. There is an I.V. running into my arm. Two bags, one yellow, one clear, slowly drip into the tube. I can't even leave the room to go to the bathroom. My urine, being collected in bottles, is still more blood than anything. I am having difficulty understanding the situation myself; how am I supposed to explain it to my family?
My sister and I are close. We are much closer now than we were in high school, but we would stick up for each other even then. Sometimes we would come home and fight. More than just verbal abuse. We would punch and scratch. There would be bruises. We even brought out steak knives from the kitchen, once or twice. I remember stabbing the floor next to her head, intentionally missing wide because I couldn't conceive of hurting her for real.
There was a kid named Jeff Woods who lived across the street from us. He was a year older than me, a year younger than Laura. Jeff and I built a tree house in the fifth or sixth grade. It was in the low maple next to his driveway. The tree house was only five or six feet above ground, nestled in thick, forking branches. We formed a secret club, away from mothers and sisters. I'm not even sure how it happened, but one day he threw me out of the club. Literally. The ground was wet and soft, covered with fallen leaves, and I landed on my back. He pounced on me, started tapping my chest with his fingers. He weighed more than me and I couldn't move. It was driving me crazy. He tapped and tapped and pretended that he was going to spit in my face.
And then Laura came out of nowhere, a flying tackle that sent Jeff Woods sprawling. She hit him. We'd had enough practice fighting with each other that she'd gotten pretty good at throwing punches. But she also knew that this wasn't her little brother that she was beating on; the rules were a little different. She tore at his hair. He screamed. He tried to get away but she had him pinned. Laura told him that if he ever tried to hurt me again then she would kill him.
She would look out for me. Bottom line. It was okay for her to beat up on me; I was off limits for anyone else. You fight and hate each other but, in the end, you take care of each other. That's what brothers and sisters do. If something threatened one, then it also threatened the other. We would present a united front and together we were stronger than the individual.
She is on the phone asking me what is happening. "What's wrong with mom?" she asks.
"Laura," I say. "I really messed things up this time."
Please be on my side. Protect me. I am your baby brother and you have to take care of me.