Skip - Part 55
I got into the front seat as Matt walked back. We knew we would be late getting home, so Matt would get Snoopy in the morning. Matt and I were both tired enough to head for bed right away.
I was a bit surprised to see Matt in bed with me when I woke up. It was still dark.
"You cried out, bud."
"Sorry Matty. I woke you."
"S'okay Aaron. Um, who's Jake?"
I looked at him for a moment.
"I'm not sure. But I think he's someone who needs me."
"So Jake isn't BC Jake?"
"No. I talked to him the first time I had dreams about this Jake. If something was wrong, I would have felt it through Jeremy too."
"How are you going to find out who Jake is? Is he in trouble?"
"I dunno how to find him. But he's in trouble. I just feel something. Like a disturbance in "The Force" in Star Wars.
"Sleep for a while Obi Wan. It must be draining to feel so deeply. You can have what you need from me."
I took only a little. I held his arms as he hugged me. It was easy to go back to sleep.
When I woke up, I was looking right into Snoopy's eyes. He edged closer to me and licked my nose. I kissed his. Matt laughed behind me. He leaned in and said "One for me too Snoops?" Snoopy licked Matt's nose too. He got down off the bed and went downstairs. Matt and I got up. He went to his room to put on shorts and a polo shirt. I dressed likewise. Summer was barefoot season on most days. I don't like sandals or flip-flops, so it was either my Nike's or barefoot. I was happy that Snoopy didn't leave land mines in the back yard. He and I played in the backyard pretending to wrestle. He had me pinned at the shoulders, licking my face, making me laugh, when Matt brought cereal and milk to the table on the deck. Snoopy knew that Matt had a bowl for him too, so he took off like a rocket.
"Good job Snoops, you got the big bad ... uh. Hmmm. Guess I can't finish that thought without lying. But you do know that Aaron knows about payback, right?"
Snoopy cocked his head at Matt. We cracked up, which made Snoopy jump against Matt's legs. One does not ridicule the little beagle and get away with it.
"Good thing he can't kick you in the nuts."
"Sshhhh. Don't give him any ideas!"
After breakfast, we went out to get the Sunday paper. The girls wanted to have a do-nothing day since we did so much yesterday. They went to have brunch with a couple other teachers. Jeff joined us and we went out to the basketball court.
Three-point shot. Raised eyebrows from both the boys. A grin from me and a half-assed promise to stop showing off. I'm glad it was only half-assed. I shot two more before we were done for the day. The guys said my punishment was to pay for lunch.
Life was good all that summer except for the almost-five tumors that left me in pain and sometimes in tears. Doc had to add a second treatment day. If we were not aggressive, the tumors would not die. I just hoped that being so aggressive would not kill me. Matty and Jeff held on tight. I puked like I never puked in 41 years of my life. They made me eat so I wouldn't starve to death. So much for Plan B.
"I hate my life Jeff. I hate more that I'm ruining yours."
We were at Jeff's home. Kelly was in school. It was Thursday morning. Matt wanted to stay with me. Jeff made him go to work at least until lunchtime. I had made it clear in the beginning that these four were NOT to miss work for me. The girls had to get ready for classes beginning in a week. They said they could put it off for another day. I told them no.
"It's not your life you hate, only a part of it. I would too, truthfully. But you don't hate your life. You are NOT ruining my life. "
"The part is bigger than me. It makes me ache. Dr. Toddman showing me that my kidney is in trouble again scares me too much."
"We'll fix the ache. I ache too, bro. It hurts to see you fighting so hard and getting nowhere. But fight anyway. You're not alone. Let Dr. Toddman worry about your kidney. You can't. "
"Feels like it in the middle of the night."
"Tell Matt. He feels like I do. Trust him, bro. It's worse without Skip and Billy. I know that. We all do. "
"But ... "
"Do you know how good it feels to hold you? To ... to love you?"
I shook my head. How could he hold me? How could he come close to loving me? But he proved that he enjoyed holding me. He sat against the corner of the sofa and put me between his legs, my back against his chest, his arms around my chest. He kissed my neck. He sang Ms. Dion's "To Love You More" softly in my ear, making me relax. My pain meds would act better if I were not fighting them. Jeff put his cheek against mine. When I finally did relax, Jeff turned me a bit. He looked at me. A man who could look into my eyes, not flinch, not look away, and not be sorry for staring would have my very soul forever.
He did something that I wanted him to, like Matty had done once already. He whispered in my ear. He did not say what Matt had said. But the meaning was the same. He made me a promise. No way I could dismiss it. He was right too. He kissed my forehead to make sure I knew. I nodded. He kissed me lightly on my lips. Then he blushed.
"Sorry bro. I ... "
I kissed him back. He smiled and then he held on tighter. We dozed off together for a while. Another kiss woke me up. I opened my eyes to see Matt's sad eyes.
"What can I do for you, Aaron?" he whispered, so as not to disturb Jeff.
I kissed his lips. He smiled and returned it.
"You just did, bro. Thank you."
He went into Jeff's kitchen and made a salad. When it was done, he came back in. He kissed Jeff's forehead. It was easy to see why these two had been childhood friends. Losing a brother sucked. Matt made sure Jeff was loved every day from the worst day of his life. There would be no more 'worst days' for Jeff. We had talked about his younger brother. We had gone to the cemetery to spend quiet time because he found it too hard to go alone. We don't do things alone, especially the hard things. He stood by me, so I could stand by him. Sadness was meant to pass.
Jeff woke up. He snuggled closer for a minute, wanting to know if I was okay.
"I'm okay. You're aces bro."
"Nah. Just a decent man. I want you to be okay."
We went to the kitchen to eat lunch. I played with my salad more than I ate. Sigh. The boys watched me. Matt scowled a bit. I stopped picking and ate. Matt went back to work. Jeff and I sat in the backyard the rest of the afternoon.
An old friend has been visiting on a weekend each month after my arrival. His name is Joe. He was young Andrew's heart mate of seven years before Andrew's death. Joe, now a paraplegic because of two dumbass teens, lived as full a life as he dared, and then lived a bit more. He is an awesome young man. We shared sadness together, which made it easier on both of us. We talked fondly of our young love. Joe had easily forgiven me for falling in love with young Andrew. I had made a promise to Andrew all those years ago that I would bring Joe home from the hospital and rehab. I had done so. He now lived with young Andrew's parents, about an hour away from Matt's town.
A new little friend came into my life too. His name is Ben. Ben is a toddler of about three, also a cancer victim. The world is a cruel place even for a three-year-old. Ben wasn't bothered too much by his shots. He was doing fine after a rough winter and spring. He came over to me each time he came for his shots. I always had a little present for him-his favorite candy bar. He went to my backpack after climbing into my lap and giving me a hug and a little kiss on my cheek. He always asked first. Dad approved of my treat for Ben. Dad was a fellow GE engineer.
"Mmmm, Nicka," said Ben. "Thans Awon."
He gave a bite to his dad. He licked his fingers of the melted chocolate, giving the other half of his dad to take home. He kissed me goodbye. I gave him a hug. I would see him in about three weeks.
Dr. Toddman's wife often visited us. She was a caring woman, not a caring professional. She has private reasons to care for Doc's patients. She talked to us kindly, with a heart and soul of a woman who knew things that she would not burden us with. She would accept our burdens and ease our pains. She loved my thoughts about living in the moments. She typed it into a graphics program, printed it out, framed it, and hung it in our treatment area. People read it and smiled. Elisha had given me attribution. I told her no-they were for all of us. I wanted no credit for merely putting words in an order that happened to be nice. She told me to stuff it. Sigh.
August became early September. The unforgettable moment of my life was watching the World Trade Center and the Pentagon crashing and burning. We talked about it for weeks.
Almost as bad as September 11, to me, was Day 2. Day 2 means dread and incredible pain and incredible sickness; debilitating sickness. Day 2 is mind numbing and exhausting. Day 1 is merely annoying, and leaves me feeling as if I have the flu.
Doc hooks me up to my IV and goes to the lab to work on blood samples. There's a young man, about college age, sitting in a chair against the other wall, with his oncologist attending to him. I know all the doctors here, so I know she's an oncologist. He looks as she starts to connect the PICC line then looks away like it's too much to see. He then looks back again to see what she did. He stares at it as if it's a cobra twitching in front of him, afraid to look away because it'll strike him. I stare at him staring at his IV. He closes his eyes for a moment and shakes his head, disbelieving he has to sit through this bizarre ritual. We're in the 21st Century aren't we? I've said it before; medicine feels like it's still deeply rooted in the 18th Century. He eventually accepts it and puts his head back. There's a glimmer in his eyes but he wipes the potential tears away quickly. He knows I'm looking, at least in his direction.
He watches me for a while but I doze off. I don't know how long it is before I wake up again. My IV has made considerable progress. The young man is staring blankly at the ceiling. He sees that I'm awake and stares at me again.
"Hi, I'm Aaron."
"I know. Doc's wife told me I should talk to you. She says you're like a god or something with this cancer stuff."
"Doc's wife is biased as hell, but I'm no god. She's seen my human side all too often."
"I'm hating this, ya know? She says I got an attitude, but not a good one."
"How long have you had to have chemo?"
"This is my fifth. About a couples months I guess."
"Tell me about your attitude."
"Are you a shrink?"
"No." I smile to myself, not finding that thought even remotely appealing. "No. Sometimes I don't even understand myself. I can be my own worst enemy. But I like to listen. I like helping someone else even better."
He sat silently for a moment. I could make guesses what he was thinking, but I didn't know for sure. My guess was that if he opened up to me, he'd not be able to withdraw again. That much was true.
"My name is Jake."
I sucked in my breath. Oh my God!
"James, really, but nobody calls me that much. I'm 21 and I got ALL. You know what that means?"
Acute Lymphocytic (or Lymphoblastic) Leukemia. Poor lad. A peer to our Patrick. My heart ached. But my heart was full. Could this be 'my Jake'? I couldn't tell from my dreams. I had a name and a circumstance. He did not fit the circumstance that I imagined. A boy in trouble. Twenty-one made him older than I imagined too. But then again, Michael and Will loved me, and I loved them.
"Yeah. It means you got a lot to think about."
"And maybe not a lot to time to think about it," he told me.
I'm easy to talk to, but this is not the ideal way to make a friend. The basic rules of cancer say that odds are very high friendships like this won't last. I've seen so many peers in this battle die. Even friend Jimmy in Boston is fighting an infection in his lungs. He's close to developing pneumonia. I called him. He said not to worry. I worried. I love my friends.
I have to think "why me?" Someone else would say "why not you?" That pisses me off. That's not a good response. I hate it. I want an answer to MY damn question, not a question in return. No one has answers, just questions. We have theories and we have plans. It's too far from hope. I cannot hope that Patrick will live or that Jimmy will recover. Or that Jake can be mine. Hope is one thing. Fantasy is quite another.
All of that went through my mind in mere seconds before Jake and I opened up. I had to believe, somehow, that not everyone I meet who has cancer would die. There are survivors out there, even though I didn't know many. I cannot and will not turn someone away; not because I thought that they would leave me. Even if they do, they deserve someone to talk to at the very least. I know me; I'll let Jake in and I'll give my all to keep him safe. It's not all about me; it's about trying. Everyone deserves a chance. Everyone deserves full effort, someone to listen, someone to care about him or her, and a chance to return it. And if he died . . . or if I died - I hate 'what if'. It just reinforces my 'live in the moment'. Tomorrow is 2, 6, 12, or 24 hours away. Tomorrow isn't where my life is; it's in the moment I'm in.
He is half my age so the big brother/little brother or father/son feeling washes over me. I'd known the kid a couple hours. It was right to call him 'kid'. He looked very small in the large chair, leukemia trying to wrap itself around him.
I already wanted to take the pain away from him. Me at 41 knows very little, still, about handling cancer day to day. How in THE BLOODY HELL is a 20 year old going to do it? How Little Buddy Ben handles his doesn't count a lot because he's too young to know what he's got. He just knows he doesn't feel good sometimes. It's not fair of God, or whatever others believe in, to ask Jake to accept this and hope, with his very life, that it turns out okay. Even if he's not the Jake of my thoughts, I want to make it better.
It makes me angry. Give it to me. As confused as I am sometimes, at least I think I know what I'm doing. Not him. Giving leukemia of this type to a young 20 year old is entirely unfair and unjustified. I don't believe in adversity making one stronger. I believe in adversity sucking your soul out of you. Is there anything so wrong with going from birth to death unscarred, unhurt, and absolutely unafraid of anything? Such people can do great things, and have done so for centuries. They don't need to be shown such terrible lessons to make them better people.
I haven't said a word while all this is running around like a whirling dervish in my mind. I don't feel sorry for Jake, at least primarily. I feel angry at the higher power. It might mess with my objectivity, my support for him because anger is such a useless waste of energy. But what was I going to do?
I'm trying to think of something profound to say. I'm trying so hard not to say "Jake I'm sorry." Sorry is right up there with useless waste. There is no phrase in the English language so empty as 'I'm sorry'. I'm sorry. Big fucking deal. I don't want to say it. I don't want to hear it. Sorrow doesn't make you feel better for saying it. Sorrow doesn't help anyone feel better. It's just something to say when you have nothing to say. It sucks and I won't say it.
Anyway, the word sticks in my throat, wanting to be verbalized. I swallow as if I can choke it down, as if I can put out the little flame. He watches me watch him. I feel like I got Attention Deficit Disorder. I can't focus on one thought, and it gets worse the harder I try.
"How are your friends with this?"
"I don't have many friends. I used to, but . . . One maybe."
He stops. His face looks like he's going to choke to death on the next words, so he stops and won't let them go.
". . . but they think I'm going to give it to them, that I could make them sick too" I finished it for him.
How many supposed friends have backed out of my life because they didn't, or couldn't, stand by me and help out? They stopped calling, or writing, or sending birthday cards or E-mail because they didn't think I'd live forever to be their friend. My longest friends, back to my childhood, are lost to me. A few workmates, though some will never leave me on my own. I thought of Brent. I missed him. And Alfie, bless the lad. But what did I ever do! It's not fair. To make someone walk away from my life, when all I would have asked of them is to treat me like I'm somebody. Cancer is a large part of what I am but it's not the only thing I have to care about.
"Don't worry about it, Jake. I won't turn away. I want to help."
He doesn't say anything. He looks at me as if I'm going to bolt the first chance I get because I wouldn't be the first. I wouldn't be the last. I'd already told him I wasn't a god at handling this crap. I've basically said I'm not as confident about it as Doc's wife Elisha brags on me.
Why should it be my responsibility to take on the world's problems? Why do I have to take on Jake's pain and help him out? It's enough to take care of me, dammit! It's more than damn enough to take care of me.
The anger again, the dark demon in my mind that tells me I'm not good enough to help someone, even though I know perfectly well that I can. I spend so much time wrestling with my own thoughts that I'm convinced most of the time there are two distinct souls in my body. Or no soul and two brains that can't get along.
Enough of the foolish shit. I know I can be a good friend to him. I know I can help him think about life outside of the cancer. I can, and I will.
Doc comes to my rescue and detaches me from the tubes. I walk over to Jake. I take a chair and pull it up beside him. I sit down and reach into my back pocket for my wallet. I have a business card from work. It has my company name, address, phone, 800 phone number, my pager number, my name, title, E-mail address - everything but rank and serial number. I get up to get a pen from my backpack. On the back, I write my home phone number, address, and E-mail address, plus my AOL screen name.
I hand it to him. He looks at it, front and back. He puts in down on the side table. I pick it up and put it in his shirt pocket.
"Don't lose that, okay? I'm from Connecticut as you see, but I'm here for the same reason you are. I'm living with a friend. And don't just throw it away when you leave here. I'm here again next week or in two weeks, whatever your chemo cycle is. We've got voicemail at home and at work. I check my E-mail every day. You can IM me if I'm online. I don't use my AOL every day, so you might have to just watch for me, or send me mail to tell me you want to chat. Very few people have the info you do, almost nobody. You can call me 24 hours a day and I don't care if it's midnight or noon, or any hour in between. Okay?"
He looked at me. He resisted me, didn't believe me. I wrote up another business card just like what I had given him. I walked over to his doctor and gave it to her. I told her to put it in Jake's file. She stapled it to the inside of his file folder. He saw me and heard me. I walked back to him and sat down.
He didn't say anything. He didn't trust me. I was just one more person who would let him down, some way, somehow. But I wasn't that person.
If he truly believed that, he would find himself very alone. I reached my hand out to him. He closed his eyes and turned his head. I sat back in my chair, put my feet up on a table nearby, and watched him. The longer I looked at him, the more I saw things that began to disturb me. I thought it was just my imagination at first, so I wanted to be sure. I kept looking. It was not my imagination.
"Who hurt you Jake?"
I touched his neck, then along his collarbone. I lifted the collar of his shirt to see.
"What?" he asked in surprise as he opened his eyes and looked over at me.
"I've seen wounds like those before. I know they're not from leukemia either. I've had wounds just like it, from two very brutal muggings. Someone beat you. Who? -- your supposed friends? Your schoolmates? Parents? Sibling? Strangers?
"Get away from me! You don't know anything."
"I know what it's like to be beaten."
I did. I had been mugged one night in Boston because I was stupid enough to work late. I was walking to North Station from Summer Street. Somewhere between the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House, two guys pulled me into an alley and pounded the living shit out of me. A street person found me and found a cop. They thought I was dead. I woke up in Mass General Hospital some 18 hours later. I was a John Doe for those hours because my wallet was gone. Patricia came to confirm my identity. She was scared out of her mind when I didn't show up at work the next day. That wasn't like me.
The second time I was in New York City, on a Saturday morning, just after donating blood platelets for a friend of a friend who had leukemia. I found that drug addicts hung out around hospitals because they often had friends on the inside or because they could get a nurse to do their bidding. The burly man who attacked me needed money. Unlike Boston, witnesses saw what happened. And unlike the norm, people gave a good enough description to the police that they caught him. He was a known felon on the Upper East Side. I hate tattoos but I was thankful he had one that was identifiable. It was a dagger in his neck. I don't know how long he was locked up. I cared only that he was caught. I was back Wednesday night after work, donating platelets again. (One can donate platelets every 72 hours.)
So I knew all about the black and purple marks that Jake wore.
"You don't know anything about me. I fell, that's all."
"No you didn't."
"Yes I did!!"
"Did you like it so much that you'll let them do it again? How many times has this happened? It'll happen again, you know. You're not protecting anyone, and you're going to get hurt again. You're putting this wall between you and me. If I can't help you, you're going to be the one to suffer. I can walk away and not give a damn. Is that what you want?"
He closed his eyes, covered his wounds with his hand, and turned his head. In a moment, he lay on his side in the fetal position in the large chair. A tear ran down his cheek.
"Please talk to me."
"I'm not going anywhere."
He turns to me, furious.
"Yes you will. You'll leave to go home. I'll be a vague memory two minutes later. You'll puke when you get home, and eventually get into bed to sleep it off because it hurts too much. I'll be the last thing you think about tonight. Or tomorrow."
"I'm not going anywhere, Jake."
He was 'my' Jake, the Jake of my midnight thoughts. I didn't just think so. I knew so now.
He rolls back into the fetal position. If he's like me, he's cold already. Chemo seems to suck the heat out of my body, especially before my temperature jumps.
"May I have a blanket?" I ask a nurse as she passes by.
When she brings me one from the closet, I unfold it twice and tuck it into Jake's neck. I lift him carefully off the chair just enough to tuck it around his back. I pull my chair closer to him, put my feet on the low table again, and put my arm on top of the blanket. He starts to shiver a moment later.
"Sleep for a little while, Jake. You still got some meds left in your IV. I got nowhere to go."
"You don't even know me," he says softly, trying to fight his sleepiness. "Why are you here?"
"Just because. Go to sleep, Jake."
He was out a couple minutes later. The IV dripped slowly. My watch said 6:30. We'd both been here around two hours. He slept. I held on to his arm gently. If I touched him, he would know I was here, even when he slept. He had to trust someone. I was stubborn enough to believe he could trust me. Jeff and Matty have told me I am a dreamer. So be it; there are worse things I could be.
At 7:30, I woke him gently. I was afraid he would wake up afraid, not knowing where he was, so I talked to him. He ran his hand through his hair. His doctor had taken the IV needle out a half hour ago. I told her to leave him be. Jeff sat beside me, having come to take me home. I explained what was going on and he had agreed to hang in with me.
"Is someone coming to pick you up?"
He looked at his watch.
"I missed the bus."
"We'll take you home," I offered. Jeff nodded. No way would we make him wait for the next bus, if there even was one.
"That's okay. I can call my mom. It's too far."
"It doesn't matter, Jake. Even if it's out of our way, don't make your mom come out. Why don't you call her though, so she knows you're coming home?"
Jeff handed over his cell phone. Jake took it reluctantly. We told him we'd wait in the lobby. He needed to go to the bathroom too, if that was okay. I asked if he had to throw up.
"Nah, just wizz," he said shyly.
He was still a little groggy when he met us outside. The night air was cold. Temperatures were typical for mid-September, dropping like a rock after sunset. Jeff put him in the front seat so he could play co-pilot while I stuffed myself into the back of his truck's cab. It worked as long as I stretched out lengthwise across the back.
We were pulling into Jake's driveway a half hour later. Jeff knew the neighborhoods well because he surveyed for the state. Yeah, Jeff was a well-rounded career man. He loved GE, but Corporate America was not his lifetime goal. We were north of Philly. I didn't know where we were once we left the main highway, but it is obvious Jake's folks had money. These weren't estates, but this is an upper middle-class neighborhood.
"Thanks for the ride. Sure beats the bus."
I asked if he had my card still. He showed it to me. I was a little surprised, but happy. I reminded him it was 24 hours, no matter what. He nodded. His face was sad. I wanted to help him, but getting him home safely was the most he was going to ask tonight.
"You got chemo next week?"
"Yeah. You too?"
"Wednesday and Friday."
He made a face. "How do you stand it?"
I patted Jeff on the back. "This is my lifeline. It's easy when someone loves you."
He looked at the ground for a moment and then turned to go up the path to the front door. I watched him as he went to the front door. He looked back. I raised my arm to wave goodbye. He nodded. Shy boy, quiet boy. He went into the house. I hoped he was going to be okay.
"He's your Jake. Isn't he?"
"I dunno. For sure anyway. My heart says yes. My brain is putting up an argument."
I did know, but I didn't know anything. Wishful thinking probably. I was looking for a son. Jake didn't fit that image, or so I thought.
We got back in the truck and headed home. I didn't say anything to Jeff about what I'd seen earlier. I had to think again about it. Still, I was sure of what I'd seen. The most I could do was hope that Jake would talk to me. The needful don't stay needful in my world. But Jake would have to give me more than he did.
Jeff stopped in his driveway for a minute.
"I'll be back. I'm going to let Kelly know we're home. I want to stay with you tonight."
"You're not supposed to lie to one of your best mates. Sit tight."
He disappeared inside for a few minutes. Kelly would understand. Matty could use a good night's sleep too. We'd have the weekend to be together. Jeff came back out, pulled out of the driveway, and drove the three or four miles to Matt's place.
Jeff quickly pulled to the side of the road. I threw the door open, dropped to my knees, and puked on the ground beside the pavement. Jeff got down beside me, holding me so I wouldn't puke on my clothes. It passed quick enough but my head ached pretty badly.
"I'm dizzy," I said simply.
He picked me up and put me in my seat again. He drove for home. In Matty's driveway, Jeff told me to sit tight again. He came around and opened the door. He picked me up, pulled me out of the cab, and then kicked the door closed with his left foot. Matty held the door open for us. Jeff laid me on the sofa. Matt sat beside me. Jeff went to the kitchen. I knew what he was doing. He came back with a half glass of flat ginger ale for me. He handed it to Matt, who held my around my shoulders and tipped the soda into my mouth. We would bring more upstairs in a while. This kept me hydrated through the night.
Friday nights were for going out, not for staying home, or leaving your wife home alone, to take care of me. Except here in Bucks County PA. This is what Friday nights had been like for a while. I don't know how they stood it, but they did. None of the four made me feel bad for changing their days and nights.
Jeff carried me upstairs to my bedroom. Matt walked up behind us. Snoopy was already on my bed. He knew the cycle, oddly enough. He knew he would be one of three in the bed tonight. Matt kissed me goodnight. He hugged Jeff. Jeff didn't need to ask permission from Matt to stay overnight. Matt looked at Snoopy.
"Nope. See you tomorrow," he said in his own way to his owner. Matty stroked Snoopy's head. "Good boy," he said to him. Snoopy looked over at me. He lay down in his space. Matt went down the hall to his room. I saw him turn out his light. It was now past 9:30.
"No. Too dizzy."
I started to protest. Jeff went to the bathroom and turned the water on in the tub. He came back for me, undressed me, picked me up, lay me in the tub, and knelt beside me. Snoopy came in to join us. He watched as Jeff soaped up the washcloth. My head was once again bald, what little hair I had grown back lost in a chemo battle. He washed my head and then kissed it as he washed my neck and shoulders.
I smiled at him. He smiled back. He leaned in and kissed me sweetly on my lips. He scowled a little. I knew why.
"Not to insult you, but you need this," he said as he stood and got my toothbrush and toothpaste from the sink. He handed them to me. I brushed thoroughly to get the acid out of my teeth and tongue.
"Billy is doing this for Skip about now too," I said.
"Skip has no arm and hand movements?"
"Some, but not enough to wash. He can start to brush his own teeth, but we finish for him. We shave him, and then bathe him or shower him."
"It feels good to care for him. It feels okay to let me care for you?"
"Yeah. If I get hard ... "
"No worries. It's not important."
He was right, of course. He bathed me as thoroughly as I would bathe Skip, or himself for that matter. He watched my eyes the whole time. I was hard when he cleaned me beneath the water. He was not offended. He made sure I was clean.
"Sshhhh. I love you, Aaron. Do you need to get off?"
"I ... "
He stopped washing me. He sat down closer to the tub. He wrapped his hand around my dick, still looking at my eyes. I looked into his but I saw Skip. I did not say so, but Jeff would know. He stroked me gently but firmly, taking his time, as if this was the most natural thing to do for a friend.
After a while, I said "Close bro." He stroked me more firmly but not faster. He stroked me like I would. I moaned and then shot cum onto my chest and stomach.
"Yeah. You needed to get off," he said, smiling.
He washed the cum off my chest and belly, and then finished by washing my legs and feet. He pulled the plug on the drain, picked me up out of the tub, sat me on the toilet, and toweled me dry. It didn't bother him that his shirt and jeans were now a bit wet. When he carried me back to bed, he helped me into a clean t-shirt and boxer briefs. He took his shirt and jeans off.
"Take a clean t-shirt and briefs for yourself," I told him.
He did. He laid his wet clothes on the floor.
He brushed his own teeth and then came back. Snoopy went to the foot of the mattress for a moment as Jeff pulled the blanket and sheet back. Snoopy settled in again. Jeff went around to the other side of the bed and then lay beside me. He drew me to him, kissed me lightly again, and told me to sleep. I did.
We woke at the same time, as the sun shone through the window. Snoopy jumped off the bed and either went to Matt's room or went downstairs to wait. Matt came in a short while later, after doing downstairs to let Snoopy out and to feed him.
"Okay this morning guys?"
"Headache, but the dizziness passed."
Matt went to my bathroom and got me some extra-strength Tylenol. He brought two tablets and a glass of water. Jeff held me up as I took the Tylenol and water. Matt took the glass and put it on my nightstand. He lay beside us, holding me while Jeff held me. We didn't talk for a while. We let the meds do their thing.
I shrugged. I wanted to say something but I didn't know what to say.
"You're welcome bro," said Jeff. "No need to say more than that. We'll always be here for you."
"I just wish I wasn't so sick."
"Me too, bud," said Jeff.
"We expected that you would be, bro. Don't worry. Please. Whatever it takes to get you through this."
Matt kissed my forehead. He knew I liked that. It was his way of saying "I don't lie. I'm not insincere."
He then got up and threw me over his shoulder. This made Jeff laugh hysterically. He followed us downstairs. Matt set me down at the table outside. Jeff sat down too. Matt went in and got breakfast going. Waffles from scratch (I taught him well) with strawberries.
"Oh God, more fuel for puking. No Matty, just half of one."
He gave me a raised eyebrow. I cut the waffle in half and pushed it aside. OJ would sting my mouth, which meant I was developing ulcers on the sides of my mouth. I felt them with my tongue. I got up and got milk instead. We drank 2% most of the time, but Matt kept whole milk on hand for the day after chemo. It coated my stomach a bit better and I could use the fat anyway.
Before breakfast was done, my stomach flipped twice. I stood up and bolted for the half bath. In tears, unable to see which one, one of the boys brought me to my bedroom and then lay beside me all morning. It didn't matter which one-shortly after, my second bud came. We all held each other.
Soon it was Day 1 for me. I'm only inches from recovery from Day 2. My days were a blur of getting up, going to work, coming home, two treatments a week and struggling to be normal. But I forgot what normal was. I just knew I wasn't it.
I looked around then remembered that Jake doesn't come today. I should see him on Friday. Doc did my injections and then attached my PICC line. He would refill my chemo pump in a few minutes and then watch over me for a while. My IV contained an antibiotic in a saline solution, not chemo. He covered me with a blanket and I dozed off, thinking about Jake. I was keyed, unable to close my eyes for long. Something felt wrong. I knew that if Skip or Billy were sick, one of them would call my cell phone. But would Jake call me? I didn't think so. I'm little more than a stranger to him. I hoped he'd call his 'one friend' then.
Matt came in after work. I took SEPTA to the hospital now that I was on two sessions a week. Matt had fought me for a while on that. I told him to come get me after work. He and Jeff came together or separately. He looked at me, left (I guessed for the bathroom) and came back with a washcloth. He wiped my face with the cold cloth. It was beyond me how I could be sweating when my body felt like it was shivering from chills. After a few minutes, I slept. He held my hand, like all the boys before him held my hand. "I'm here love," is what they all said aloud to me. Matty did too.
Home. Work. Project 95% complete and ready for Engineering Development to test out. Project number two was 2% done, the design spec written by me and presented to the team. Achy head. Fever. Runny nose. Dry throat. Zero appetite. Ham and Swiss wrap with bacon and a carton of milk sitting on my desk when I get back from the bathroom. Home. TV. Matty holding on. Snoopy never far away, ever. Bed. I don't know the last time Matt slept in his room. Bet he doesn't either. The cadence of my life. Normal or not-normal for me.
Just as quickly, it was Day 2. Jake was a half-hour into his chemo by the time I arrived. He was lying with his eyes closed. I didn't bother him, so I sat across the room while Doc started my chemo. I closed my eyes too. I was beat. I'd worked since 6:00 that morning and had skipped lunch. A little while later I felt someone crawling into my chair. I opened my eyes to see little Ben.
"Awon Awon!," he said as he settled in on top of me.
I put my arms around him and gave him a hug and a kiss on his cheek. His pop sat down beside me, wrestling the little guy for his jacket.
Ben put his hands on my two cheeks and giggled as I made faces at him. I hugged him again.
"Shots?" I asked.
"Awww. You okay?"
"Otay. No hurt."
"Good boy, Buddy Ben. Big boy."
I looked over at his pop. He nodded and smiled. Ben was doing just fine.
"I got something for you."
"Yes. You can get it."
He climbed down off my lap and walked over to where my jacket was. It was on a low hook on purpose. Ben always knew I had a Snickers candy bar for him, but he also always waited until I told him where it was. His parents taught him to ask first.
Jake watched all this, not knowing what to make of it. He had woken up when Ben came running in and squealed, even before I heard him.
Little Buddy Ben came back to me, crawled up into my lap, and handed me the Nicka. I opened it for him. He knew he could have half of it. The rest would be for tomorrow. When he was half done, he gave the rest to poppa. Poppa put it in his pocket. He curled up in my arms for a little while. He had to wait a while after his injections, so Ben would stay put. He played with my chin, then the button on my collar. He dozed off for a few minutes. Jake continued to watch, but didn't say anything.
I turned my attention to Jake. I introduced Ben's dad to him. Tom went over to shake Jake's hand. He sat beside Jake for a few minutes. They talked quietly. It was not for me to hear. I would guess that he gave and asked for reassurances from Jake about Jake's own health and of Ben's. We had this discussion earlier. A peer, regardless of age, is more the origin of hope than the medicines. I told Tom that hope and medicines work together equally. Lance Armstrong says "Knowledge is power; Attitude is everything." Know the enemy and then fight it. Poppa had the knowledge because Ben was too young. Ben lived his life innocently. I wish that he could teach me how to do the same.
Ben's doctor came in a while later and told Pop that it was okay now to take Ben home. The oncologist wanted to see Ben again in three weeks. Ben let Pop put his jacket on him. He reached back to give me a hug. I kissed him on his forehead. He waved bye-bye and blew me a kiss. I would see him next week at home. Ben reminded me of David and Dylan in Atlanta. Ben knew me as a provider of Snickers, ticklings, horsie rides, and waffle ball thrower and catcher.
"Wow. What a cutie! His name is Ben?"
"Yeah. Little doll face, huh? He has cancer in his blood too, but different from yours. He's doing pretty well. I wish I had his innocence sometimes. He knows he's sick, but that's the extent of it."
"God. I guess I had better stop whining then. I got no right."
"It's easy to say 'why me', Jake. I've said it. But it's a waste of a question because no one on earth has an answer. There are questions we can ask that someone can answer. I'd rather find those."
"But don't you just want to scream sometimes?"
"Sometimes. I'm human too. I've cried myself to sleep some nights. Or some nights I was too sick and only wished that I'd be taken away. Other times, I'm okay and I seem to handle it okay. I got two best buds who take care of me. I can't be alone overnight because if something happens, I may not get help in time. Long story; you don't want to hear it."
He was watching me the whole time I was talking. I looked at his eyes. Young Jake is about 5'6", losing his shaggy brown hair, and has sweet pale blue eyes, like BC Jake's eyes. I missed my boys. I had missed the summer picnic but Billy and Skip insisted upon it for the other boys' sake. There would be others.
"Yeah I do."
"Okay, in a small nutshell, I'm waiting for another kidney transplant. But I haven't decided that I'd accept another one. The first one was over four years ago. It was sooo hard physically and emotionally. A young man died in a construction fall. I accepted his kidney so he could live longer, if only through me. The cancer has really terrorized it. Long story short, I don't know if I could ever do that again."
"What happens if you decide you not to?"
I shrugged. I actually looked away, something I rarely do. Shrugging and looking away was not what you do when someone asks you a question. It took a little effort to look back at him and to answer the question. If I was going to teach him, trust was part of it, and not just him trusting me. I looked back up at him, glanced away, and then back at him.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to intrude. You don't have to answer."
"It's okay. No one has asked me that yet, not so straightforward anyway. Tough question, easy answer."
"You'd die. I knew the answer, but I guess I needed to hear what you'd say. You're impressive you know. I mean, last week you made sure I got home safe. I gave you grief, but you helped me anyway. And just now this little boy, who obviously loves you very much, just made my day. He wanted to be with you, climbed all over you like you were a giant toy. You ask him if he had his shots and he tells you he's okay. Is he okay though?"
"I think so. Little Buddy Ben breaks my heart. He doesn't understand what's wrong with him. He's got little fear of it."
"Can we ever be that innocent again?"
"You got a better chance than me because you're so young."
I made him sad with my answer. I kept talking.
"I wish, believe me, but I've seen too much. Ben is one reason I'm doing what I am, so he'll never have to feel this bad. His odds of beating his cancer are very high. Yours too, by the way. I have a friend in Boston who has the same kind of leukemia you do. He's sick, like you, but okay overall."
"But this is sooo damned scary," said Jake. "I'm fighting so much, you'll never know."
"I want you to be okay, Jake. That's why I gave you my phone numbers and stuff. You can't do this on your own. I've had long-time friends turn against me. My brother has been too scared at times to support me, so we didn't talk about it. My nephews, his sons, hang tough for me."
I wiped tears away, a little choked up on what I was thinking about. What if I never made peace with Brad? I'd have to.
"I spent a lot of time finding my own way, but it was hard. I promised that if I could help even one person fight, I'd do anything I could. I made promises that I don't know if I can live up to, but man I have to try."
He didn't say anything. His eyes glistened in the light again. He wiped the tears quickly and almost willed himself not to cry. I couldn't sit with him because I still had over an hour of my treatment. His was almost done.
"Talk to me, Jake. You have to trust someone. Please let that be me."
He pulled back into his shell, just as he had done last week. He was making up his mind that this was his problem, not mine, nor anyone else's. Jake was a mystery to me. Something had hurt him-or someone.
"Hey, uh, can Jeff and I take you home again? Then you can rest without worrying about the bus."
He thought for a moment, and then he nodded.
"Get some rest, then, okay? This crap is easier to take if you can sleep through some of it. I'll wake you up when we're ready, like last week."
I got the attention of one of the nurses. I asked for a blanket for Jake. He hadn't learned that it was okay to speak up yet.
He smiled a crooked smile and shook his head a little.
"Thanks. How do you know these things? That I needed a blanket, stuff like that?"
"Been there / done that. I like TLC. You could use some too."
He nodded, closed his eyes, and slept for the next hour. When he woke up, I was again sitting beside him, holding on a little, making sure he didn't wake up disoriented. I spoke to him softly and said "I'm here, Jake", so that he would know. He was okay.
The rest of the week flew by. I think I measure my days by Wednesdays and Fridays. By Monday I feel like I have the flu.
I went for a long walk alone on Saturday. Matty and Jeff were both working for Jeff's dad. I hate being by myself at home. I got a nice place to live and friends who love me, but sometimes I'd rather be outdoors. I took Snoopy with me. He loved walking with me. He never tried to run away. I kept him on a long slack leash just to make sure a rabbit wouldn't tempt him to bolt. He is a pup after all.
I had a bag of apples and some day-old bread in my backpack. I took my time walking to my 'secret place'. It really wasn't a secret anymore because I'd brought Jeff and Matt here with me. They said they would never invade the area without me to go with them. They knew that this was my place to be by myself, my sacred ground where I made all the decisions I needed to about my life.
I had spent a lot of time recently thinking that I did not want a new kidney. That meant I had come to the realization that I was going to die. Without a replacement kidney, I was not going to survive. Then Jake appeared. I needed to have a serious discussion with God about that little miracle of timing some day. I could hold on to a wish or a dream for only so long. It had to become reality for me to change my thoughts.
Even Little Buddy Ben was not reason enough for me to want to consider a third kidney transplant. He was too young, and he didn't need me for anything. He loves me, as much as he knows what that means, and he likes that I bring him Snickers. Mom and Poppa could do that just as well.
I knew Matty and Jeff would do okay without me. At least they would have their own lives back. They've given up so much for me. There's no way to pay them back. I can't give them what they gave me, because they gave me their lives.
Then there was Jake. He wouldn't reach out to me, but I wouldn't let him push me away either. As stubborn as he was, I was the freakin' expert at stubborn. Jake needed someone to guide him. His friends had abandoned him. Even his one friend wasn't enough. Jake's best friend, years in the making, was the first to dump him. It wasn't hard for the others to leave him alone. How torturous to go to school every day and be with others that you liked very much. He either skipped lunch or ate by himself. He wouldn't participate in class. To his credit, he at least did his homework. He passed his exams and maintained a B average.
I sat down at the edge of the pond and took bread out of my backpack. Snoopy sat quietly beside me. I soon had ducks sitting at my feet. I gave Snoopy the shush signal. He lay down. Once the ducks ate, they settled down and stayed with us. Jeff had found this the most fascinating thing in the world. I didn't see that I was doing anything special. They just accepted that I was there, and they knew I wasn't a threat. I lie down and put my backpack behind my head. I watched the ever-changing clouds. I wasn't imaginative enough to see shapes today, just clouds. I missed my buddies. I had left a note, for whoever arrived home first. It took 45 minutes each way to get to my spot. I needed to leave by 5:00 to be home before 6:00. It was only 10:30, so I had the day.
Back to Jake; God I felt bad for Jake. I didn't want to pity him. Nobody deserved that. I remember what it was like to be younger, diagnosed with cancer, and fighting off attitudes. My classmates were antsy around me when I was going through treatments, especially my paramedic buddies. We were closer by nature of our profession. Teachers took forever to believe that I was doing more than taking up real estate in their classes. People I worked with stayed away from even casual "How are you" because they were afraid I'd tell them. I wouldn't because they asked that only in polite conversation. No one ever wanted to know, but everyone asked just to be polite to one another. I can imagine Jake putting up with the same prejudices.
I interrupted my thoughts long enough to go to a clearing and put out half the bag of apples. I then left quietly, going to the edge of the clearing.
"Snoopy. Come watch with me," I said.
He understood me enough. I sat with my back up against a tree, my right arm around my buddy's back and chest. Within ten minutes, a doe appeared. She looked at me and then ate from the small pile of apples. Matt had seen me do this. Jeff had seen it, too. Neither one believed it though. A deer should have been so skittish with anyone within five miles, never mind 10 yards. It's all about trust, and acceptance.
I wanted Jake to be that way with me. I don't care about being admired or even respected. I didn't even care, much, if he liked me. But I wanted him to trust that I know what this is like and how to get through 24 hours a day, within our moments, with such an enemy.
"You don't know what I feel!"
And so began our first heated confrontation toward the end of October. He was mad at the world and took it out on me. He had mouthed off to his doctor and I admonished him for it. It just made him angrier.
"I do know! I know every detail of how you feel!"
"Prove it!" He shouted back at me, defiant and angry as hell.
I didn't think, for even a mere second, about what I did next. I reached into my pocket, took out my Swiss army knife, and cut my left arm deeply on top. I squeezed the blood out on to his shirt. I kept squeezing until there was little more than a trickle. He opened his eyes wide in shock. I went over to the sink, got a few sheets of paper towel, wet them, and put pressure where I had cut my arm. I knocked his legs off the chair and I sat down. I glared at him.
"There's your proof, damn you. Tell your lady doc to take my blood and run cell counts on it. Gimme your shirt! I'll send it to the lab!"
I pulled it off over his head in an instant. Obviously, I was not done shocking him. He reached for it but I threw it across the floor.
"You can have it back later. I hope it wasn't your favorite because I ruined it. There! There's your proof! My blood is enough proof that I feel the same fire you do, the same pain, the same coldness that won't go away. I know what it feels like to wake up at night terrified that I'm going to die." My voice cracked, my throat raw from yelling. "I know what it feels like to have a headache so bad that you puke from the pain. I know fear so deep that it wraps itself around me and suffocates me."
He was speechless. He held himself because now he was even colder than before, bare-chested and exposed.
"Don't EVER tell me I'm not telling you the truth. And don't you EVER dare tell me I don't feel. I know every intimate detail of what you feel 24 hours a day! Don't you hand me this 'poor me' shit. You're not the only one with cancer. I got it too, you know. It's evil and it wants you. Don't whine. Stand up to it, beat the crap out of it, and make it back down. Live with it or you'll surely die with it!!"
He was terrified of me. I was like a madman, screaming in his face. He tried to push himself further into the chair to escape me. Tears welled up in his eyes quickly, bringing me out of my tirade. I turned around, knelt down on the floor, and wretched.
Jeff walked in a moment later, stunned by what was left in my wake. He left me alone and went to Jake. Jake was sobbing and shivering. Jeff took off his sweatshirt and put it on Jake. He sat down next to him and held him close.
"Aaron. Aww buddy, what the hell happened?"
I looked up at him and Jake, anger still in my eyes.
Acid burned in my throat. "Don't EVER tell me I don't feel."
Blood flowed from my self-inflicted wound. Jeff yelled for Doc. Doc came into the treatment room to find Jeff holding on to a very upset young man, and me kneeling on the floor, bent over, bleeding and near a pool of my own puke. Vomit. Whatever. Call it what it is. I too shivered, but not because I was cold. I think I react to anger far worse than any other emotion.
Doc helped to clean me up. He took me into a patient room and he bandaged my arm. He didn't ask what I did. He knew. He just didn't know why. He didn't yell at me, question me, or put me down. Doc knew there was a reason for everything I did, right or wrong. As for me, I was a madman.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"No. I was stupid. Jake provoked me, but I went way too far."
"Then be more careful next time, huh?"
He hugged me, kissed me on my forehead, and checked the bandage.
"You'll need to change it tomorrow morning and evening."
I nodded. Tomorrow I would remember that I was a very scary man tonight, angry and out of control, mistrusted and stupid. I couldn't apologize to Jake. I believed what I said, just not what I did.
I went back into the treatment room. Jeff was sitting with Jake. I could only look at him. Anything I would have said would have been disregarded anyway.
"Come on, guys. It's been a long day. Let's write this one off to a loss. Tomorrow will be better. Let's get Jake home, Aaron."
Jake started to take off the sweatshirt. Jeff was wearing a button-down shirt with a t-shirt beneath it, so he was fine. He told Jake to hold on to it until next time. I picked up Jake's ruined shirt and rolled it up. I would buy him another one like it. I think he knew that.
I went one better when we went shopping the next day. I bought Jake the same shirt, a polo shirt for summer, and a heavyweight sweatshirt so he'd be warmer during his chemo. Matt said I did good. I had told him what I had done when Jeff dropped me at home. Matt held me in his arms while we sat on the sofa.
"I've never seen you angry. Doesn't sound like it's very bearable. What about Jake?"
"He sat up front with Jeff again. I sat in the back and kept my mouth shut. Jeff walked Jake to his front door."
"Obviously you both feel. Maybe it's different things. Maybe it's not. I dunno. Don't yell at him anymore, bro."
"If he's got bruises, he's being hurt enough."
"He's suffering alone. I can't stand that. No one should do that. For any reason."
"Hold his hand. Or let him hold yours. Ask the staff to put you side by side. Across the room from each other is no good."
"Yeah. Good idea."
"SHOW him you care. Words aren't enough sometimes."
"I plan to. Still, if he doesn't want to talk to me, he won't."
"No words. Let him be. I don't feel like I'm doing right by you either, so I hold you. It's as much for me as it is for you. What you want for Jake isn't important. What Jake wants is."
Jake was taking his chemo already when I arrived. I had a shopping bag with handles on it. I set it beside him.
"For you. Because I was stupid. I'm so sorry."
I started to go across the room to my usual seat.
"Over here bud," said Doc, patting the seat beside Jake. I had forgotten that I called to see if he thought Matt's idea would work. Obviously, he thought so.
"Okay by you Jake?"
After Doc hooked up my IV, he left. Jake and I were alone. I looked over at him. I reached out for his hand, as far as I could. He would either meet me half way or he wouldn't. He looked at me.
"Don't be alone," I said.
He hesitated. I turned my head to face forward. But I left my hand within his reach. He didn't move. I closed my eyes. I moved my hand toward me. He touched my hand. I kept my eyes closed. He pulled my hand toward his. He interlocked our fingers. He pulled my arm toward him.
"I know I'm not alone, Aaron. Thank you."
I opened my eyes and looked at him. He was smiling.
"You were stupid because I was stupid. I know you hurt. I know you feel. I've had this for a few weeks. How long for you?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Almost nine years."
He looked so sad. He didn't know, couldn't even begin to know. He touched my hand to his cheek. He kissed the back of my hand, like Matty does before we sleep, like Jeff does when he's sad for me.
"I'm sorry for your pain. I couldn't imagine doing this for that long. Am ... am I gonna die Aaron?"
"I dunno Jake."
I think I surprised him. Maybe he thought I'd try to give him words.
"Um. I'm glad you didn't automatically say that I won't."
"I'd be lying. I might die too. I need a kidney and I don't want one."
"I lost one. The other one died. I've had two transplants. It's enough."
"No. It's not."
"Too much pain, bud. I want peace."
He thought for a moment. He did not look away while he was thinking. We had not looked away from each other since he took my hand. He still held it, stroked it softly. But he was so troubled, and by more than me. He pushed that aside. I could almost see his internal struggle.
"We'll talk about me sometime. Not today. Tell me about you."
I did. Kate, my son, Skip, Billy, my BC boys, Atlanta, DC, a little more about Matt and Jeff. He asked questions and I answered them. I told him about my dreams of a Jake.
"Is it me?"
"Maybe. Jeff thinks so. We'll know sometime."
After a while, I told him that what was in the shopping bag was for him. He smiled a little.
"You're enough of a present Aaron." He blushed.
I wasn't going to embarrass him by responding to that. I just put the words in the back of my mind. I would need them at other times, so I had to hold on to those.
I took a wrapped in wild ducks wrapping paper package from the shopping bag. I handed it to him.
"Do you know I love wild ducks?"
I shook my head.
"And deer. Not to hunt. To watch."
I smiled to myself. Buddy I have a treat for you. Soon, too, I hope.
He unwrapped the package. He made sure he didn't tear the wrap. I filed that away too. Ducks and deer. I wanted to take him, this minute, to my sacred spot. We couldn't though. It was too far away. He smiled when he saw his shirt, untorn and without my blood staining it.
"Thanks Aaron. That really was my favorite shirt. How stupid, huh?"
"No Jake. Not stupid. I have my favorite things too. You ... you're one of them," I said softly.
"I'm trying, Aaron. I really am. But I'm not who you think I am."
"Who are you Jake?"
"Not a good person."
"Not even close to being a true statement."
"But ... "
"Sshhhh. I know you're troubled, I just don't know why. You should trust me."
I left it at that. If I push, he'll run. What was in this young man's mind? I wanted to know. Instead, I took another package out of the bag. It surprised him when I handed it to him. This one was wrapped in paper with lighthouses on it.
"Like those too. Never been to one."
He touched the lighthouses with his fingers, smiling. He opened the package carefully as well. It was a polo shirt, evergreen with a brown deer monogram. He smiled. He held it up in front of him as best he could to look at it all.
"You're inside my head. Aren't you," he said, looking over at me.
"Scary place," I said.
He stopped smiling. "Kidding bro, kidding. Don't take me so seriously."
"More seriously than I should, but it's true anyway."
"Stop. Jake is a good person. I'll make you write it on a blackboard."
He smiled again. He folded the polo shirt and put it back in the box. While he did that, I took the last package out.
"I hope that's for you or maybe Ben."
"Ben's present is snickers and a hug. This is something more practical."
I gave him the package. The wrapping paper was astronomy objects.
"Scary or not, you ARE inside my head. I spend a lot of time outside, looking at the night sky."
He unwrapped the paper as carefully as he had the other two.
"Wow. Champion. Nice."
"For the cool nights when you're outside at night. Or when you get cold from chemo."
"Nice. Thank you."
"Jeff should be here soon. Can we take you home?"
"How long does it take you to get home after you drop me off? I know I'm out of your way."
"Irrelevant. Can we take you home?"
Jeff came in a few minutes later. He kissed my forehead and ruffled my imaginary hair. He sat beside Jake in the large chair, arm across Jake's shoulder.
"Do you like the shirts friend Jake?"
"Yeah. I like the wrapping paper as much. I think Aaron's telepathic."
"Aaron is a lot of things. 99% percent of them good."
I looked suitably offended. "Where's the other 51%?"
"Blocked by those freaky tumors you keep growing. Get rid of them and we'll love you much more."
"Aww geez. You love me only 99%?"
"Get over it."
Jake giggled. He liked Jeff a lot. He liked me a little more today, especially better than a week ago. Wild ducks, deer, lighthouses, and the stars. I could work with that.
We both finished our chemo. Jake put the new sweatshirt on. I helped him into his jacket. He gave me a nice hug.
"You're a good man Aaron, even at 99%"
I gave him a hug in return. "And you?"
"We'll talk about it another time. Home James, uh Jeff."
Yes, Jake was 'out of our way' but Jeff couldn't care less. He was a half hour north of Philly, in Fort Washington. It took us another half hour to get back to Bristol. We were still home by 9:00 and it was a Friday so who cared?
My cell phone rang. It was a number I didn't recognize.
"Hi Jake. You okay?"
"Yeah. Thanks to you. I miss you already."
"You can come and visit us. Matty would love to have you. Come for the weekend?"
"Yeah. I told my mom already. She said okay."
"We'll pick you up in the morning. 8:30 or so?"
"Okay Aaron. I'll be ready. Good night."
"Sleep bro. No worries, okay?"
"Nice! Jake for the weekend. I bet he needs a good break."
I had to do something before I did anything else. Matt went downstairs and left me alone. Someone else I know loved wild ducks and deer. We grew up with them on our dad's farm. I sat staring at my phone for a few minutes. I dialed his number.
"Hi Brad. I was thinking about you a lot lately."
I wasn't sure, but I think he smiled on the other end of the phone.
Comments: ajlangille [at] gmail [dot] com