Slurping chicken noodle soup, Robert looked up from watching Saturday morning cartoons, “Robert, I need to leave for a bit, will you be okay for about an hour?” “Sure Mom, I’m feeling a lot better this morning. I hope I can get out of here today.” “I hope so too, I love you, I won’t be long.” “Love you too, Mom.” I leaned down and kissed Robert’s scruffy head of newly grown hair-I breathed him in a bit holding my face there for just a moment.
Five minutes prior, I had been sitting with a doctor who informed me that Robert’s leukemia was back and he would die inside of 6 weeks. As he spoke, I stared at my 11 year old son watching cartoons and eating soup; the doctor’s words traveled from his mouth, hovered in the air finally, piercing my ear. He offered no mercy, there was no hope, no clemency in his words. They were a death sentence for my young son. Robert had no idea what his mother had just been told. His fate was being sealed on the other side of a glass window…
I stepped out of the cold hospital to be greeted by a clear, crisp cloudless fall day. It was early October and as much as we hated being in Tennessee, the idea of watching the seasons change seemed inviting. Robert and I would drive around the winding roads taking in the lush green landscape and talk about how it will look once the season changed. It even smelled like fall that morning. I sat on a bench, looking into the cloudless sky, the words of the doctor resonating in my ears, the image of Robert sitting in his bed just like any 11 year old boy would on a Saturday morning watching cartoons. All I knew was, I had to call his Dad and repeat the words of the doctor.
Robert was elated to learn that his dad and older sister were coming back early. “Jessica is coming too? She will have to miss school, I can’t wait to hear about school, heck I can’t wait to get back to school!” They arrived late that day. The drive from the airport was silent except for the short conversation where the 3 of us agreed not to say anything to Robert until after his bone marrow aspirate on Monday. I did not know who I ached for more, Robert, his Dad, or my 12 year old daughter, the oldest of our 4 children. I did not even bother to factor myself in the equation of pain. There seemed no grace for a Mom at a time like this. It seemed my fate was sealed as well.
Robert’s excitement to see his sister and Dad warmed our hearts. He quizzed his sister about school, told her about his new backpack and school supplies, how it felt “kinda cool” to be in Tennessee this time of year, fall, back to school time. “They had a big party for us, they gave us school supplies, some dumb Barbie dvd and there was this girl dressed up like Barbie.” Robert talked and talked to his sister, they did what any brother and sister would do, acted like kids excited for new things.
The 4 of us spent Sunday together. Robert wore his mask to protect himself from as many airborne things he could, he had no idea we were told it did not matter what he did now. We had as much fun and laughter as we could that day. At one point Robert kicked us out of his room so he and his big sister could watch one of his favorite dumb movies. His Dad and I stood outside the room listening to them laugh like fools…we cried and laughed when they did. Robert and Jessica were thicker than thieves, my “Irish Twins.” They loved being called that. I do not know how my 12 year old daughter kept the secret of her brother’s fate those days, but she did. She wanted to enjoy his laughter; her bravery humbled me and made me stronger.
Monday came too quickly. It was October 7th. The hospital had begun decorating for Halloween. The kids talked about their costumes and wondered if Robert would be home for trick or treating. Robert’s bone marrow aspiration was finished by late morning. His Dad and I were delivered the confirmation that his marrow was full of cancer cells. His transplant had failed. How were we going to tell him? Robert understood, as best as an 11 year old could understand, what it meant if his transplant failed. We all went back to our apartment. I knew I had to be the one to tell him. I also knew his Dad could never tell him, he could not even tell himself. No one offered us any hope, there was no mercy to be extended. Relapsed leukemia offered no leniency, and handed down a hefty sentence.
Robert, Jessica and I were lying on the bed in our room, Robert’s Dad listened quietly in the other room. I had no words. What or how do you tell your 11 year old son he would not be attending the art school he had been accepted into with his sister, or that he might not be alive for Halloween? There we were, the 3 of us, huddled like puppies. Our heads together, me in the middle, my “Irish twins” on either side of me lying there anticipating an afternoon nap.
“Robert, I have to tell you something… Robert, your cancer is back.”
As the words left my mouth they hovered above us as we hoped they would vanish into thin air, but they didn’t; they landed right where they were intended to land…
”Mom, my transplant didn’t work?” “No Robert it didn’t work.”
My heart slowed, I was gasping without making a sound…I could feel tears on my left shoulder where my sweet boy always laid his head.
“Mom, I don’t want to die… I don’t want to die…”
His words breathed out quietly, softly a plea for mercy sent into the thin air hoping not to vanish but to be heard to change his fate…
*Robert lived to trick or treat that Halloween, he died 6 weeks and 1 day later.