To see him lying there, bloated and nearly naked due to feverishness, tubes like exterior veins protruding out of his neck in a knot of grotesque jewelry, a patch of dark blood–had it gushed?–spread out and dried on his chest, a thrum thrust through my torso like when a plane breaks the sound barrier. He turned to me when I arrived, when I said, “Wow,” careful to keep a certain amount of lightness in my voice, like when you slip on the ice and fall hard but assure everyone concerned that you’re just fine, and he said, “I’m sorry, honey.”
I think at that point he probably knew it was bad since the machine those tubes attached him to was removing his blood, cleaning it, and returning it, in an effort to quickly reduce the number of white blood cells which had been replicating unchecked in his blood. A science teacher, a teacher of biology and chemistry, certainly he knew. But he is also a pragmatist with a healthy shot of optimism. In other words, he’ll face what he has to face, but he won’t think the worst until it’s absolutely proven to be happening. Then it’s a matter of science; luck hasn’t much to do with it.
The women from the blood center who worked the machine, who showed me the bags of his blood, both red and white, mentioned chemo to one another. I didn’t let on that I’d heard, but soon I went out into the hallway to find the hematologist and suggested they make an effort to talk to him about the chemo since he had not been told directly that he had anything that necessitated such treatment. I said all this without so much as a crack in my voice. She was unwilling to commit, to declare it was cancer, to say more than that they suspected a form of leukemia, because the lab results weren’t in yet. But she promised to have the resident stop by and explain what they’d learned as soon as she could track him down.
I went to his bedside, and asked if they’d told him they were going to start chemo, that it was likely leukemia. He said no. He stared up at the ceiling. Tears pooled in his eyes. And then they were gone. I told his parents when they arrived–they drove from Minnesota on a feeling that things were not all they appeared to be, parents who had already lost a son to cancer–, that it was likely leukemia. His mother shook her head, said it might not be, that the tests might reveal a less devastating diagnosis, but I was sure, just as I’d known there was something wrong with our son’s development before anyone else believed it could be true.
The resident explained to us what Acute Myeloid Leukemia was. He used simple pictures on a white board to illustrate what had happened in Mark’s body before we could know it was happening. My memory of these moments is solid–I see the room, his rough sketches, and hear the resident’s voice, a reassuring Indian sing-song, clearly–but I’ve turned the information around in my head so many times, trying to apply some sort of logic to the incredible, that I’m afraid each time I speak that I’m repeating some laughable interpretation of the facts like a game of telephone.
As I understand it, a chromosome went wrong and one rogue cell started birthing premature white blood cells which then replicated more premature white blood cells, ad infinitum, driving the platelets and red blood cells out of the neighborhood that was his bone marrow. And because immature cells can’t do the work that mature blood cells can, his immune system was an inadequate barrier against any kind of illness. The cause is a gene mutation, a mutinous enzyme, a scratch on the record, that caused his cellular production to go awry. If left untreated, the immature white blood cells would proliferate until he is dead. Because this new chromosomal error is uneditable, they must clean out his bone marrow and replace it with another person’s.
Some leukemia survivors regard their bone marrow transplant to be a rebirth. They take pictures of themselves celebrating their new birthday. Some report changes in their bodies–gluten intolerance, overly-sensitive skin, a lingering fatigue. Some make vague references to not feeling quite themselves. But I can’t help but fear, in a kind of wondrous disbelief that the best science fiction engenders, that the man I married, whom I have lived with for the past 20 years, will not, at the end of this odyssey, be the same. Is this the ultimate test of nature versus nurture? Creationism versus evolution?
Our son’s neurological disorder is undiagnosed. The closest we get is to say he has a seizure disorder, but there is no answer to the question: why him? There is no cause determined, no prognosis predicted. The geneticists and the neurologists and the epileptologists and the other specialists have looked at his test results, the scans of his brain, the vials of blood and spinal fluid, the space between his eyes, the shape of his fingernails, and found nothing to explain why he is as delayed as he is. Is he–are we?—just unlucky? Perhaps the world would be a friendlier place for him and for me if we had an explanation for the idiopathic symptoms that plague his development and his safety. Maybe we could put the questions to rest–Is it something I did?–but then what good has that done us in Mark’s case? Leukemia is something that makes sense to doctors; it is an affliction that has a rote protocol. But it doesn’t mean we don’t ask the same questions: why him? why us? what happened?
Life strikes. Bang. Mark’s cancer was like a car crash without the car. One day he was home, then the next he was beginning a month in the hospital, the start of a six month process toward getting cured, and maybe a two year process to become himself again. And yet, I took it in stride. Maybe it was shock. Maybe it was the Zoloft I’d been taking for a few years since my anxiety over my son’s health and special needs had turned into constant high wire walking. Maybe it was our son’s recent 3-week hospitalization over the previous Christmas and New Years that had prepared me for another long haul, another effort in compartmentalization, the practice of segmenting my strife from my life.
Because that’s what you do when you abruptly–is there any other way?–learn that your husband has cancer and treatment begins even before either of you has time to prepare. There was no choosing, no strategy, no warning that I would suddenly become a single parent of our special needs child, the primary money-earner, as well as the grateful, if begrudging, hostess to the constant stream of family members and friends and child caregivers and dog walkers and house cleaners who offered their assistance. Every one of the 25 days he was in the hospital, I kept it together. The gun had gone off, the race had begun, the ground moved beneath us, and we had no choice but to run, a marathon and a sprint both. Exertion and fear of stopping forward movement drove every decision, every action.
Most people picture The Big Bang as just that, a big bang. Like a spark and a flame that suddenly brought the universe into being. Energy makes sense. Flipping the lightswitch makes sense. But if the universe truly began not from a bang, but from intense pressure that literally pressed the world into being, then how? I suppose it’s why we look to God; the answers are so minor compared to the wonders of the world, the wonders of blood, the white and the red. One day, long before we knew Mark had cancer, something happened and suddenly? He had cancer.
And maybe there are times in a person’s life that are so combustible that you are fused into another version of yourself. My husband may earn a new life by accepting life from another person, but perhaps he already is becoming someone else. Perhaps it doesn’t take blood to renew the spirit. And perhaps it doesn’t take God either. Perhaps the extreme pressure he is under will change him regardless of the transplant, of the noncancerous cells recreating in his body minutes, days, weeks, and months after. And perhaps the same is true for myself. I wonder, after so much pressure, how much of my previous self is still there? How much of me is memory? And, maybe I wonder, how many times can a person be recreated before the pressure becomes smothering and the light just dies out.