I wrote this story for English 46, a fiction workshop with Gregory Blake Smith. It was fall term at Carleton, 1991, one year removed from my final hospital stay. I'd experimented with capitalization and punctuation, stretching the author's experience with leukemia into something he had to deal with from the outside looking in.
The original is still three-ring-punched into a dusty blue binder, pencil marks in the margins and at the end, sage advice from Professor Smith on storytelling:
The earnest critiques of my classmates follow, generally positive, usually tripping over my clumsy experimentation.
So here I am at another crossroads, raising an old experience up from the ashes, tugging, pulling, dragging the narrative forward. Plumbing the depths of my memory. Sifting through boxes in the top shelf of my office closet, leafing through cards and letters stored in manilla envelopes, reading a fiction I'd created thirteen years ago that, as far as fictions go, relied more heavily on my own experience than anything I'd written before (or since). Almost everything about Danny is me, from initial diagnosis, to his hospital room, to childhood accidents, to immediate early complications.
Number thirteen is where old and new writing intersect, where I'm reading many of the same words I'd written then that I want to write today. It's pretty much all Danny, all me, between here and twenty-five, with the narrator sometimes Dad, sometimes, me, and the Hickman and the bleeding and the bruising on my chest, right arm, right side, lower back, massive purple and black bruises that kept growing for days. In one scene, Sue, the mother, says something that Cindy actually said, probably mid-April, with much more force. A few details are left out. A few scenes between the parents are imagined.
But it's all true. I'd cut and paste it if I could. What happened to Danny is exactly what happened to me during my first two full days in the hospital.
Numbers 26-29 are back to fiction again. The story doesn't have a happy ending. But then again, those are the kinds of stories you're supposed to write when you're twenty-two. You get to wait until you're thirty-four, thirty-five before crafting those kinds of endings.
- My son was in the hospital. I drove him. He sat in the passenger seat and slept. His head rested against my shoulder. Traffic was light, and I was able to make it across the bridge without much difficulty.
- I parked the car in the underground lot and nudged Danny. He yawned. I hoisted him onto my shoulders because he was still very tired and didn't want to walk. When I had called our pediatrician and explained Danny's symptoms, he had seemed concerned. "Bring him in as soon as you can," he had said. "I would like to do a blood test."
- Danny was eight years old. He had thin brown hair, from his mother, and hazel eyes. He was small and skinny. When he played football with the other boys in the neigborhood, they would tackle him mercilessly. They thought that he was an easy target because of his size. He always jumped up immediately, sometimes smiling.
- My son was in the hospital. I have said that already.
- They drew the blood from Danny's right arm. It was a man that put the needle in. He sterilized the arm with an alcohol swab, then said little sting here. He took four vials. One of them was tinted blue and the man shook it as if he was mixing a drink. Can't let this one clot, he explained. All of the vials were labelled STAT.
- Our pediatrician, who we have always called Dr. John, told Danny to take off his shirt and pants. He had Danny lay down on the examining table. Dr. John felt Danny's ankles. Tiny red dots were spattered along Danny's feet and lower shins.
"See, there," I said. "Those spots. "
"Yes," Dr. John said. "And these bruises?" he asked, pointing to the blue and black areas on Danny's legs.
I said that I didn't know. Football, maybe. He asked Danny to roll over. There were more bruises on his back. I hadn't noticed them before.
Dr. John told Danny to sit up. He put a stethoscope on Danny's back and asked him to breathe deeply. Again, he said. And again, moving the stethoscope around a bit. He looked in Danny's mouth.
"There," I said. "The sores."
"Yes," Dr. John said. "Yes, I see." He touched the sores with a cotton swab. "Does this hurt?" he asked. Danny shook his head.
When Dr. John removed the cotton swab, I saw that it was pink.
"You can put your clothes back on, Danny," he said. He sat back in his chair. He flipped through some papers that were on his clipboard. He looked through them several times, occasionally writing notes. He put the clipboard down and sighed.
"Andrew," he said, "Danny. There's no easy way to put this. No gentle way for me to say what I need to say."
He picked up the clipboard again. He turned to the back sheet.
"Danny," he said, "your blood counts are very low. Tremendously low. There's a part of your blood that makes things clot. These are called platelets. Your platelet count should be a number between two and three hundred. It's just a number, really. It just gives us a point of reference."
He circled something on his clipboard.
"Your platelets, Danny, are at forty. That's why you have all the bruises, and the sores, and those blood spots on your shins."
My heart was pounding. I wiped my hands on my jeans. Danny was paying close attention to what Dr. John was saying.
"Your white blood cells," Dr. John said, "are also very low. That's why you've been so tired. That's why you've had this fever. "
"What does all of this mean?" I asked. I had an idea. I thought I knew what it might be, but I didn't want to know.
"We're not positive. We're going to want to run some more tests. But I can say this with 99% certainty: Danny has leukemia."
- Sue came to the hospital that night. I called her from the phone in Dr. John's office. I told her that we were not positive. I told her that Danny had a room on the sixth floor. She started to cry. I told her that it was okay. She had to drive at rush hour. The bridge can be very difficult at rush hour. I tried to imagine her driving across the bridge with tears welling in her eyes.
- Danny's room was on the east side of the hospital. He could see the mountains from his bed. The sixth floor was the cancer ward. A tall woman entered the room at three forty-five. Danny was sleeping. She said that she was Dr. Gray, Danny's new doctor. She shook my hand.
"A fine looking boy you've got there," she said.
Dr. Gray said that she wanted to perform an aspirate on Danny. Take a sample of his bone marrow.
"It's a simple procedure," she said.
I nodded again. As if she needed my permission.
- Danny broke his wrist two years ago. He was skateboarding down a hill. He had borrowed a friend's skateboard. He wanted to go very fast. Near the bottom of the hill, he lost his balance and landed on the sidewalk. His right arm slapped the pavement, breaking his wrist in two places. The friend suggested that Danny hit his arm against a wall to put the bones back in place. Danny wouldn't try it.
Until now, the broken wrist was the only time Danny had ever been in the hospital.
- My son was in the hospital. He had leukemia. His name was Danny. Danny was a small boy, eight years old, with hair the color and texture of his mother's, and eyes that were sometimes green, sometimes brown.
- When Sue and I were first married, I already knew what I wanted our house to be like. It would be white or beige. There would be a front lawn, maybe with a tree in one corner. There would be a garden in the back. I would mow the lawn on Sundays. In the summer I would go shirtless. We would live a simple, pleasant life.
- Sue came into the room. She knocked timidly on the door, not certain that she had found the right room. This was the cancer ward, after all, and not a place for our son. She went to Danny's bed. He was sleeping. She kissed his face several times. She wiped his brow. She looked at the I.V. running into his arm, a bag of glucose, two small bags of antibiotics, and asked me if all of this was necessary.
I explained that it was, that his fever had already started to come down. I told her that Dr. Gray would be with us shortly, to explain a few things.
"The results of the aspirate will be back soon," I said.
"Dr. Gray?" she asked. "Where's Dr. John?"
I told her that Dr. Gray was the doctor now. She was a cancer specialist.
Sue had a kind of spasm in her stomach when I said the word cancer. She put her right hand on her abdomen. Her legs looked wobbly so I led her to the chair. She put her free arm around me and held onto my shoulder.
"My God, Andrew," she said. "Why is this happening?"
- It was nine o'clock when Dr. Gray came back. Danny was sitting up and we were watching some movie. Danny was laughing. The antibiotics had reduced his fever significantly. He hadn't felt this good in weeks.
Dr. Gray sat on the end of Danny's bed. She asked him how he was feeling.
"Good," Danny said. "Kinda tired, but good."
Dr. Gray looked around the room. Sue was gripping my hand. Dr. Gray smiled weakly at us. She turned back to Danny.
"The aspirate," she said, "confirmed what we had suspected. You have what we call acute myelogenous leukemia. It is a very rare and speedy cancer. It is especially strange to see it in someone your age. And when I say speedy, all I mean is that it probably hasn't been in your body for more than a couple of weeks. Okay?"
Danny was quiet. He raised his eyes to the ceiling as if he was pondering some difficult math problem. "Is it bad?" He asked.
Dr. Gray nodded. "Pretty bad."
"Umm," Danny said. It was a difficult problem indeed. "How do I get better?" He asked.
"Well, that's the thing. We'd like to start you on chemotherapy in the morning. What that means, basically, is that we put chemicals into your body and they kill the cancer cells." She gestured to the I.V. tubes that were snaking into Danny's arm. "We put the chemicals into your body through tubes like that. The chemo is very potent, though, so we can't run it through your arm. It would tear up your veins. What we need to do is put a catheter into your chest. A catheter is just a tube that goes in your body. There's a major artery under your collarbone, there, where we like to send the chemo." She touched a spot to the right of Danny's neck.
"Okay," Danny said. "Does it hurt?"
"No," Dr. Gray said. "They use a local anesthesia, so you won't feel a thing."
She looked at us again.
"It's called a Hickman Catheter. Dr. Hickman works here, the man who invented it. He'll be the one that puts it into Danny, so you know he's in good hands. If you'd like to come on down now, we've got the operating room ready for Danny."
I said that we'd like that very much. Sue and I stood up. Danny started to get out of bed.
"No, no," Dr. Gray said. "You stay there. We'll get a gurney for you to go down on."
- Outside of the room, Dr. Gray assured us that everything was going to be fine. She spoke in whispers. She put her hands into the pockets of her lab coat. She looked us in the eyes as she spoke, first looking at Sue, then at me.
"Danny is in bad shape, but he looks like a strong boy. The chemo will be difficult. I will tell you that now. The chemo will be difficult. But he looks like the kind of boy that can pull through it. He looks like a very strong boy."
"He is," I said. "Damn right that he is."
- Danny skinned his knees last summer. We were visiting Sue's brother Erik at the lake. He was going to take the boys water-skiing, Danny and his two cousins. They raced from the house to the dock. Danny was losing. He took a short cut through the woods and tripped over an exposed root. He fell over the edge of a small hill. There was gravel where he landed. The skin came off both of his knees as he slid to a stop.
He squirmed as Sue and Erik picked bits of gravel out of his knees. They used sterilized tweezers. He wanted to scream when they poured peroxide over the wounds, but we had him bite down on a towel instead. His face was bright red. His eyes were puffy. He sniffled a bit when they were done.
"So," he said, wiping his nose, "did I win the race?"
We all laughed.
- When Danny returned to his room he had a Y-shaped tube sprouting from the lower part of his chest. A square piece of gauze covered its entry point. The gauze was taped on all four sides. Another smaller bandage rested just below his collarbone. His chest was swelling a bit. It looked like a bruise was forming.
His nurse told us not to worry about that. It was probably some minor internal bleeding, where the tube had passed through tissue.
"Let's keep an eye on it just to be safe," she said. She took a marker and traced the outline of the bruise. She examined the dressing. It was bloody. She put a fresh gauze over the wound. "We'll just keep an eye on this, she said."
- Danny continued to bleed throughout the night. Sue and I slept only a little. A new nurse told us that there wasn't much more for us to do. She suggested that we go home and get some rest. The bleeding worried us. We couldn't leave.
By two in the morning, the bruising had spread across his chest. We could see the blood building up underneath his right arm. The nurse checked his dressing again. It was bloody again.
"Hmm," she said. She changed the gauze. She left and returned with a ten pound bag of sand. "This might be uncomfortable," she said, "but you need to keep pressure on the site."
Danny said that it was fine.
- It's not much to ask for, I don't think. A small house with a green lawn. I did yard work on the weekends. The edges of my lawn were trimmed. That's more than most people can say. I edged them regularly. Sue took care of the back yard. She had a beautiful flower garden. Sometimes Danny would toss his football into the flowers and Sue would yell at him.
Sue weeded her garden. She kept the weeds out of it. Some weekends I would edge the front lawn and she would weed her flower garden. Danny would sometimes throw his football into the flowers. There would be yelling.
I had wanted this when Sue and I were married. I had wanted the whole story: family, house, yard work. I'd wanted a wife and a child. A house in a clean neighborhood. The house would be white or maybe beige. I wanted to be able to put my arm around my son when he was ten years old and say son, meet Mr. Lawnmower. Then I could sit on the porch and sip at a tall glass of lemonade while my son trimmed and edged the lawn.
I am not asking for much, am I, when I want my son to live to be double digits?
- Dr. Gray came in the room at seven o'clock the next morning. There were six other doctors with her. She explained that this was the team of doctors that would be working with Danny. They formed a semi-ircle around the foot of Danny's bed.
Dr. Gray sat next to Danny and touched at the bruises. She looked underneath the dressing. Bloody still.
"You're bleeding a lot on us here," Danny.
"Yeah," Danny said. "Kinda cool, huh? Look." Danny pushed at the loose flesh under his arm. "Look how big my arms are now."
"Yes, yes. This weight?" she asked. "You've been keeping this on your chest?"
"A little, but not too bad. It's just kinda heavy."
"Yes," Dr. Gray said. She handed the sandbag back to Danny. "Keep this on your chest, now. I know it hurts, but it's important."
Danny nodded. The doctors filed out of the room. Sue and I followed them. There was a small table outside Danny's room. Danny's chart was on the table. A few of the doctors peered at the chart, whispering to one another. Dr. Gray wrote something down.
"It's getting a little tricky," she said to us. She looked us in the eyes. She was absently clicking and unclicking her pen.
"There's quite a lot of internal bleeding. His blood simply is not clotting. He hasn't bled anywhere important -- into any major organs, that is. That's the big worry right now. We don't want him bleeding somewhere major. The bleeding now, well, you can see for yourselves: it's all going down his sides. What we need to do is get him some platelets. We would like for his blood to start clotting. That's the immediate concern."
Sue had dark circles under her eyes. We both did. She was trembling a bit.
"These things you're telling us," she said, "Danny knows about them?" Her voice was calm and strong. "You have told him what you've told us?"
"Not yet," Dr. Gray said. "But of course we will. He will be kept well informed."
"That's good," Sue said. She lowered her head. Her voice wavered you make him better, she said softly. "You make him better."
Dr. Gray smiled. "After the platelets, it should be fairly smooth sailing. I'm going to call for those now. The two of you," she said, "might want to go home. Get some rest. You'll be much more help to Danny if you're rested. We'll take care of things at this end. Come back tonight. Come back sometime this evening. We'll call if anything happens."
- I drove home. Sue followed in her car. Traffic was light. There was a slow moving van in front of me, but I didn't have the energy to pass it.
- Sue and I collapsed on the bed. We lay on our backs. I closed my eyes. The house was quiet.
"Chicken pox," Sue said, suddenly.
"What?" I asked.
"What bothers me is that Danny went to that Jake Simms's house that one day in march. Remember? That Simms boy had the chicken pox and I expressly told Danny not to go over there."
"Yes," I said, holding her hand.
"I told him not to go over there and he went ahead and did it anyway."
"But nothing happened," I said. "He didn't get the chicken pox."
"That's exactly what I'm talking about. That's exactly the point. Where is it fair that Danny gets cancer before he gets chicken pox? That's what I'd like to know."
- We returned to the hospital after dinner. Danny had several new bags dripping into his Hickman catheter. There was a large bag of yellowish liquid. Danny said that this was his chemo. There was also a smaller bag, nearly empty, of what looked like blood. Danny said that those were platelets. He was sitting up in his bed. He was energetic.
"Look," he said, standing up. His shirt was off and his sides were now a dark purple, almost black. He held his arms up so that we could see better. "Would you look at this? Incredible."
He sat back on the bed. There was a remote control on his nightstand. "And this," he said. "My own T.V. They even get HBO. Isn't that cool? Mom? Dad? It's pretty cool, huh?"
Sue pulled her chair next to the bed. She took his hand. "You are beautiful," she said.
"Mom", Danny said. "Sheesh."
"I mean it," Sue said. She kissed his hand. "You are a wonderful, beautiful son."
"Da-ad! Tell her to stop."
"Out of my jurisdiction," I said. "You're on your own."
"Would the two of youstop it?" Sue asked. "Andrew, why don't you get us some coffee for us or something? Get Danny some ice cream from the cafeteria."
Danny perked up.
"Yeah. Good idea, Mom. Ice cream is good."
I sighed. Sue wanted some time alone with Danny. That was fine. It would give me a chance to talk with Dr. Gray.
Okay, I said. Back in a bit.
- I found Dr. Gray behind the nurse's station. She was on the phone. She wound her finger around the phone cord. When she noticed me, she raised her other hand as if to say wait just a minute, please.
It was only thirty seconds when she put down the phone.
She shook my hand. "You look much better," she said. "You look rested."
"Yes," I said. "Sue and I managed a few hours of sleep this afternoon. Ate a solid dinner. It helped."
"Wonderful. One member of your family is already sick. We don't need two more."
"So," I said. "What about the bleeding?"
"Ah. It looks much better. We gave him two bags of platelets this afternoon. They should stop the bleeding. Of course, the bruises will still be there for some time, but at least they shouldn't get any worse."
"Just so you know," she said, "we're not in the clear yet. We're in for a long haul, here. I want you to understand that. This is only the beginning."
I thanked her for her concern. I asked if she could stop by the room. "Sue needs to hear it, too," I said.
I think we'll all need to hear it several more times.
- Danny's dressing still needed to be changed quite often. In a period of about five hours, his nurse had to change the gauze twice.
"When this bleeding slows down," she said, "we'll only be doing this once a day, just to keep it clean. Then you won't have to see me as much."
Danny smiled. "It's not so bad," he said.
She handed the bag of sand to Danny. "Don't forget," she said.
"I know, I know. On the chest."
- When my son was in the hospital, I slept in a soft chair. I slid down in it. My feet were propped up on a footstool. Sue slept in a chair next to me. Hers was more like a lounge chair, and she had a pillow.
- When we woke up, Danny was still sleeping. The sand bag that he was to keep on his chest had slid off onto the bed. I stood up and stretched. Sue's watch beeped. It was five-thirty. The coffee shop opened at five forty-five. I told Sue that I was going to stretch my legs a bit, buy a paper, get us some coffee. She yawned agreement.
I looked over Danny's bed before I left. He was lying on his side. His blanket was pulled up to his chin. I wasn't able to understand how he could sleep so peacefully.
I reached out to my son and touched his shoulder. He rolled onto his back like so much dead weight. I touched him again. He was still.
I ran out of the room, screaming.
- Dr. Gray said that it was a fluke. Maybe he bumped his head on the back of the bed, or maybe all he did was sneeze sometime during the night. His blood still wasn't clotting, she said, not clotting at all. All it would have taken was a sneeze and he would have started bleeding in his head. The brain is surrounded by fluid, and he just kept bleeding into it, Dr. Gray said, shaking her head.
It happens sometimes, she said. It just happens.
- My son was in the hospital. We left him there. Sue and I drove back across the bridge alone. The mountains were covered by a low fog. I don't remember seeing any other cars on the road, but I am sure that they were there.
- Sue and I had wanted a simple life. A house, white or beige. A front yard with neat edges and maybe a small tree. A son that we could name after my father. These are the things that we had wanted.
We have moved into a condominium, now. When we bought the house, we'd had a plan. The smallish room at the end of the hall would be for our son. We would put his name on the door. The room became empty, and we didn't know what we should do with it.
So now we have a nice condominium on the lake. There is ample space for the two of us. Sue keeps a few potted flowers on our deck, but it is nothing like the garden she used to have. There is a man that cuts the grass for all the owners. He has a strong back. He takes off his shirt in the summer. I sit on the deck and watch him. He cuts neat diagonal stripes in the lawn. Occasionally, he stops and waves. I am certain that he has a son: only such a man can understand the importance of a well kept yard.