For a parent, leukemia in a seven year old is a quite a bit different than leukemia in a fifteen year old. When a child is seven, they look to their parents for pretty much everything. At fifteen, they (especially boys regarding their fathers) are convinced their parents are complete morons. Reagan is a fairly typical teenager. You should hear some of the petty arguments we have about the most mundane things, as we spend way more time together than is natural for a dad and his fifteen year-old son.
I try to relate to things in a way that fifteen year-old boy can appreciate. To make him feel good about what he’s about to go through, I tell him that bone marrow transplants aren’t for sissies. And of course, he ain’t a sissy. We used to have a little saying when he was playing soccer–as it seemed he always played against guys that were bigger and stronger than him–“Don’t be a pussy”. “DBAP, baby” we’d say, when he’d tackle some kid twice his size. It meant to do the best with what you’ve got, and don’t bemoan shortcomings over which you have no control. I can tell you, he ain’t a pussy either.
Then there’s my short summation of all he’s going through: Luck Feukemia. If you’re having trouble figuring out what it means, let me offer an example of similar word play: At Minor, Coach Halladay had a bumper sticker on his desk (not car) that said “Buck Ferry”. Berry was our biggest rival. Yes, I know. I’m permanently disqualified from winning any “Dad of the Year” awards for my lack of piety. But fortunately, Reagan has realized the error of my ways (even if he does think it’s humorous) and he almost never cusses, even if it’s the one thing I’m probably best qualified to teach him. But he gets the point. Leukemia sucks. There’s no way around it.
For him to even be in transplant is something of a miracle. His cancer didn’t go into remission on the first round of chemo, which set Dr. Berkow’s legs to swinging as he sat on the examination table in Exam Room 8 where he and I met after the bone marrow biopsy confirmed that the leukemia wasn’t responding. Berkow is a great guy, but with a very tough job. He routinely has to tell parents that the options are narrowing. When you say your prayers for Reagan, pray also for Berkow and all the other doctors like him. I’ve done a lot of what I thought were pretty tough jobs in my life. None compare to that of a pediatric cancer doctor.
But the cancer didn’t go in remission because it was the same cancer as before (a daughter cell of the previous leukemia, as Berkow said) and we had tried again the same initial chemo as before. Once I figured all that out, I was actually a bit relieved it didn’t go in remission. Reagan beat this same cancer before. He can beat it again.
The next round of chemo got it in remission, a prerequisite for a transplant. It took two weeks in the hospital, followed by a tense day awaiting the results of a the bone marrow aspiration. There is nothing–no theology, no philosophy, no drug, no amount of praying, no nothing that can save you from the excruciating pangs of fear in your gut when awaiting the results of a test that will tell you whether there is a chance or not of your kid surviving cancer. I actually hugged Dr. Berkow when he arrived with the results. Yeah, it was sort of a man-hug, but still. He got us to transplant.
A bone marrow transplant is like one of Tolstoy’s families. To paraphrase the opening line from Anna Karenina: All successful bone marrow transplants are alike, each failed bone marrow transplant fails in its own way. In other words, there are a 1,001 ways it can go wrong, and only one way it can go right. Pray and hope that the one right way accrues.
Regardless the outcome, I’ve learned a multitude of lessons from the struggles of my young son and his character revealed thereby. I had shuttered my law office and begun working on a book about the lessons of the first transplant when, a couple of months into it, Reagan relapsed. The theme of the book (which will now surely never be written, but not because it’s not a story worth telling or the lessons weren’t worth learning, but because I don’t think I’m man enough to tell it), was that we should always focus our lives on the eternal, forsaking the temporal. Paradoxically, the way that is best accomplished is to live life one day at the time. And so Reagan does, marvelously.
Beautifully written Stephen! Please remember Reagan, his doctors, and the entire Keith family in your prayers as they prepare for a bone marrow transplant.