“I think you should sit down.”
It's a phrase nobody ever wants to hear. It's what doctors tell you before they tell you you have cancer or what your boss tells you before he fires you. They're words nobody ever thinks will be said to them, but everyone usually has to hear them at least once in their lifetime. It's an expression used in many movies and books, although I cannot think of any specifics at this time. But surely I've heard them numerous times in movies and on television.
Of course, that's only if you're thinking of the words as a negative. They could be positive, after all. When you're checking the last number on your lottery ticket and all the other numbers have matched up, your friend might utter the phrase. Right before someone tells you you've won a car or something. Or, when you're given a major promotion or pay raise. Better yet, when you're told your son has gone into remission, after fighting leukemia nearly all his life.
The latter has just happened to me. I've been told the words twice in my entire life, both by the same man, who has been a necessary constant in my life for the better part of four years. He first stated it when my son was only two, before he told my husband and I that our baby had leukemia, advanced leukemia at that. It was then that I knew that the expression was not a cliché belonging to movies and novels, but a phrase that was real and now real in my own life.
It was strange how a saying could completely change meaning based on its context. The first time I heard the it it was framed by the worst day of my life and followed by the worst news I'd ever heard. The day is a blur and I only remember the important parts of that conversation, the worst being the fact that the doctor only gave my son three years if we were lucky.
From that moment on I thought about all the things he would never get to do. Graduating college, getting married, and having children of his own were the last things on my mind. Instead I was thinking of the simple childhood things. Getting on the bus and going to Kindergarten, learning to swim at the town pool, sitting at the kitchen table working on homework alongside his older sister, having sleepovers with his friends, playing man hunt late at night with the neighborhood kids, building snowmen, going to bed with white socks on in hopes of getting a snow day the following day. The list was endless and it encompassed all the things I had done as a child and everything I wanted for my own kids.
Instead he spent his time learning the names of all the nurses who worked on the pediatric floor of the hospital, when the nurses' station restocked on pudding cups and popsicles, what it was like to be the only kid in preschool with no hair, and how to sneak a puppy into a hospital room. I learned all of that right along with him and wished everyday that they were experiences he never had to go through in the first place.
“Shush,” I whispered to Jenna, who was giggling, as we crept along the hallway.
“But Mommy, what if he jumps out?” Jenna asked, eyeing the canvas bag I had on my shoulder.
“He won't,” I assured her. We reached Cody's room a short while later and I quietly shut the door.
“Look!” Jenna shouted as I set the bag down. “We got a puppy!”
Cody's eyes lit up like they hadn't in months. There was something so incredible about seeing your four-year-old smile after so many months of not seeing it. I lifted the black Labrador puppy out of the canvas bag and set him on the bed. I was risking getting myself thrown out of the hospital, but it was worth it to see Cody giggle.
“What's his name?” Cody asked.
“Midnight,” Jenna replied. “I named him.”
Cody smiled and patted Midnight on the head. Midnight wouldn't sit still and all he wanted to do was lick Cody's face. I didn't let him stay on the bed long because he started trying to chew on Cody's IV. I was in the process of putting Midnight back into the bag to take down to where my husband was waiting in the car to bring him back home, when the door opened.
Everyone except Midnight froze as one of Cody's favorite nurses walked in. She was the one who always snuck him an extra pudding cup when she was on duty. She took one look at the squirming Midnight and started laughing.
“I didn't see anything.” The nurse laughed as she began to check Cody's IV.
“Thank you,” I whispered as Jenna and I hurried out of the room, with a struggling Midnight back in the bag.
Throughout the past four years we never gave up. Not once. No matter how many nights I tried to sleep in a hard plastic chair, staring at the dank white walls of my son's hospital room, I never lost hope. There wasn't a single ER visit that convinced me that hope was lost. It was strange that I thought of everything my son wouldn't get to do yet I never believed he would quit fighting.
My son never went into remission for more than two months at a time during the past four years, which is why I became immune to the doctor telling us he was in remission. It never really meant anything. It gave us a brief few weeks where we could pretend our family was just like any other and we used the time wisely. One time we went to Disneyworld and another we went to Niagara Falls, both of which the kids loved. Other times we did things like a simple weekend camping trip or a day trip to the beach. It never really mattered where we went, just that we were together and away from the hospital.
“What is it?” Three-year-old Cody asked as he bent down over the nearly transparent sea creature that had just washed up on shore.
“It's a jellyfish!” Six-year-old Jenna exclaimed.
Cody reached down to touch it, but Jenna grabbed his hand. “No, don't touch it! It might still be alive and it could sting you. Come on, I'll race you to the ocean!”
Jenna took off at a run, with Cody close behind her. I smiled as I watched them go meet their father, who was waiting in the shallow water. Jenna had always been Cody's protector, his guardian angel at times, and this was no different. She was always looking out for him, even when she wasn't asked.
“Mom, come here!” Jenna shouted. “Daddy found a fish!”
I took another moment to watch the three of them together and listen to Jenna and Cody's laughter before taking off towards the water to enjoy what remained of the peacefully calm day.
It had been six months since he had officially been in remission again and we were all waiting for the ball to drop. His last remission had lasted two months, the longest one yet, and this one had already long surpassed that. As is, he had already long surpassed the three years the doctors had given him back when he was two. Even Cody himself seemed on edge, like he was expecting to get sick anytime. Then it happened. He wound up sick and couldn't keep anything down so it was back to the ER.
That was yesterday. Cody had been admitted to the hospital for fluids and tests and a few hours later my husband and I were called into the doctor's office. The strange thing was, and I noticed it as soon as I walked in, was that the doctor didn't look sad like he usually did when he informed us that the leukemia was back. Instead he looked slightly happy.
“I think you should sit down.”
My stomach dropped as the doctor said the same words he had said to me five years ago. I glanced at my husband before sitting down in the all too familiar leather armchair.
“Cody has the stomach flu,” Doctor Joyce told us. “Probably caught it at school. Second grade classrooms are filled with germs. He's a little dehydrated, but no worse off than any other kid in his situation would be in.”
“Wait, wait,” I interrupted. “So the leukemia isn't back?”
“Oh, no,” Doctor Joyce smiled. “In fact, he's just as healthy as he was when he went into remission six months ago, minus the stomach flu of course. Anne, Stuart, I think the bone marrow transplant we did seven months ago did the trick. I honestly don't think you have to worry about it coming back anytime soon. Cody's a fighter and given his past history with remission I think it's safe to say that this is the real thing.”
That was why he told us to sit down, I thought. I felt light-headed and had to close my eyes for a few seconds to recover. After five years Cody was actually better? All he had was a normal stomach flu that would not cause a relapse? Every other time Cody got anything like a cold or flu it either caused a relapse or actually was a relapse.
“It's not necessarily permanent, of course, since nothing with leukemia is, but I think you're safe for now,” Doctor Joyce went on. “I'd like to keep him for observation overnight just to make sure he can start to keep food down, but tomorrow he can go home. Have him take a few days off school, but after that he'll be fine.”
I still couldn't believe it, as I stood there in my kitchen doorway watching Jenna and Cody play a game of Monopoly Junior. Cody was still in remission and was recovering from a normal stomach flu, the kind that Jenna got nearly every winter. He was not going to have to return to the hospital the following day for chemo treatments and he would get to go back to school in time for the class field trip to the history museum.
It was then that I allowed myself to start thinking of Cody's future beyond building snowmen and learning to swim. I thought of his high school years when he would learn to drive and maybe join the soccer team or star in a school play. Then his college years when he would stay up all night studying for a class that he would fall asleep in the following morning. And after that, maybe even marriage and children. They were things that I never allowed myself to think about when Cody was three, but now they were breaking through the surface in my mind and filling me with the deepest happiness.
I heard footsteps behind me and Stuart put his arm around my shoulders. I leaned into him and together we watched our children, our two healthy children, laugh and just be kids.
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“I think you should sit down.”
Chapter end notes:
Thanks to my sister, Linda, for betaing this!