Friday the 13th

October 20, 2016

In the 4th grade, all I thought about was getting older. I worked hard to please teachers, and to form bonds with friends that would carry through to middle school and beyond. I used to be the kind of the kid who would talk to the para-educators during recess, and would look forward to indoor recess days, because I had the opportunity to stay inside, and go to the “book nook”, instead of being surrounded by yelling kids running amuck. As I grew, this faded away as I found my niche. In 3rd grade, I began to spend more and more time with my new found friends. Soon enough, I was one of the little hooligans laughing her head off, and arguing about the rules of playing foursquare or wall ball.
The next year, we all seemed to be so much older, which pleased me immensely. We were almost 5th graders, after all. We could start watching movies that our younger siblings couldn’t. Sometimes, we could even watch PG-13 movies. One of my classmates even said they watched Friday the 13th with their parents, and that they had nightmares for weeks. It was an exhilarating time.
The big milestone of the year was the talk that all fourth graders get in June. We all acted as if we knew what it was, but really we were all clueless. As the week of the assembly where the talk would occur approached, it was all anyone could think about. We would jabber openly about the possibility of what it would entail, and as a teacher walked by, we would all hush instinctively. It was almost as if no one could know we anticipated this so much. My mind was consumed by it. The days began to blur together, and I all but forgot about my schoolwork. We read a book or two, but that was all I could tell anyone. I couldn’t say what was for lunch that day; I couldn’t remember the words for the spelling test that week. Things at home were hardly ever on my mind, other than my mom asking me daily how school was going, and I would give her the same answer: “It’s fine.”
Then that long awaited day finally arrived. Friday, the 13th of June. Summer was just around the corner, but the entire 4th grade class could only think of this day. The girls and boys were separated as we walked down the hallway, one group heading toward a portable, the other toward the library. All the girls squished together between bookshelves, focused on the projection at the front of the room, reading Just Around the Corner. As the nurse began to talk, words like “menstruation”, “period” and “puberty” came into play.
A half an hour later, we all filed out of the library as the dismissal bell rang. The day was over, but we lingered for a moment to discuss the “life shattering” news. We all shivered jokingly, acting disgusted at what was just told to us. As I walked to the pick-up area to find my mom, my little brain was going a mile a minute. I remember being so disappointed that it hadn’t lived up to the hype. It was all just information about something that wouldn’t happen to me for years.
Years. All that waiting just to get a free sample deodorant, and a few feminine-hygiene products.
Feeling dejected, I searched and searched for my mom, but she wasn’t there. As I grew worried, I laid eyes on my dad. I walked up to him, confused as to why he wasn’t at work. He refused to answer any of my questions, simply stating that he would explain everything when we got home. My heart rate increased suddenly, a pit forming in my stomach. That 2 minute drive up the hill felt like it lasted hours. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what was the matter, but I worried that I did something wrong.
As soon as the truck pulled to a stop in our driveway, I fought every urge I had to bolt towards the front door and burst inside. The tension grew with every step I took towards our house. I threw my backpack down by the door, and headed toward the living room to wait for the harrowing news. His footsteps were heavy behind mine; weighed down with the sadness I could see leaking out of his eyes. I had never seen my dad cry before. I felt exposed, standing in the middle of the room, susceptible to his emotions. He breathed in deeply, and told me simply: “Ian has leukemia.”
Everything from the past month suddenly came rushing back to me. In a way, my life flashed before my eyes. I suddenly remembered the book that we read in school, “A Thousand Paper Cranes”. The main character in the novel was a victim of the Hiroshima bombings, and had leukemia. Immediately, I thought of the ending of the book: death.
I collapsed forward into my dad’s strong, protecting arms, and I thought. I thought about the laughs that I had with my brother, all that I had learned from him. I thought about our weekly “Avatar – The Last Airbender” viewings, and our family camping trips. But mostly, I thought about our walks home from school together. For the past month, my brother had been complaining as we walked up the hill from school. It was steep, and pretty long, especially for a 2nd and 4th grader. His back was bothering him, and at first it was just a little bit of irritation. But as the weeks passed, he began to wince as we made it to the top. I thought he was just complaining, and doing his best to be the most annoying brother that he could. Boy was I wrong.
A few days prior to that Friday, he couldn’t even get out of bed in the morning. He woke up crying at random times during the night. Not even pain medicine or chiropractor visits would help. My parents had spent weeks worrying, trying to figure out what was wrong with their son. At his last chiropractor appointment, the doctor saw how much pain he was in, and knew something was wrong. The next week, he was at the hospital for an MRI. The day after the results came in, he was hospitalized. He stayed there for a week, getting intense rounds of chemotherapy.
We packed bags that would be sufficient for an undefined length of stay. As my Dad called relatives, his face would twist into that of grief and despair. His pain, our pain, rippled through our friends and family as more and more people heard the news. Even my classmates heard the news over the coming weeks, and I got a few phone calls from friends I hadn’t spoken to in years. People came out of the woodwork to give their love and support, most of which was directed towards my brother. Most children don’t understand why attention wouldn’t be given to them at any point in time, or at least divided equally among siblings. This was a lesson quickly learned for me. I learned to accept the fact that my brother was going through an extremely trying ordeal, and I was just along for the ride.
That ride took us to the hospital, full of antiseptic that would sting my nose, crying children suffering immense pain, and the fluctuating temperature. We would spend the next three years driving down that stretch of highway, this building on a hilltop waiting for us at the end. Things were hard to comprehend, his condition deteriorated. Eventually, I stopped coming to the clinic visits with him. I knew that the chemotherapy would ultimately improve his condition, but it was so difficult to see him get worse before he got better.
The years passed, and my brother sprouted up about two feet. We were growing up quickly, and my brother was in remission. His skin wasn’t quite as pale as it used to be. He had returned to his old, obnoxious self, as all little brothers are. I had grown to miss his sassy remarks, and the passion in his voice when he talked about history. His treatment had been over for about a year and a half, and I had just started high school. Life was just getting back to normal. Then Mom got a phone call.
My mother sensed the diagnosis a few weeks after the backaches had returned. After that, it was almost as if we had hopped back in time. The same phone calls were made. The same bags were packed. And for the next three years, the same road to the hospital was driven. It wasn’t any easier with repetition, but our learning was amplified. Because I was older, it was so much easier to read the emotions of those around me
Now every Friday the 13th leaves me to reminisce on the life that we could have had, and the life that we did have. Instead of being a day filled with grief, it is a day of remembrance. Cancer, for my family, was a double edged sword. Although it brought my brother immense pain and suffering, it exposed him—and the rest of us—to the good present in the world. It taught us strength, and sympathy. It taught me to be more aware of others, to care for them when they are in need. And most of all, it taught me much scarier things could happen on Friday the 13th than a visit from Jason and his chainsaw.
Rachel Bridges