It was a lazy holiday weekend and I haven’t done much work on my latest short story so I’m sharing a piece I wrote for a creative writing class I took a few years ago while (finally) finishing my bachelor’s degree. This assignment was to write a nonfiction piece in second person. I had a hard time writing in second person but I think it works well for this story. It wasn’t just the point of view that made this assignment so difficult for me. This work details the helplessness and fear that I felt while my then-2-year-old son was fighting leukemia but before we had a diagnosis. That 2-year-old is now a healthy 8-year-old and cancer-free. Re-reading this work brought me to tears. It is impossible to tell anyone what the time Before Diagnosis was like but this comes close.
Three in the morning. Even the insects are asleep at this hour. But not you. Not you and not your little boy. Neither of you has been to sleep yet. Neither of you has slept more than an hour or two for days. The grit of sleeplessness is embedded in your eyes and you think you could sleep for days. But there is a whimpering two-year-old on the couch and there will be little sleep again this night.
Night turns the windows into mirrors, and a hollow-eyed specter stares back at you from the darkness. You shift your focus to the blackness beyond the windows so you don’t have to confront the worry so evident on that face. Stars dot the sky and a sliver of moon is just visible above the pine boughs dancing in the wind. On the bushes just outside the glass, tight flower buds that are hot pink in the daylight appear gray right now, the color washed away by night.
The playroom has become a makeshift sick bay. The boy whimpers and cries when you try to pick him up so the sofa has become his bed and a nest of blankets marks the place where you pretend to rest on the floor next to him. Your attempts to give soothing cuddles simply cause more pain-induced wails so you can only hold his hand to comfort him. How much easier it would be if he could tell you where it hurts, you think.
“It’s going to be OK, Pumpkin Pie. You’re going to be OK,” you whisper as you smooth the blond curls from his blazing forehead. “Let’s take your temperature again.” He doesn’t resist the cold thermometer under his arm and that passivity tells you that his temperature is going to be in the stratosphere again. Wide blue eyes, their usual smiling brightness muted by fever, search your face and you can’t help but think they look at you accusingly. “Why don’t you make me feel better, Mommy?” they scream at you. “I hurt so much. Help me.”
Holding the boy’s arm tight against the thermometer, your thoughts drift back to just a few weeks ago when he was a happy and healthy child, running through the grass with shrieks of delight. So perfect at bedtime and so sick the next morning. The fevers that come and go and the permeating pain he feels seem to have no cause, at least no obvious cause. This boy has had more medical tests in two months than you’ve had your entire life. Blood chemistries and spinal taps are inconclusive. Ultrasounds and MRIs and X-rays show no abnormalities. You’ve scared yourself silly looking it up online: his vague symptoms fit everything from meningitis to juvenile arthritis to leukemia and lymphoma. You send up a silent prayer to a God you don’t believe in. “Just let us find the cause. I just want to know. I need to know.”
The chime of the thermometer is as familiar to you as your ringing telephone. You dutifully record the temp, 103.7, in the chart you’ve been keeping. You’ll read off the numbers to the pediatrician’s office in morning and hope they will finally refer you to whatever specialist the boy needs. You think you will start swearing at the doctor the next time he says the word “virus.” It’s far more than a virus, and your intuition knows it. Cliché or not, mothers do know when something isn’t right.
The carpet is rough under your bare knees and the air conditioning puts a chill in the air. You can’t take away his pain and you can’t hold him but you can’t leave him either, not even for the few minutes it would take to change to warmer clothes and adjust the thermostat. Resting your forehead on the nubby fabric of the sofa so he can’t see your tears, you hold tightly to the soft pudgy hand and hope that your love and presence are enough comfort for this frightened and hurting little boy.