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A Gift from a Son Who Died

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  • Pages: 10
  • Word count: 2414
  • Category: Doctor Gift

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l thought the sun and the moon would go oui. I thought ioy itself would die when Eric died. He had given so much to all ot us his family. his iriends And yet his death is not the end oi ioy after all lt s sornehow another beginning. . lour’ Eric died at twenty-two. aller a ahd-a-half -year struggle with leukemia.r While he left tls with the deep bruises ol grief, he left us sg much more So much to celebratel There’s a victory here that I m still lrying io understand Why do l, even in loss, leel stronger? Why does life on lhis untldy, dangerous planet seem more wonderfullY Precious? I am conscious now ol the vaiue of each good moment, the imPortance oi wasting nothing. These lhings are Eric’s gilts to me. They weren’t easily bought or qui6kly accepted. And noi all came iied with ribbonst manY were delivered with blows ln addition to leLrkemla, Eric was suffering from adolescence. And there were iimes when this condition took more oui of us than his other one A seventeen-year-old boy who may not live to become a man is suddenly in a great hurry.

Like a militant new nation he wants instant lndependence and no comprornises A{ier the ilrst few weeks Eric qulckly took charge oi his illness l was no longer to talk io the doctors ln Nraga’ ne Copvrighl e) lact-the message came through clearly-l was no longer to talk at all unless lcould avoid sounding like a worried mother. Perhaps it would have been dilferent iJ we’d had a chance l(J preparo tor whal was coming. but it was a thunderbolt from a cloudless sky. We live in a small ConnocticLlt town, just a block from the beach. This had been a summer Iike many others. The front hall was, as usual, full ol sand and kicked-of t sneakers, mysterious towels thal didn’l belong lo us, an assorlment ol swimming lins, and soccer balls.

By September, l, like many mothers, was hall-lo’rgilg for school to slarl and hal’dreading it. Our twenty-year-old daughter had married. and now Eric was packed and ready to go otf ior his freshman year at the Universily of Connecticut. But len-year-old Lisa and ‘ourleen-year-old Mark would still oe al home. lkept telljng myself how lucky Id oe to have less laundry and fewer cookie crumbs to contend with. But I didn’t exactly believe it. One afternoon Eric and lboth wanted the car at the same moment. ”1ve got to run al the track. N4om.” He was wearing his soccer shoris and running shoes. “lve only got two more days before school starls, and Im not in shape ” I knew how much he wanted to make the lreshman soccer team when he got to college, but I had work to,do. “l have to go to the printer,” lsaid. “But l’ll drop you ofl at the field and pick you up later.” “Okay. He scowled a bit at the compromise. As we drove olf together, I noticed something on his leg-an ugly red sore, big and round as a silver dollar’ There was another larther down. And another on his other leg. “Eric. What have you got on Your legs?” “Dunno. Liille infection maybe.” ”lt doesn’t look little to me. l protested. “lmpeiigo is what it looks like. We’d better go r;ght over to the doctor’s ‘like mad. lf that’s what it ls. they aren t even going to let you into the locker room. We ve got two days before You qo. Let’s get the doctor to clear it up office.’ – “Moml” He was furious. ”Eric, ‘ I said- “lmpetigo spreads ”All right,” he said dully. The sores did not look like impetigo to our doctor. He told his secreiary to call ll^e hospilal a’ld “-range to have E,ic admilted next morning for tests. Be there at eight. Eric,” he said”What tests?” lturned to the doctor. Eric had had a complele physical requ’red lor all freshmen, only twelve days before. Blood tesls, too. He’d passed wilh flying colors. ”I want them lo rerun some of the blood tests, ‘ said the doctor. I’ve also ordered a bone marrow-” I blanked out the words “bone marrow” as if I’d never heard them Alter all, llhought as we drove home’ he d jlst had that perfect physical. ‘ Yet the nexl afternoon when the phone rang and the doctor was saying’ “l’d like to talk to you and your husband togelher-” I knew at once. “You don t have to tell me,” I said. “l know. Eric has leukamla.” I was once in a house struck bY lightning. The sensation’ the scene’ even the strange electrical smell relurned at that moment A powerful bolt seemed to enie. the top ol my skull as I got the message. . Eric had leukemiaHe’d always been a fine athlete’ a competilor, a runner. Now fate had lripped him; he stumbled and fell’ Yet how quickly he tried to get up and join the race againl Leli at horno that lall, very ill, with his friends scatlering to schools and iobs, he still was determined to go to college later, study hard. nlake the soccer ieam, eventually make all Arnerican. To these goals he soon added suppress symptoms and produce periods of remission. They did not know how to cure it. There was hoPe, though’ in the fact that Eric had a tYPe ol childhood leukemia that was especially responsive to drug thorapy. {BY now, a lew youngsiers arb actually belng cuaed of it.) But Eric, al seventeen, was beyond the age of most efiective treatment Soon we discovered that his bodY overreacted to many of the best drugs and that the recommended high dosage’ needed to destroy diseased cells, tended too quickly to wipe out heallhy ones’ There were times during those first months when I saw him shaken, tighting for control. After all, it hadn t been tqo. long since he was a small boy who could throw himself in my a.ms for comlort Part of him must have been crying, ”Please save me! Don’t let me diel” l couldn’t save him, but lcould show him my own best courago l learned to hide my conceln, my tenderness’ and lsaw he was strengthened by my calm He had to run free to be a mafl lwanted that. lf there were io be no other alternative, eventua ly I would help him die like a We learned to be casual with danger. to live with death i!st around ihe corner. Whenever Eric was discharged irom the hospital after lransiusions (first they would give him two, ih€n five, lhen seven), he would lly down the steps one more-to stay alive We both knew ihat lremendous ordeals lay ahead Leukemia cancer of the blood. had alwaYs been a swift killer When Eric develoPed lhe dlsease in 1968, doctors had just found ways to slow it down by using powerlul drugs lo

A Time lor couraqe just swinging a dut{el bag’ as il he were himback lrom a great weekend l’d hand the keys to lhe car, slide over, and ho would pick up his life as if nothing had happened. Bqt there were always drugs’ always bouts of nausea. I remember once slarting uP the stairs to bring him a cup oJ weak tea He passed me on the way down wearing his swim trunks and carrying a speal gun get lgnor:ng l’le lea. he said Vaybe l ll played pick-up you a fish lor supper'” He soccer, weekend foolball’ and basketball with a hemoglobin so low it left him short of breath, occasionally falnt On ihe basketball court, his teammates, galloping lor a goal at the other end of the gym, would shout”‘Jusl stay there’ Eric-we’11 be right back.” ll was always more than a game he played. His life was on the line’ ”Exercise, Attitlld6, Desire were the chalked words on his blackboard These threo words would bring him through ”You don t die of leuk you know,’ he qoes said once lo me Somelhi.g else going to Your heart. Or your kid;eys lm l’m be ready ior it when it comes for ‘ne going to win.

But he was rioi coniused about ihe nature of hls enemy-at least nol by the time he d spent some weeks on the eighth lloor of [4emorial Hospitals Ewing Pavilllon in New York Ewing Pallenls talk a lot about remissions. oi course. Remission -that seductive wordl Hope, with the end_tohope implied. Eric’s remissions encouraged us Once he gol an elevenmonth stay of execution with the dr!g at him Methotrexate. I remember beach thai summer as he ran the ‘ooklng with triends. AII of them tan, glowing, happy’ allwith the same powqrful shoulders’ the same strong, brown legs What could there be in the bonds of one that differed from the others?

The next day Memo’ial phoned- Eric’s most recent tests had showa that his remission was at an end Even as lwatched him. wild cells had been springing up in his marrow like dragon’s ieeth. More and then more AIM/ays more than could be slain’ ‘ Eric endured and survived many crises- He learned to live on the edge of the ledge and not look down Whenever he had to be in the hospital’ Memorial’s doclors qave him passes to escape tho horror.

Once he wenl out waving good-by to less fortunate inmales on the’floor, only to return an hour later waving from the ambulance stretcher. There was no livjng withoul r;sks and so he tool them. {Th:s is one of his special giits to me. Darel Take life, dangers and all.) The disease gained on him. To prevent infitction ho was fjnally put jn a windowless, isolated chamber, the laminar air-flow room. Sterile air. sleriJe everything, sterjle masks, caps, gowns, gloves for anyone entering his room. He joked, played io the eager audjence peering through his gtass-windowed door. And then sudden severe hemorrhages. Six days of unconsciousness, soarjng fevers. His white count was dangerously low. Plalelet count zerol Hemoglobin hardly worth mentioning. Sure I thougrrt. th,s rs the end. 8ut friends came, literally by bLsloads to gtve blood for t,ansfusrors During that crisisr it took more than thirty-two blood donors a day just to keep him alive. lwatched the doctors and nurses jabbing for veins_ taping both needled arms lo boards, packing the hemorrhages, shaking him to rouse him irom stupor, and llhoughl: EnoughlLet him dje in peacel Why brlng him back lor more? He’s proved himsetl-and beyond. He s had two qood years of college. He made the soccer team and even made the dean’s list.

No morel Let him gol But I had mote to learn about my son’s strength and lesources. There was still much good tife to be lived at the edge of the dark place. Erio came back. He had to remain in the laminar air-flow room, off and on, for nearly fou..months. Yet within weeks h€ was running from twelve to fifteen miles a day. That spring, he didn l get back lo coltege, but in hjs absence they named him captain of the soccer leam; he received lhe award for The l4ost lmproved ptayer, and fina y was ljsted among the All-New England All-Stars. Proud honors, jusuy won. And rl.ere were others. We have a bookcase full of plaques and medals. BJt I I’easure even more the rhings they don’t give medals for: his irreverent humor; the warmlh and love and consideration he qave his lrjends. especjally his comrades in the War on the Eighth Floor.

For these last he was a jaunty hero. survivor ol epic batfles. yet he was always one of them; hopefully, the Golden Warrior who would lead them all to victory-or at least escape. He and a fetlow lnmate almost managed it once. Hiding themselves in laundry carts under djrty linen, they rode down nine floors on the service elevator and out to the sidewalk. Just short of oe’rg joaded wilh tl^e taurdry on a t,uc, they decided to give thenselves up and go back to bone maarow’ intravenous bottles, and the rest of it. There was after all, no real way oulAs a varlation on the theme of escape, Eric invenled Ralph the Camel, a melancholy dromedary who’ although hospitalized {or “humpomeia”’ somehow managed to survive all the witless ireatments his dociors could devise, lncluding daily injections of pineapple juice. Ealph starred in a series of underground comic books known as The AdlentLrres ol Eiting 8, which featured Memorial’s toP doctors, nurses’ technicians, and other notables’ all drawn by Eric in merciless caricature As Dr Bayard Clarkson put it, Eric spared no one, but we could haadly wait for the next Advenhue- ‘ When they asked for more, his price was simple: “Get me in remission.

ii looked convincing. The dociors broke up. The ward cheered! For the moment’ humor had death on the run. The eighth lloor was a bad Place to make friends. As one crusty old patienl put ii, Makg em and you’ll lose’em ” Bul lor Eric. there was no way to stay uninvolved. ln the beginning he looked for the secrets of survival in the most spiriled people around him. “That Eileen is so great,’ he told me ‘She’s beaten this thing tor five yearsl” Or, “Look at that old glry, Mr. Miller’ They just took out his spleen, but he’s hanging in therel”.

Then, as the months oi his treatments lengthened into years, he began to see them go. The good, the brave. the beautilul, the weak, the whining, th€ passive- They were all going the same way. . Eileen, Mr. l4iller’ and so many more. when he was at home during one of his last remissions’ he chalked uP new words on his blackboard. ‘We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea and we owe each olher a lerrible loyally (G. K Cheslerton) Eric would not desert or fauli his companlons He would play his heart out while the qame might 6till be won’ but he was beginning to ihink ol the unthinkable. The casualty lists on the eighlh floor were long . At the end, Eric finally accepted his own death. This acceptance was his last’ most precious gilt to me-what made my one ol his exploits becarne a legend.

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