It ended before I knew it with a phone call in the kitchen just back from my first trip to the Caribbean, that was supposed to be a surprise birthday trip but a buddy had spilled the beans back in March. The phone rang at say 6 pm, it was July 10, 2004, a Saturday and I don’t ever have to check a calendar because you always know where you are when your world ends.
I picked it up. My college son, Jesse was on the other line. “Mom, don’t freak out.” And I knew it was bad, but college bad, not the other kind, right? “Okay, I’m sitting down,” I said. Mom don’t freak out but I have leukemia.
So that was the beginning. I was on the next plane from New York to Chicago. When his girlfriend’s mom took him to the ER there it was for a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop. Nobody hit him. It just wouldn’t stop bleeding. I thought of him in cargo shorts and low rise sneakers lugging bikes up and downstairs at his job, bumping himself, bruising. How easily he could have bled to death just doing his job.
They wouldn’t let me near him without a mask and gloves. He was livid that life threw this at him, right before his senior year. Wry, ironic in his suburban hospital room with nice carpets and a view of a lawn he would never walk on and a tree he would never touch.
We moved him downtown, the local hospital didn’t have facilities to treat APL. It was pure luck the admitting doctor recognized it in his blood, had seen one case before, once, and never forgotten. Another day, week, he’d have been dead. Chicago gave him two more years. He went back to school that fall. Chemo tube in his chest, he went to class. They let him use a handicap sticker for his car so he didn’t have to walk far, but the insurance didn’t consider this a disability that would let him stay insured and off his feet while he fought for his life.
But he did it.
And the rest of the end came later. After he moved in with his girlfriend whom he’d loved since freshman year, after they went to Europe together and nearly starved trying to stick to their vegetarian diets (in Paris, by God). After they skydived together and had the sense to take pictures so even now I can see the shot of him apprehensive at the door of the cabin, the shot of him holding in his terror as the plane climbs, and the wide grin as he leaps out into nothing.
The world doesn’t end in a split second, see. It rolls around a while before it comes to complete stop. So Jesse got to graduate and he got into law school furious it wasn’t the one he wanted but he’d try again later after he could get off the oxycontin for the endless pain in his back that no doubt started with the bone marrow samples they drilled out of him with an ice pick while I watched. He got through the first semester. Everyone loved him because he made law funny. Don’t ask me how; this is what they told me at his funeral.
Yes. He had all that before the world ended. When the nurse at the new hospital called me to come in even though I was sick and not allowed to be around him because he had no white blood cells, and I thought they needed me to sign some papers and she said no, just because you need to be here. And I knew and didn’t know what exactly she was saying. The world is a juggernaut that must destroy everything in its path before it can stop.
He was already gone when I got there. Induced coma. I called to him anyway as they wheeled him from the single room he’d had to fight them to give him, that he’d only spent a weekend in, while the drugs made him hallucinate he was anywhere else, back in the semiprivate. Watching a movie. The one weekend I couldn’t be there because I had a cold but now that didn’t matter and it would never matter again that I wasn’t there when he looked up from the toilet seat at the nurse and gave her his wry grin, his ironic take on his own death happening already in his brain. What I called to him was, I’m here Jesse. I won’t leave.
And still the world wasn’t quite done with us. They wheeled him down to the ICU and everyone who knew him or me flew in or drove or took a cab or somehow found us and we slept on the floor of the unit like gypsies. Kids from his high school, his law school. Generations of my family. None of us knew what to do, least of all me, the unofficial leader. And we believed in everything that couldn’t be true, that his brain would stop bleeding, that he could hear us. That he could wake up. That this could end any other way than how it did. I was a terrible leader. I wouldn’t leave him. I didn’t care if he came back without a voice or brain. I didn’t care if it took him months to die. I wouldn’t leave him. I threw away all my stupid voodoo healing amulets. They meant nothing anymore. Then I retrieved them from the garbage and tried to put them back together as if that somehow would reverse this. Nothing does. Because next the doctor with her pleading eyes comes to me as if it’s somehow my fault Jesse’s heart is still pumping and she says I’ve got to stop this. And I let her.
She won’t let me stand with him while they pull the tubes out of him, but compromises and I stand on the other side of the curtain and hold his dear swollen foot without seeing what his body is subjected to. I hold onto him like Thetis knowing there is only one end to this awful bargain of a world. They clean him up and let me back in and his heart is still pumping. He hasn’t got enough in him to breathe or even know he isn’t breathing, but it still beats. Slower until it fades. And that is the last of him and my world.
I sometimes wonder what life is beyond this one. Or how or in what fashion one might find his way there.