The non-stop trip to Memphis took almost exactly 5 hours. Cub and I left the hospital in our hometown at 7:00 in the morning, less than 10 hours after his initial diagnosis of leukemia.
I was exhausted and numb. The night before had passed quietly, willfully ignoring the fact that I wanted time to stop – or at least for morning to come and reveal that it had all been a dream, despite the fact that I had never fallen asleep.
At first, Cub watched the receding traffic out the back windows, took stock of the various medical equipment stowed away in see-through cubby holes, and laughed at the funny sounds the tires made on the road’s changing surface.
And, at first, all I could do was watch him. I soaked him in as if I was a dry, crusty sponge desperate for the waters of life. My beautiful boy innocently enjoying an adventure, despite the IV in his ankle, the weakness in his blood, and the nausea that wracked his little body in relentless waves.
Eventually, the meds kicked in and he fell asleep. A member of the EMT transport team leaned towards me and asked if I’d ever been to Memphis.
“No.” I smiled, dragging myself to the surface for a little small talk – wanting to be polite. The 3 men on the team were working a double shift to get my son to St. Jude’s as soon as possible.
As we chatted, he revealed that he was a Memphis native. He had traveled a bit, but always came back home. He told me about the old-time flooding of Beale Street and the best place in town to listen to the Blues, if I ever get the chance, and then he started telling me about St. Jude’s.
He told me they only have about 100 in-patient beds. He told me he was amazed that we were getting in less than 24 hours after diagnosis. He told me how it was the best hospital in the world for “what your boy has.”
His words spoke hope to my aching heart, and suddenly we couldn’t get there fast enough. I wanted to get started – to have someone, an expert, tell me what I needed to do to make my son healthy, and then do it.
When we drove across the bridge that turns Arkansas into Tennessee, I couldn’t see a thing in front of us. I could only see what we were leaving behind.
Once we arrived at St. Jude’s, we were led into the isolation area of the Leukemia Clinic that seemed so foreign, yet in the coming weeks would become a second home. Within minutes, we were quickly moved through a labyrinth of hallways, onto an elevator, and wheeling into what would become Cub’s room for 10 days.
In those first few hours, we were embraced with kindness by everyone from the cleaning lady, to the head nurse and a flurry of Specialists, Residents and Fellows who crowded into Cub’s room – each introducing themselves in turn, already working to develop a rapport with him.
One of the senior Fellows explained to me that he was sure the next day’s bone marrow test would show that Cub did indeed have Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, or ALL. He said that what they didn’t yet know was if it was T-Cell or B-Cell. He also said that Cub had the most common kind of childhood Leukemia — the one that, after 3 years of chemotherapy treatments, has the best cure rate: 90%.
90%? The doctor in Springfield had said 96%. No. We NEED that extra 6%.
I nodded my head and signed the necessary paperwork so that we could proceed immediately with whatever needed to be done first. Cub had another IV placed, in his arm this time, and the one in his ankle removed. Bags of fluids were dripping life-giving antibiotics and platelets into my pale little boy.
I ordered dinner for him while he watched The Lego Movie (again) and a nurse took my arm, offering to take me on a quick tour around the floor while another nurse was checking Cub’s vitals.
She showed me the little community room for the parents, which housed a washer and dryer, as well as a small bathroom and shower stall. Then she showed me the nourishment room 4 doors down where I could go to get Cub an apple juice or graham crackers to help settle his stomach in the middle of the night.
Then she asked if I had any other questions.
I struggled to keep my composure and said something like, “The only other real question I have is, how do I make sure he’s in that 90%? He has to be in that 90%.” My brown eyes, eager and pleading, stared into hers.
She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “He will be. He WILL. The cure rate is more than 90%. You’ll see. And right now, the best thing you can do is be strong for him because he’s going to be looking to you to know that he’s going to be okay.”
I nodded my head and said okay, not quite satisfied, but appreciative of her efforts.
A few minutes later, I stole a moment of privacy to call one of my friends.
“What do I do?” I whispered. “I can’t guarantee anything! I can’t make sure that he’s going to be okay! How do I do that for three years without knowing he’s going to be okay?”
I was panicked. In tears. And terrified.
My friend said something like, “He will be, Marilyn. He will be okay. And think of this. What do you want these three years to be like for him? And for you? Do you want to get to the end of these three years, and he’s fine, and they were filled with fear for nothing? What do you want to see when you look back? What do you want him to see?”
The answer to her question wasn’t hard to find. It rushed to the surface of my heart like a diver racing for air.
I want Cub to see love. I want Cub to see joy. I want Cub to experience the power of peace. I want Cub to enjoy his childhood.
This meant I had to believe. Despite my fears. Despite my world-weary heart. Despite my own weaknesses.
In that moment, I chose our future. I chose laughter, movie nights with popcorn and root beer floats, snuggles and blanket forts — moments that would inevitably be punctuated with chemo meds, injections, fevers, and random hospital stays. But. I chose my son’s childhood over my own fears.
If you’re facing such a choice in your own life, please remember that it is POSSIBLE to find joy in the midst of sorrow. It is POSSIBLE to redeem that which seems to have been lost. It is POSSIBLE to walk through the unthinkable with your child, and come out stronger, and even better.
Please know that you are not alone. We Cancer Mommies stick together. ❤