It’s not like every day you get told that you’re sick. I mean really sick… like dying sick.
I think I took it pretty well, considering. Mother, maybe not so well. She found the news unfathomable. She’s had her serious face on for the past two days. Constantly demanding retests and different opinions. Her MacBook’s been glued into the socket next to my bed. Probably searched the entire world for answers. I know she’s scared and desperate to help me, but I wish she would just stop. More than anything, I think I just needed someone to talk to. Didn’t have to be about me being ill, in fact, it was best it wasn’t about that at all. Just a random conversation. School, the footy, Lord of the Rings… anything really. I didn’t want to admit, even to myself, that I was afraid.
It was my sixteenth birthday last week, I was officially a young adult, and today I was told I that I had no longer than 4 weeks to live.
How do you even react to something like that?
I had planned my entire life, to the age of sixty. That’s another 44 years. Now I don’t even have 44 days. Bummer.
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. A bit of a mouthful. Doctors told my mother that normally someone my age, if its treated early, would have an 85% chance of surviving. I wasn’t that lucky. Damn unlucky, in fact. The trouble-making cells had spread aggressively. That’s me through and through – do everything to the extreme or don’t do it all.
It’s a rare type of cancer that mainly affected children under 15. I should have been in the safe zone. I guess statistics and google searches are as mysterious as life itself.
I found it amazing that a doctor could evolve from a medical practitioner to an oracle. Enlightening people of when they will die. Death, just like life, is an enigma. Just the way we didn’t choose to be born we don’t choose when we’ll die. I remember hearing a story of a man that announced that he would kill himself at a specific time and in a specific way to prove that he was in control of his death and cause of death. He climbed up a tall ladder attached to side of a building and had planned to hang himself. When people heard about this they climbed the ladder to stop him from committing suicide, deeming him to be a mad man. In a panic, he killed himself five minutes earlier than he had proposed. Sacrificing his life just to disprove his own theory. I’m not sure whether the story was true, I guess it didn’t matter. The moral was definitely true. Life is a gift, a gift that you have no real control over. But I guess you only start thinking like that when you’re in shoes like mine. I examined the manky blue-plastic hospital slippers that I had been forced to wear. Who the hell would want to be in these!?
The entire day had been consumed with conversations about the cancer. The possible causes, symptoms and treatments. Just because my body had been consumed by the cancer, didn’t mean I had to expend all my time discussing it as well. I refused to give it that much authority over me.
Apart from collapsing, a couple of days ago, in the school cafeteria, I had no other serious symptoms. I felt fine. I know it probably hasn’t sunk in yet, but I really didn’t feel much at all. Least of all, fear or regret. Two common things that are often claimed to be felt at the doorstep of death.
I had no intentions of devoting my last days practicing Zen in some Buddhist temple or even sitting on a couch for hours on end speaking to a therapist. No, we all must accept that from the day we arrive, we are preparing to depart. With only a limited amount of time in between the two phenomenal events. I just wanted to hit the bike track with my best friend Tad. Endless hours on the Xbox, stuff my face with pizza, get a brain freeze from a slushy, sneak and watch an 18’s horror flick. You know, all the wonderful things that only people my age truly appreciated.
“Mrs Higgins, I am sorry, I really am… but there is nothing we can do.” doctor Raj said. He squeezed his lips and formed a sympathy smile. “As I have explained, the cancer has spread and—”
“So that’s it!” Mother was furious. She done that thing with her face, her forehead creased, her eyebrows met at the top of her nose and her face filled red. She was on the war path. I had seen that face quite a few times before and it never ended well.
“You’re just gonna give up! Let him die!”
“Please Mrs Higgins…” Doctor Raj raised his arms, showing his palms. A clear indication that he didn’t want trouble. “I know this is hard but try to—”
“Hard!” Her eyes looked like they were about to ferociously burst out of their sockets and strike him like burning cannon balls. “And don’t you dare tell me to calm down! Don’t—you—dare!” The next thing to come out of doctor Raj’s mouth would determine whether blood would be spilt. Mother was taking no prisoners.
Doctor Raj looked like a wise man. Judging by his receding grey hair and wrinkles around his eyes, I would say he was hitting his fifties or at least late forties. Looked in great shape. Must visit the gym a few times a week.
He remained silent for a moment. The sympathy smile resurfaced, “I’ll be in my office down the hall if you need me. I think you need some time to digest the circumstances.” He paused for a second, “I will be talking to some of my colleagues about Jake this evening, they are specialists in this field. I will see what they say.”
Mother turned her face away. I could hear snivelling, “thank you…” more snivelling. Doctor Raj handed her a tissue, then silently slithered out of the room. Definitely a wise man. The only response that could have come to par with that would have been complete silence. A cowardly, but much safer, option.
Mother stood frozen for a while. I searched my mind for something to say. Blank. I remember reading once that carefully chosen words articulated in a particular way could act as a sedative. Sadly, I couldn’t find the right ingredients.
I felt a little claustrophobic. Chained to a bed by a cannula. I loathed it. I wasn’t sure whether it was the bland sandwiches or the iodoform hospital smell that revolted me the most. Either way, I kept the sick bowl in easy reach. And it was warm. A horrible, almost unbearable warm.
If I was going to be dead in few weeks, which according to docs, was a cold, hard, fact, why the hell would I waste my last moments in this dump?! A fortress full of people with grim faces and forced smiles. Annoying beeping sounds, loud footsteps, blindingly bright fluorescent lights – if anything was going to make someone sick, surely it would be this dungeon.
“Mum…” I finally gained the courage to speak. She turned to face me. She appeared pale. Sunken eyes, sucked-in cheeks. Mascara running.
She wrenched a smile. Her crusty lips looked like they were about to split. She had aged overnight.
My heart sunk, “mum… I… I’m sorry.”
A tear rolled down her cheek. She walked towards me, “why are you sorry?” she put her arms around me. “This isn’t your fault – none of this is your fault.” I hated what this cancer was doing to her far more than what it was doing to me. She didn’t deserve it. Especially with everything she had gone through over the last couple of years. Made redundant from a seventeen-year career in an accounts company, one that she helped establish. A painful separation from a man that she loved far more than she hated. And now this. She must feel like everything she cherished was being savagely snatched off her. Cruel acts upon which she had no control.
I guess, on reflection, I’m the lucky one. I get to escape the pains and torments of life. Early parole.
“I want to go home.” I whispered into her ear. Her green eyes looked deep into mine.
“I know. And I want you to as well, but this is the best place for you right now.”
“You heard what the doctor said. There is nothing they can do for me.” I knew these words would be stabbing into her heart like a dagger. “Mum… please, I don’t want to spend my last days in this place. It’s like a prison. I want to see my friends… I want to say goodbye. I want to ride my BMX bike just one last time.”
I could sense she was fighting to not burst into tears. A faint smile emerged on her face. Small dimples exposed themselves.
“How about we strike a deal?” She stepped back and tilted her head. Her eyes shrunk and smile grew. Just like when we played monopoly, every summer.
“I’m listening.” I folded my arms, raised one eyebrow and grinned curiously.
“You stay put until the specialists check you out and then we break out of this joint together.” She removed a pen from her purse and put in her mouth like a cigar.
I paused for a moment. Tilted my head and gazed into the air. “Deal!” I put out my hand.
“Great!” She shook my hand vigorously. “I love it when a plan comes together.” Her favourite A-Team line.
“I love you mum.”
“I love you too.” She grabbed my cheeks. Our eyes locked. “Listen to me… you’re gonna be fine. These doctors don’t know what they’re talking about. You can’t predict when someone is going to die using a textbook. Besides, you’re not going anywhere, you’re still grounded.”
“What!” I shrieked. “What for?”
“Oh… I’ll think of something.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know… the next hundred years!”
“Mum, cancer or no cancer, I don’t think I would make it a hundred years to fulfil my hundred-year sentence.”
“Well, I guess your kids will have to inherit the remainder.”
“Ice cold!” She made a fist. “Fist pump.” Her arm trembled as she held it out.
We both suddenly jumped as we heard a loud buzzing sound. We looked over at the bedside table. It was my phone. It sat on a food tray and the vibration caused a horrendous racket. We looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Stupid thing!” Mother said. “Scared the life out of me.”
“It’s dad.” I said. Her face lost its colour.
“Well…” she said.
“Well… aren’t you going to answer it?”
“Yeah… are you going to be… OK?”
“Of course not…” Her face turned deadly serious, “you answer that phone and I will probably melt like cheese in a toastie! Or worse, maybe I’ll transform into a wild beast!”
“Ha-ha! You’ve read too many fairy tales.”
“You love fairy tales… you know you do, my prince!”
“Ahhh, you think I’m a prince.”
“Yes. A very handsome one!”
“Like crazy handsome – like Shrek handsome.”
“Cute! I think I should answer the phone and speak to my less sarcastic parent.”
“Hey champ. I know this might be a silly question, but how are you feeling?”
“You mean apart from the cancer?” Dad fell silent.
“Sorry dad, was having an intense conversation with Mrs Sarcasmo! I guess it’s contagious.”
I could hear him coughing faintly to clear his throat. “Hey. Listen, I’m just about to board a flight. I should be with you soon.”
“That’s great dad. I’m really looking forward to seeing you.”
“Me too son. Me too.”
I felt guilty that he had to bail from his business trip in Beijing. I told mother not tell him until he came back to the UK in a week’s time, but she said it wouldn’t be fair on him. I guess it made sense. Especially as the white coated Oracle has specified an exact time for my departure.
“I’m gonna get a coffee, you want anything?” Mother stood up and stretched her arms and then massaged the back of her neck.
“Anything at all?”
“How about a cab?”
“Fine! I’ll settle with a hot chocolate. And not one of those cheapy watered down ones – I want a full fat creamy beast.”
“Yes boss!” she saluted.
Full fat hot chocolate was my guilty pleasure and considering the recent bombshell, it wasn’t like I needed to care about staying in shape. Not that really I cared before. I was blessed to have a fast metabolism, so I could literally vacuum food and not put on a shred of fat – a point of envy for many of those around me, including my best friend, Tad. He could put on weight by just standing too close to food. He would purposely walk on the other side of the street when we would pass a MacDonald’s. I used to think it was because he was fighting the temptation but later he admitted that he felt fatter if he got too close.
I stared out of the window. The weather couldn’t make up its mind. The sun was out but sky had some menacing clouds roaming around threateningly. I never really appreciated being able to freely stroll outside and feel a bit of sunshine or catch a bit of drizzle. I do now. I guess this was similar to a convict sitting behind bars – to make the analogy more realistic, it would have to be a convict sitting behind bars… on death row.
My phone buzzed again. I blinked fast like windscreen wipers on full speed. Dad.
“Son… I’m sorry but I’m not catching the next flight back.”
I fell silent. I could feel a family of butterflies in my belly.
“Erm… is everything OK?
“Yes, everything is fine.”
“So, why aren’t you catching the flight?”
“Because…” My eyes shot to the door as it swung open, “I caught an earlier flight. Surprise!”
“Dad!” I screamed. He darted into the room and hugged on to me. For a moment, I had completely forgot where I was. “I really missed you.”
“Me too, son.” He stared into my eyes. He smiled. I loved the fact that he didn’t have a look of sympathy or fear. He just smiled and looked excited.
“I got you something.” He said impatiently.
“Cool!” I raised my eyebrows. “Well, what is it? And are you going to give to me?”
“Yes. But you can’t show anyone – do you know how hard it is to get a lethal weapon through airport security?!”
“Dad! You didn’t?”
“You bet I did!”
“What is it?” A rush of excitement surged through me. “Is it a Samurai sword? Ninja stars? Throwing knives?”
“It’s better than all of those… it’s nun chucks.”
“No way! You did not get through the airport with nun chucks?!”
“Oh yes I did!” he reached into his pocket and removed a small pair of plastic nun chucks. “They’re Skittle nun chucks.”
My smiled dropped and I sighed. “Everyone’s a comedian today!”
“Come on… they are dangerous!” He swung it around using two fingers and made sounds of wind blowing like in the old Kung-Fu movies. I shook my head.
“What? They’re dangerous for your teeth. They’re full of sugar.” We both burst out laughing.
“It’ll be dangerous when mum sees that you got me sweets filled with “E” numbers.”
Dad’s smile dropped. He swallowed uncomfortably. He then stood up straight and began swinging the little nun chucks more wildly. “I am master dad…jing!” he said in the worst attempt at a Chinese accent I had ever heard. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. “My Kung-Fu…” he then continued moving his lips without making a sound, mimicking the poor dubbing skills used in the early movies, “…is far more superior than anyone else’s… hahaha!”
I suddenly froze and looked past him. He noticed something was wrong. He screwed up his face. “She’s behind me… isn’t she?” he asked, still in his silly accent. I nodded.
“Gary.” Mother said as she walked in holding two plastic cups.
“Louise… hi…” He snuck the nun chucks back into his pocket and winked at me.
“You’re here early.” Mother said, expressionless.
“Yes, someone cancelled on an earlier flight so I got the seat.”
“I am sure Jake was thrilled to see you.”
Dad smiled. The room remined in an awkward silence for the next few minutes. The tension was strong enough to shift a mountain. They did well to put everything aside and try to keep the focus on me. It was kind of nice. I felt like a diplomat stood between two ferocious armies that were prepared to battle it out to the death. Yet deep down neither wanted to see each other hurt.
“So, erm… how was Beijing?” I asked, desperately trying to puncture the atmosphere of uneasiness.
“Beijing…” he cleared his throat, “yeah, I mean I wasn’t there on a sightseeing tour, it was strictly business… but it was beautiful and the people there were very nice.”
Mother began typing away on her MacBook. Back on the hunt for answers.
“How was the food?”
“Probably a bit better than here.” father said, inspecting the uneaten sandwich on the table next to the bed.
“The food here…” I whispered, “it’s not food at all.”
“Don’t worry, I will sort something out for you. I got this great app on my phone, it helps me find the best places to eat. In any location. Isn’t that great?”
I had to admit, I was impressed with apps like that. They made life easy. Sometimes too easy. I was, however, surprised that father even knew how to use the app store.
“You’re finally using the smartphone for more than just calls and the odd misspelt text message then!”
“Hey, I’ll have you know that my business has moved from paper advertising to online advertising. We’ve now got a new website and our new app is being developed as we speak.”
“Wow!” I was genuinely impressed. “Welcome to the twenty-first century!”
He stuck out his tongue like child.
“Anyway, enough about that. How are things with you? What have you been up to?”
“Me. Oh, I have just spent a bit of time discovering myself, and you know… asking myself some of the deeper, bigger questions.” I could see his face dropping. It was as if he was frightened about what was coming next. Poor guy probably felt like a déjà vu of the time I asked him where babies came from.
“You know questions like…” I paused for a moment – a feeble attempt to add some dramatic effect. “Questions like: why hospitals, places that swindle you into believing they are here to save your life, feed you poison.” I pointed at the sandwich. “Or… provide patients with oxygen masks only to try to kill innocent visitors with the smell of murdering chemicals! Or… one moment it is so cold that you feel the symptoms of pneumonia and the next, you’re lying in the pits of hell!”
“Uh huh.” father said. “I’m guessing you’re not enjoying your stay.”
I shook my head.
“I know how you feel. I don’t really like these sorts of places. They give me the creeps and—”
He was interrupted by a forged cough from Louise.
“But…” He quickly changed direction, “this is absolutely the best place for you!” He grinned. “I think I should go and speak to a doctor and see what’s going—”
“I have spoken to the doctor earlier,” mother interrupted. Eyes still glued to the screen.
“And he is going to confer with some specialists and come back to us in the morning.”
“Ah, OK.” I could sense a bit of relief coming from father. He hated doctors and hospitals. And he knew mother was not the kind of person that would leave any stone unturned. Something he both admired and loathed about her.
“So… we’re definitely here until tomorrow.” father said, trying to sound cheerful. Mother’s face moved from the screen and she gave him a penetrating look. “It’s OK, I’ve booked a hotel two-minutes-away from here. I will stay there the night and be back here first thing in the morning.” He looked over me. “And… if you would like I could bring you a Subway sandwich.”
My mouth began to water. “Yes! Yes please… I’ll have—”
“A foot long, Italian toasted bread, melted cheese and salad. Oh, and a bit of chili sauce and a hint of mayo.”
“Perfect! Thanks Dad!”
Father glanced at his wrist. “Ok… so, I guess I’ll be off then and—”
He was suddenly interrupted with a knock on the door.