Friday, January 7, 2011

Just Stuff

I spent the last week of 2010 visiting my best friend.  Her 10-year-old son began radiation treatments and chemotherapy the day I arrived.

Picture a child, his thick black hair slowly growing back in over the scar left by a line of stitches stretching from the top of his head to the nape of his neck.  It's slowly growing out of the reverse-mohawk he's had since the 8-hour neurosurgery he underwent in October.

He's not so self-conscious about it anymore; he doesn't feel like he has to wear a hat all the time when he goes out now.

He nonchalantly lies down in a clean white pod and adjusts his head to try to fit comfortably in the bowl-shaped indentation.  It still bothers him to lie flat; the scar tissue on the back of his head makes lying on his back uncomfortable.

It's worse when he can't have a pillow.

One by one, red laser beams train a series of intersecting lines that eventually merge in a cross hair on his forehead.

I'm standing in a dimly-lit chamber that looks like it was designed for the Empire's Death Star.  I can't think of a single thing to say to anyone.

We have to leave before they start the radiation itself, of course.  A small device will arc back and forth over his head, making several sweeping passes in concert with the trajectory of the laser beams.

I keep thinking that it's not fair.  I should be able to say, "No.  It's okay.  I'll stay instead.  He can go.  I'll do it, not him."  But I can't say that.

It wouldn't work.

He wears a mesh mask that has been custom-fitted to his face; his nose is always red when he leaves.


We can watch it all on the monitor outside.  I can't help but think that I'm watching my little friend on a hellish little security-cam in a place where neither of us should be.  He looks very small, lying on the table in the enormous room full of serious machines.

That's all I can think, that he looks so small.

I remember the day my friend picked me up at the bus station in Santa Rosa and I hopped into the van and smiled at her new little baby boy, only a few months old.  She had unbuckled him from his car-seat and held him up so that I could see him right away.  He was wearing a little sweater I had made for him.



The radio starts playing Jim Brickman's "It's a Beautiful World (We're All Here)."  One of my favorite songs from last year.
You fell asleep under the starlit sea
It's time to wake up
The moon is high above you
We're all here 'cause we love you

And when you finally open your eyes and ears
You'll see and you'll hear us singing
La, la, la, la, la, la,
It's a beautiful world and we're all here...

When he's finished, the nurses tell him to put a sticker on the calendar they've made especially for him, so that he can mark off the days of his radiation treatments.  He chooses Snoopy and Woodstock and puts them up hurriedly and without enthusiasm.

He's humoring the nurses.

It looks like a terrible advent calendar of dancing Snoopys and fluttering Woodstocks.  35 treatments total, 5 days a week.  He'll be finished in early February.   

He's annoyed because he doesn't like the pants his mom made him wear: they hold the static and--he tells us repeatedly--they itch too much.  He pronounces the cocoa in the waiting room vending machine, "the best he's ever had," and looks forward to having it again the next day.

Until the IV antibiotics he's administered once a month make him barf it all up on the car-ride home one day, that is.  He's mostly annoyed at the indignity of having to barf in the little potty that his mom keeps in the car for his 5-year-old sister--she's "his worst enemy," he insists.

He's taking daily doses of Temodar, an oral chemotherapy for brain tumors, accompanied by Zofran, an anti-nausea medication commonly used in chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

He's developed a strange familiarity with medical events.  Shots aren't fun, but they're worse if the nurse hits a nerve.  IV's are terrible, particularly if you have to have one in your neck.  The numbing cream doesn't work all that well when they have to put a stitch in your head after they take out a drainage tube.  Ports embedded under the skin look strange; a teenage boy at the oncology clinic showed him his.

He has been inundated with Christmas gifts from friends, family, neighbors, community outreach groups, church groups, schoolmates.  Chocolate Santas, Legos, Nintendo DS game cartridges, Scrabble.

One day, when he's sad, his mom tries to cheer him up by pointing to all the gifts he's gotten.  

"It's just stuff," he tells her.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."