I wake up in a dark room. I am seven years old. I look out the window and there is snow covering the ground. It’s fresh. Strange ice patterns have crawled up the glass panels, trying to creep into my home, into my house. I run to the bed next to mine and shake my sister awake. She snorts and sits up, pushing me away. I stand back and say nothing. I just watch her. And then I see the realization dawn on her face. She knows. She’s been waiting. And now it’s here. It’s finally here.
The two of us bound down the stairs together, two at a time, nearly tripping over each other’s feet. We each grab the banister and rocket ourselves into the living room where we lay our eyes upon one of the sweetest things an American child will ever see:
A Christmas tree pregnant with gifts.
Oh . . . try to remember, try to remember. The full tree, the red globes. The lights. The stockings. The presents. I am seven and this is my currency. These are my diamonds. There are so many boxes of so many shapes and sizes in so many varying brands and designs of wrapping paper. Where to start?!
The night before was torture; lying awake in bed, in the dark, staring at the ceiling. You must sleep! I tell myself. Shut your eyes! But my desperation for what tomorrow brings is too great. I lie in bed until exhaustion overpowers me and, like a robot, my body simply shuts down.
I tentatively reach out and touch the first present, the second present. What’s in the big box? A Super Nintendo? A go-kart? A time machine?! I begin to tear and shred; paper is raining down upon my sister and me as we are swallowed up into a complete endorphin high. Neither of us can hear the other squealing with glee.
All is good. All is happy. Everything is perfect.
This is not a story meant to pluck your heartstrings in a way that says, “Ah, but the seven-year-old did not know what awaited him in twenty years.” This story has a bigger purpose than mere parallel emotional trite.
There is a magic in Christmas morning for children. It is something we have all felt and experienced but have lost having grown up. Certainly, Christmas is still fun and warm and inviting as adults but there is something unique about the quality in the air as a child that, once gone, can never be recaptured.
But here and now I tell you that, as a twenty-six-year-old man, lying in my bed on the fifth floor of the Arcadia Methodist Hospital on January 15, 2009, I feel like a seven-year-old on Christmas morning. That magic was back.
My time, my journey, my experience, my nightmare was finally coming to an end. The light at the end of the tunnel was not only in sight. It was here. Today. From my initial diagnosis to the final drip-drop of chemotherapy, my grand total was 163 days under the gun—3,912 hours of fire-refining damage control.
I wish I could tell you that there was one single moment where I simply crossed a line or walked out the door and then it was over with a bang, finished like a race. But that’s not the case.
This is how Cancer ends.
Not with a bang but a whimper.
A nurse enters, and looking at my final chemo bag, unceremoniously states, “All done.”
I shut my eyes and I pull in breath and I sob in happiness for the first time since my brain cancer came back negative. After so much distress and tragedy and bad news piled on top of us, here it is. Tears roll down my cheeks and onto my pillow and my wife squeezes my hand and my mother squeezes my other hand and the three of us have made it through alive.
We. Have. Survived.
The nurse pulls out my IV for the last time, and just like that, I am free. While I’d love to tell you that it ends there, it doesn’t. Because the reality is I’m still very sick. I still have gasoline and particles of nuclear fusion soaring through my veins and it will be weeks before they’re out and it will be months before I feel like an actual living human again. Who knows how long it will take for my eyebrows to come back . . . .
Sue leads my entire nursing staff into the room, six of them total. It is this group of complete strangers that have made me feel as much at home as I possibly could have over the course of the last six months. They’ve given of their time and energy to help me keep my attitude highest when it wanted to live in the depths of oblivion. They were my cheerleaders, my team, my friends, my family in a time when I needed all of those things. These people went above and beyond their duty to bring me safely to The Other Side. They guided me back across the river Styx.
Sue sets a chocolate cake in front of me and says, “For when you get appetite back.” The cake is the most delicious and unappetizing thing I’ve ever seen and it turns my stomach but I value the personal token of friendship deeply.
I remember the first hospital we’d visited where they’d forgotten my paperwork and I try to imagine what six months under the care of The Careless would have been like. I shudder.
I stand up slowly and individually hug each of them, staining the shoulders of their smocks with my tears. I embrace Sue last, our special mother-nurse and I whisper, “Thank you,” in her ear. Her body is small and frail and I realize that I currently have the same physical build.
She says, “Mike will take you outside. Sit down,” and she signals to a wheelchair. The Wheelchair. The Final Wheelchair. Mike steps behind me, grabs the handles and pushes me into the hallway where my wife snaps a photo of me with the group of them. It will become something that I cherish deeply.
Mike begins to push me forward, and Sue says, “See you later,” and I turn around and say to her, “Sue, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea but . . . I hope I never see you again.” She smiles and laughs and says, “Yes . . . . Yes, I hope I never see you again either. Be healthy. Be well!” and then she turns and disappears into another room, with another patient, to change another life.
Mike pushes me to the front door where my mother is waiting for me with the car. I stand up, turn, and shake Mike’s hand. He’s always been a man of very few words and so he just says, “Good luck,” and I say, “Thank you for everything.”
I turn and walk out of the hospital and into the light.