Skip - Part 61
He washed me head to toe. I felt his hand test the landscape below my waist. He was as curious as I was. He didn't tell me he was doing it in case I felt nothing. I shook my head.
"S'okay love. That's not what I love you for anyway."
'Yeah, but it's nice though,' I finished in my own mind.
Truly making love with my two was only 1% of us. But 99% isn't complete.
I looked up at him as best I could. He was looking at me, smiling. He kissed my lips and looked into my eyes again.
"It's your heart I want Aaron. If I have that, I really am complete. You need to heal. Jake needs you more than you can possibly know.
All reports were that Jake was not doing well. All of his suffering was usual, but it was intolerable. His fever had not been below 103 since hours after his procedure. He tried solid food every other day but couldn't keep it down. His head ached so badly that he cried. He endured the indignity of a bedpan. The indignity and tears made his support team hold on all the tighter. He was not left alone one minute of any day.
I was little different than my son. No solid food yet, headaches that were strong but at least controllable, weak, and dependant. Andrew, Billy, Donna during the day, Jess at night, Eddie and Abby, and Jason. Andy Jr. was with me during the day on Saturdays.
"I'll be glad when you can come home again, mate. But ... "
He was quiet for a moment. He had a tear in his eye. It stayed there, making him look as sad as I'd ever seen. He took my hand and squeezed. I didn't have to be Skip at this moment to know what Andy wanted to ask. Voicing it was another issue. He looked me straight in the eye.
"Is Jake going to die?"
"We don't know young lad."
He nodded. No one knew the answer to that.
"I want to meet him."
"He wants to meet you too. He knows a lot about you. Jake doesn't have a younger brother. Will you ... will you write a note to him?"
"Yeah mate. Maybe I can give him a little bit to live for."
"Like you do me," I said sincerely.
I fought, struggled, and lived for many people, and my young lad was not least among them. He was now 11 years old and bright as anyone his age. Most would think that his parents could take credit for that. As much as I love and respect Andrew and Claire, Andy had grown in a young adult with a beautiful heart by paying attention to everything around him. Going for a walk with him was eye opening. He marveled at everything. He used his five senses to live in the world around him. Andy will never just exist. He knew how fragile, and sometimes cruel, life could be. Nothing is to be taken for granted.
Donna brought us both ice cream on a stick. It was quite warm outside. I looked out my window. Andy followed my gaze and then looked at me again.
"I'm going to ask Donna if I can take you outside. It's too nice to be inside. Okay?"
"You bet young lad. I'd like that."
Donna agreed. Andy came back in all happy. He got my Nike pants and a clean t-shirt out of my drawer. He put socks on my feet after he helped me put my pants on. He tied my sneakers on me. He helped me stand and then he put my wheelchair directly behind me, locking the wheels. Donna watched from the outer edge of the doorway. I winked at her and then she went on her way. No, Andy didn't need supervising. He would never let me fall and get hurt. I sat down with his help. He wheeled me down the corridor. We found Billy studying in the sunroom.
"Want a break?" I asked him.
"I could use about 10 more minutes. Can I catch up to you?"
"Sure," said Andy. "West campus, by the stream."
"Good deal. I'll be along soon."
We had told Donna too, in case anyone came looking for us. Andrew was in his labs as usual. Sigh. I knew not to bother him, at least not for a while longer. Donna would buzz him just to let him know we were out and about.
Andy wheeled me up the walkways and down the large expanse of landscape. He knew I'd want to sit on the ground, but he'd wait until Billy came outside to help. Billy kept his word and came out soon. He gently sat me on the ground. Jason arrived a little while later with his littlest in his arms.
"Hi there sweetie," I said to the smiling little boy, reaching up to his hand. No doubt who he belongs to. He put his arms out to me.
"He does that to NO ONE Aaron, not even me."
"Kids know," is all I said. I took little Luke in my arms. I took a small amount of cool water from the stream and trickled it down his legs. He scrunched up his face and then laughed aloud. Jason was beside himself.
"Well that settles it. Luke goes home with you."
"Whee!" I said, happy that I was the favorite of the little man.
I made up for it a while later though. I told Jason to sit close to me. "Play patty cake with us," I said. Jason waited for me to start, holding Luke's hands and giving him his daddy's attention. He wrinkled his nose at Jason and giggled. Jason kept up the game and then tried something new. Luke played alone. After a while, he reached out for his Dad's arms.
"Am I forgiven?" I asked.
"Of course. We have a great time at home, but he's never taken to someone so easily. You're right. Kids know."
I decided to push my luck. I caught his eye and smiled. He waved his arms up and down and then leaned forward to me. I took him from Jason, gave him a hug and a little kiss on his cheek, and then sat him on my lap facing Jason. He made eyes at daddy but stayed put. Jason was as content as Luke was. We were in a shady spot. We talked about a lot of stuff. Luke made eyes at Andy Jr too. Andy gave Luke his attention while we three older guys talked. After a while, Andy said "awww."
I looked at Luke. Jason smiled. The little guy was napping soundly. Andy and Billy decided to go for a walk. Billy wanted a better tour than he'd had. Andy knew the med center very well.
"So the little one loves his Uncle Aaron. Sweet. Annie will be pleased, though not surprised."
"Just make sure to give the kids equal attention, no matter what. One thing I've seen from working with families who have a sick child, the well child begins to resent the sick child's attention. Luke is special but so are your other beauties. Same for Annie too."
"I hear ya, Aaron. You're right. Luke does get extra attention but the kids are used to that. Mom spends more of her time on the baby and I take care of the kids, especially at bedtime. They will always know both mom and dad love them. You do that with Skip and Billy too, don't you?"
"Yeah. Skip needs the attention more, but we try to keep it all equal. Skip being with Jake and Billy being here with me proves it works."
As the air cooled a bit, Jason took little Luke home. Billy and Andy came back after seeing Jason on his way. Andy sat in my lap and I put my arms around him.
"I love you mate. You know that, right?"
"I do. I love you too young lad. You're aces. Do you have homework to do before tomorrow?"
"Yeah. I'll go meet Daddy."
"I'm ready to go in too, if Billy is."
"I am," Billy said.
He got down on his heels in from of me. I wrapped my arms around him. He stood up and then picked my legs up, wrapping them around his sides. I kissed his cheek and told him that I loved him too. He smiled and returned my kiss. I love the smell of Billy. He's clean and manly. He's mine and Skip's, but more mine right now.
Jake. What was happening to my son? I ached for him, physically. Billy was lying on my bed beside me, on his side with me on my back. I couldn't sleep on my side yet. He gently turned my face toward him. My eyes overflowed. He kissed me softly. He wiped my tears away as fresh ones replaced them.
"You feel Jake? Like Skip feels you?"
"What a curse. That's an ability I'm glad I don't have. I can 'mind read' you like Skip does, but only because I know you. I can't feel you though. Maybe that's why I lost you for a while. I'm still glad I can't connect that way, not even to Skip. I don't think I'd be strong enough."
"I'm not either."
"I know. But tears are human. I wanted to be alone earlier today for a reason, and it wasn't for homework."
I nodded a little. I understood. I didn't want to be alone, not for a minute. That made me weak. But what about Jake? Did he know Skip or Matty or Jeff was with him? Fevers like his could make him delirious. He could be touched only by a gloved hand, kissed with a masked face. In the middle of the night or trapped in a fever, that could look like an alien was close by, not a friend. I know the guys would talk to him, but could he understand? Were the words getting into his heart? Into his ears wouldn't suffice. Words could be a blessing or a curse. They had to reach the heart in order to be a blessing, a life force.
Drive time to Philly was just under three hours. What a lame thought. It didn't matter if it was three hours or three days-I couldn't go anywhere. I would have tests tomorrow that showed how I'd faired with the surgery. So even I wasn't out of trouble yet. We still had four tumors that needed injections besides all that.
Claire came to have lunch with me. She worked every day like Andrew did, and just as many hours. She had one basic rule in her life though-to be home when Louisa and Andy got home from school. She could go back out for an appointment if necessary, but when the bus arrived at their development, Claire was unfailingly there. Claire described her children's smiles like a burst of sunshine after a cloudy day. Like I told Jason, and like any good mother, her kids were equal in her eyes. They got a bit more attention when they were sick, rare as that was.
She wheeled me into the cafeteria, to the soup and salad bar. It was her choice nor mine-just reality that I could eat light for a few days more. She got me a bowl of tomato bisque and a slice of French bread. She got a fruit salad for herself. Like others around me, she did not eat more than I did. There would be an ice cream treat later, or fresh fruit. At the table, I made croutons out of some of the bread.
We ate in silence for a bit. Sometimes, if the meal was very good, I did not speak while I ate. Silence was comfortable with us. We did not need to talk. She gave me sad eyes though. She put her fork down for a moment and reached for my hand.
"You talked to Jake this morning?"
"Yeah, for a minute or so. He's lucid for a few hours a day. When he starts to phase out, the boys talk to him softly so that he sleeps. He's sleeping 18 hours a day right now. I can't wish to be with him because it's a waste of time. Nothing personal, but I want out of here so I don't have to wish."
"I know love. You're post-surgery checkup is tomorrow?"
"Yeah. I have injections ... "
I stopped because we were eating. I was to have a first round of injections this afternoon.
"So how about them Red Sox?" I said, changing the subject.
She smiled at me. She leaned in and kissed my cheek.
"You and Jake are fighting very hard. It'll pay off. Neither of you are alone. We're bringing you home on Saturday."
"Well, our home at least."
"Home is where I'm loved, Claire. It's not a building. Your home is as good as any. I've never felt like a stranger there. Can we have dinner with Abby and Eddie soon?"
"Sunday is planned, it you're up to it."
"I will be."
A rainy day outside, so we had to find indoor fun. Brian, my neurologist, met up with Claire and me as we finished lunch. She excused herself to an appointment.
"I'll be back in an hour or so," she said as she touched my shoulder.
"We'll be in the gym," Brian said to Claire. "Do your stretches with us?"
"Sure. Start without me if I'm late."
Brian ate a sandwich while I finished my bread and soup. He's a handsome Brit. He grew up geographically between Andrew in England and Claire in Scotland. He was closer to my age, maybe a couple years older. Andrew was five years my senior.
"Share a dish of ice cream with me, mate?"
"Yeah. You're choice of flavors. I'm not picky."
Brian went to make what turned out to be a sundae. A scoop of vanilla bean and two scoops of strawberry, topped with marshmallow and chocolate bits. I couldn't have done better myself. He handed me a spoon and we did a mini-sword fight for who went first. I was not the champion.
"You're more of a gentleman than I could be," he said, suspecting my slight deception.
"You're a gentleman where it counts."
He sat back and looked at me. We both took our share of ice cream, equally. I do not aspire to be better than any other.
"You are," he said, either to my thoughts or to my statement. How serious can one take ice cream any way?
"Not in the ice cream. In your life. In the eyes of your son. I've met him, by the way."
"Before the transplant. I was in Philly. Andrew helped me with that. First out of curiosity, then more. I've never seen a young man who was beaten, nearly to death, for being true to himself. I could not understand the mind of a man who would do that to his own flesh and blood, to his only legacy in this world. I broke down when I saw him. Before we even spoke. A beautiful young man, and now yours. Rightfully so. He should have been yours in the first place but ... "
"Some things for a reason, Brian. But only some."
He nodded. "Life has been so unfair to you. I would not have survived 1/10th what you have. I'm not a weak man, but I'm a far different man."
"No one does what I do alone. Skip, Billy, Jason, more friends than I can name but all very important, every one of them. Jake is THE reason I'm living though. And I'm THE reason he lives. He wanted his father to kill him, to hurt him too much one final time. I convinced myself I didn't want a kidney, not a third one. But I do. It's why I've gone through one more surgery that I have found too hard to endure, but only when I'm alone at night. I have no right to those feelings because my friends love me with all their hearts and I love them at least as deeply, I hope."
"No doubt, Aaron. No doubt. There's a kidney for you. Whenever you're ready for it."
I looked at him.
"No, not mine. But not an accident victim's either. You'll find out. Or perhaps you know. He feels that it's an honor to give you life, because of so much, across all those years."
I knew at that moment.
And then someone reached around from behind me, planted a kiss on my neck, and hugged me. I could smell his special soap, and then I could feel him inside my heart. I turned. I stood and I hugged Jason, very very tightly.
"I don't know what to say."
"Then don't say anything. The only unknown is when you want my gift. I've worked it out with my family, including my parents. I can take time from work with 24 hours notice."
"I don't know when. I need time with Jake ... "
"I know. We'll talk about it whenever. But I know you need it relatively soon. Andrew and I talked again after your surgery. He had a chance to look around inside of you when you were open. It's not critical today, but it won't wait six months either."
I finally let him go. He kissed my forehead and brought his own ice cream sundae to our table. Claire joined us. She was not gone an hour. I would guess that she had no appointment to go to.
"Forgive me, love. I wanted to go meet Jason. Not really an appointment, but close enough. We waited for Brian to let us know he had broached the subject with you."
The dance. Our lives, interconnected as they were, were the continuation of the beautiful choreography that drove we humans. Players hit the spotlight and then went back out to the darkness in their own rhythm.
"You gave me no hint when we were together a couple days ago."
"Couldn't. It's one thing too much to think about. I'm here whenever, so file it away. You need to think about the rest of the tumors and your legs."
"Just the tumors. The condition of my legs is variable at the best of times, so it's not a consideration for what I do or don't do."
"Well," Brian said, "it's time for you to go find out about those tumors. Andrew is your next appointment. I came only for the dessert and the show."
Jason picked me up, sat down in my wheelchair, put me in his lap, and then said "Okay Mr. Driver, onward to Andrew."
Brian drove while Claire joined us. They all were eager for news.
"I think a short round of radiation treatments will help. The tumors we cut away look okay under MRI, meaning visible but not showing new growth. Those visible only on MRI are showing new growth. The biopsy I did yesterday shows that more than the MRI does."
"So we've slowed production substantially, but the factory isn't closed. That's Eddie's metaphor."
"A good one. Yeah. We've furloughed a lot of workers. A shutdown would be ideal."
"Okay. I'm not going anywhere, so make the schedule."
"Do you want to go see Jake?" Andrew asked.
"No," I answered right away.
He raised his eyebrow. "I think I see why, but tell my anyway."
"If I go, I'd have to come back here. That's teasing him. When I leave here, I'm gone for good. Or until the next trauma, but not soon."
"You've been thinking about that I gather. Probably struggled with the answer, but made your peace."
I nodded. If I was on my way back to Matt's or even on the way back to Connecticut, I'd see Jake and bring him home. Otherwise, no. He was okay with Skip, Jeff, and Matt. Kellie (properly spelled Kellie, not Kelly-sorry my friend for abusing your name) and Ginny spent a lot of time with Jake as well.
He tried to keep his emotions under control. He couldn't. The trouble was that he kept asking for me, usually deep within the fever. I still struggled, but the answer really did have to stay 'no'. When he was lucid, he told Skip and The Four not to tell me he wanted me. He wanted me to heal first. He was okay. The fevers told another story. Did they tell the real one-that Jake did want me nearby? I dunno. I've said things within fevers that I didn't mean. I'd rather trust Jake's lucid words. But I didn't have to like it.
Jason stayed for a couple more hours. Andrew and Claire went home. Billy called me that evening from Boston. I told him about Jason's offer for a kidney. Billy would know how that offer felt. He welcomed it, even though my cancer had eaten his alive.
"No insult, love. No way I can feel bad, except that my kidney is gone. It was worth it though. Doing something is always better."
"I agree. I have you still. I love you for everything you are and do. I'd guess that Jason talked to you about this too."
"He did. No surprise that he'd do that for you. There's a lot to love about that guy."
"Yeah. There is. I miss you love."
"I'll be back after the semester ends. Skip is staying with Jake until you arrive."
"I ... I'm sorry."
"You traveling so much to be here. Me away from you. Skip away from you."
"For you. And for Jake. Would you do any different?"
"No. Of course not."
"So don't feel guilty. We've got a lifetime together. You're not far from me anyway. Boston to DC is manageable and then some. Maybe I can do some time with Andrew in the lab."
"Okay. No guilt then. Skip's not complaining. The Four are hanging tough. Jake isn't any better, so I'm worried about him. I feel helpless."
"You got no right to feel helpless. You're everything to him. Just let the days come and go as they will. He's dealing with the graft-vs-host disease. It's bad but no one in Philly is going to let your son die."
When I saw Andy again, he gave me the letter he had written for Jake. I read it. It was so sweet and so adult at the same time. He told Jake that he had Louisa for a sister and that they mostly got along. He would like to have an older brother to count on. Would Jake be that brother, he asked. Would he come and visit, maybe on holiday.
"Jake will love this," I told Andy.
"Will it make him better?"
"It would make me better, to know how you feel. I think it's enough to lift his spirits considerably."
"Daddy has a meeting in Philadelphia. I can go with him. I want to give this to Jake in person."
"Sweet. Does he know you're going?"
"No. We're not sure they will let me in."
"I can't see any harm. You dad can talk to the staff. It's important, for Jake. One more thing."
"What is it, mate?"
"Can you fit me in the envelope too?"
Andy smiled. He knew I wanted to see Jake. He knew why I wouldn't. Teasing Jake would not be right. Like I said, when I go, I'm gone for good. Progress needs to be forward to be progress. Home to Matty's and then, soon after, home to Connecticut. Daniel was working on a transfer to another college, pending our return.
BC Patrick and his brother, Nick came to see me at home, at Andrew's invitation. I knew Patrick's favorite dessert, so I made it for him. Claire and I had picked fresh blueberries. I made the pastry and cut it to make turnovers. There was enough to make a dozen. She prepared the blueberries, adding some lemon zest. I usually forgot about lemons in general and zest specifically. I filed that away for future reference. My cooking repertoire always needed something new in it.
When the brothers arrived at Andrews, Patrick picked me up and held me tightly. He held me and passed me to Nick, who gave me a nice hug. He looked into my eyes.
"Well, I guess you're doing okay, if only just," he said. "I haven't forgotten that your eyes tell the story."
"I'm in good hands, just like your brother. I want only one thing, but it'll come."
Patrick's leukemia was close to remission. He had been a very long haul for him but he was a true fighter. Andrew's guinea pig. I knew what that felt like and appreciated it all the more.
"You missing being at BC with your buds?"
"Yeah, but I'm not far behind. I'm taking classes online. I'll graduate with them on time. Billy is talking me into continuing on with him in med school."
"Yeah. Who better to treat a cancer patient than a former cancer patient?"
"Dr. Patrick. My bud the doctor. Nice."
"I'm a little sad about Jake needing a bone marrow transplant. Both of you could use a real break."
"You too, you know."
"I'm better than I've been in months. My last set of red and white blood counts are good. Really good. I'm looking forward to summer at home. Billy and I aren't the only one's looking at medical school. David and Matt too."
"No surprise there. I still see a professional association with you guys. I told them that a very long time ago."
Billy and Patrick wanted eventually to end up in patient care and research, modeling their careers with Andrew's guidance. David and Matt were looking at neurology and pediatrics respectively. As things often do, his career choice made me think of Kate, who was a practicing pediatrician before she died. Who better to doctor to than the children?
We went out in the backyard for a while with Louisa and Andy. The four kicked around the soccer ball while I refereed. Andy kicked the ball to me. I bent down in time to give it a good smack with my head. Nick took it away and ran like the devil was chasing him across the yard. Louisa was his teammate. Andy and Patrick quickly took the ball back and shot for goal. Louisa blocked it but Andy kicked it around her. The biggest advantage he had was his small stature. He was quick and very talented. I'd watched enough of his games at school to know he should play soccer if he went on to college.
Mom called us all in for dinner. The four went to two bathrooms to wash their hands for dinner. I washed up in the kitchen sink. We tucked into a Shepard's pie (New England style; not sure what other regions of the US call it-a layer of pulled beef with onions and gravy, a layer of mixed fresh veggies (mostly peas and carrots) and a layer of mashed potatoes or sometimes a pastry crust). Ours had mashed potatoes because we already had pastry for dessert. The turnovers were hidden away for now. There was a 'parting gift box' on the counter too. Claire loved to spoil her boys. Patrick had become one of Claire's boys because he sought her out to help him get his moods in order. He could deal with chemo and radiation, blood transfusions, and bone marrow tests, but not the moods. Claire helped as friend, not counselor. Andy Jr had played soccer with Patrick and Nick many more times than just tonight.
These are people who cared, very deeply about other people. Andrew's patients were a special class of people. Like my world, the needful do not suffer alone in Andrew and Claire's world either. They were patients within the walls of the medical center. On the 'outside', they were young men and women who needed to be normal. I was the first, back in Boston because Andrew had been looking for me specifically (or someone just like me). He says me specifically and I call him a dreamer, like Jake called me when I told him I was looking for him specifically. Okay to dream, but make 'em come true. Dreams are necessary. Fulfilling them isn't optional, otherwise they're wishes.
Patrick smiled a mile wide when I wheeled to the counter, put something on my lap, and then came over to him. He lifted the cover of a plate.
"The top one is yours because we know you like baker's sugar on top. That box over there is for you to take home."
"Group effort?" he asked.
"Pasty is mine. My dad's mother taught me how to make the layers. Claire and I picked the blueberries, and then she made magic with them. Better than BC's, but not by much. I knew you ate them there."
"Thanks Claire. And thank you love. Nice surprise."
Word from Philly was that Jake felt an immediate attachment to Andy Jr. He was blessedly lucid the day that Andrew and Andy came to see him. He showed Jake that he had a letter for him.
"May I read it first, and then give to you to keep?"
Andy read Jake the words that he had very carefully chosen. He wanted Jake to have kind, encouraging, and meaningful words.
"Nice. Really nice. Thanks Andy. I'll keep that for life."
(True to his word, Jake has Andy's letter in a frame in the den of his and Daniel's French flat).
"I ... I'd like to see what you look like. Andrew? Okay by you?"
"Give us a moment, Jake. We'll be right back."
Andrew took Andy to the bathroom and helped him wash his face thoroughly and brush his teeth again. He did the same for himself. It was dangerous for anything foreign to get to Jake. It sounds stupid, perhaps, that the measures were extreme. But Jake being so ill was proof. His fevers said that his body was fighting infection. Both came back to Jake but stood at the end of his bed to minimize airborne germs. Jake smiled wide at seeing Andy Jr. The two looked a lot alike-from their stature to their truly innocent sweet faces. Andy knew Jake had noticed his eyes. The two would easily be picked out as brothers, except Jake's hair color was darker by a couple of shades.
They had to put their masks back on. Andrew, even masked, is what Jake expected.
"I'm glad you look like me Andy. My Dad has told you that by now."
"Yeah Jake. Not just look alike. Act alike. I'm sad for you, mate. Daddy and I have to go home tonight, but when you're well again (hope, once again), will you visit us?"
"Yeah. My Dad and I talked about that too. Andrew? How is my Dad?"
"Still recovering from surgery and starting therapy for his legs. He's had time away from the hospital. You know he's worried about you. He's still struggling on whether to come or not."
"No, only when he's better. My Dad is better off than me, for now, but I want him to bring me home. I know my Dad. He doesn't want to come and leave again. I don't want that either. Forget what I say in a fever."
"He does feel that way, Jake. Especially about bringing you home. That's Matt's place. We know you want to go back to school on time. I hope it happens."
"What else can the doctors here do for me? I'm so frustrated."
"I can't interfere, Jake. Let your mates help you day by day. If your Dad is better sooner than you are, he'll come too."
"I understand. Skip ... what can I say. He's been the best. Matty and Jeff, Ginny and Kellie. They love me a lot. It counts too. But I'm scared of the fevers."
"They're normal, son. Skip and the four hold on tighter when you're so ill. Let them. Day by day, mate. Your Dad does the same thing."
"Okay. I believe you. Thank you."
"We should go so your mates can come back. We'll be there for you too, Jake. Distance means very little, so don't think about that."
Jake nodded. They said their goodbyes and made sure that Jake's crew knew they were on their way home.
(Andrew took those notes, as close as he and Andy Jr. could recall them, so I'd know what Jake was feeling. I can't tell the story from their points of view. I write only of what I've seen.)
Wild ducks Deer Lighthouses Astronomy. As written here, those words came to me in a rush. But I knew what they meant, and then they gave me an idea. How can Jake feel me without me being there, knowing I'm thinking of him every day?
I sat in front of television, or in the den or in the chair during PT, or beside a sunny window. I was not as good as friend Will in Canada, but Jake would know. I drew one week's worth of ducks with various backgrounds (drawing upon experience). Then came a week's worth of deer in the woods (again from experience). Next was two week's worth of lighthouses from Maine to Florida to the Great Lakes. Finally, two week's worth of stars, planets, and celestial objects. I took one at random each day and mailed it to Jake. Someone would find a way to sterilize it so Jake could have them. He would come to expect a new drawing each day (with the USPS hopefully cooperating).
Matt called me a few days later and said that Jake was smiling and even giggling every day when the mail came. I did some more beach and ocean scenes so I wouldn't run out. I eventually used pictures on the Internet or from magazines as inspiration, adding my own signature look to it.
But Jake was struggling. For any good day he had, there were three or four physically and emotionally crushing bad days. Four weeks into his stay in the hospital, it finally became too much for him. He broke down and cried hard. Jeff defied orders and got into bed beside Jake. He held him tightly until the sobs died away. Jake hurt as the bone marrow re-grew. He hadn't had a headache-free day since he walked into the hospital with Skip in early May. He wanted to be in school on time but it didn't look like he'd make that one goal. That alone sent him over the edge.
He'd been prepared for the pain and frustration before the transplant. The boys told him each day to get through today only. If he missed Fall semester, there was Spring semester, like when I first enrolled him. He could take summer classes. Today. Jake's moments, even if they were painful. Tomorrow, like I've said, is two, six, twelve, or even twenty-four hours away. Living for tomorrow was not a proper way to live one's life.
I didn't live for tomorrow. I lived for the day my Jake would be well again, home with Matty, Ginny, and Snoopy. He continued to puke, most of it bile because there was little in his stomach. Jeff fed him pudding cups and fruit cups, sometimes ice cream. Jake wanted an extra large sausage and onion pizza all to himself. Matt said he'd buy Jake two.
Four weeks. Five weeks. Six weeks. Jake's wait was like me waiting for his adoption. I came home to Andrew's family for good on the seventh week. Jake was dying. His oncologist made a gamble and gave Jake more of Skip's donated bone marrow. The boys at BC, now at home for the summer, were scattered all over the east coast. They all went to give more platelets. And then more. And another more and more and fucking more.
I had to go to my boy. I risked insulting Skip and The Four, but I needed to be there. I didn't know what I'd do when I got there. I took the Metro into downtown Washington and took Amtrak to Philly. Matt met me at 30th Street Station and we took SEPTA to the hospital, walking a couple of blocks. Yeah, I said walking. Not very fast and not robustly but I was walking. We had to stop a couple of times along the way, and Matt held me along the way.
I stood at the end of Jake's bed, gowned and masked. He had been sleeping for hours according to Jeff. He opened his eyes for a moment.
"I love you Daddy," he said and then went back to sleep.
"How does he know?" asked Jeff. "His eyes were barely opened for a half second."
"Jake loves his Dad. I'm sorry if ... "
"Don't be. Jakes loves his Dad and NEEDS his Dad. We've done a lot and can do more, but it's you he wants more. No insult to us."
I nodded. He came and stood beside me. He turned me to him, lifted my chin with his finger and looked me in the eye. "No insult to us."
"I'm still sorry."
"Fine. Now move on."
I went over and took the seat that Jeff had occupied before I arrived. He and Matt stood at the foot of Jake's bed. I leaned in and kissed my boy lightly on his lips. I had stopped at the bathroom on the way in to brush my teeth and to scrub. He made a sound and I had to wonder if his dreams were torturing him. I held his hand. It was so cold. It shocked me. I wrapped it up in both my hands and softly blew on it. I rubbed it gently.
Daniel came in. He couldn't see my face but he came over to me and kissed my cheek sweetly. He rubbed my shoulders.
It was the first time he called me anything but Aaron. There were tears in his eyes. I let go of Jake's hand for a moment, hugged Daniel to me, and kissed his forehead.
"Hello my sweet Daniel. I ... "
"Sshhhh. Hold him."
I held Jake's hand again.
"No. Hold him. Pull him into your heart with every ounce of you. I tried and failed."
I looked up at Daniel. "Not even close, love."
"Don't argue. Hold him now."
I lay beside Jake. I put one hand on his cheek and held his hand again with the other. I kissed him again. I put my lips up near his ear and I talked about anything I could think of. I talked for hours. The others had left me alone with Jake. Eight weeks without my boy would be nothing if I spent the rest of my life without him. I talked only of good things. Finally, I fell asleep for a short while. When I woke again, I continued to talk to him. I don't know everything I said because I didn't write them down. They were words of love from a Dad to his dying son.
He moaned in his sleep again. He was sweating yet he was so cold.
"Something's wrong," I said, beyond the obvious.
Skip was in his wheelchair on the other side of Jake. He snapped his head up.
"He's dying. Get a damned doctor in here any way you can love."
It was a harsh order. Jake wasn't just dying. He was suffering so completely that I couldn't believe he fought equally to live. My lifetime suffering, Billy's trauma, and Skip's trauma was a thimbleful of tears compared to Jake's in this moment.
Skip took off out the door and down the corridor. I could hear his wheelchair motor fade away. The nurse's station was a ways away.
An eternity of several minutes passed. In the meantime, Jake's heart monitor started putting out erratic beats. I think I scared him with my order to Skip. I whispered into his ear again to see if I could calm him down.
"Jake? I need to know if you can hear me."
I waited a moment. He turned his face toward me. He tried to open his eyes.
"I love you Jake. With all my heart and all my soul. Whatever you need, I want to give it to you. I haven't done enough yet. Taking you out of your house was a millionth of a percent of what I want for you. Please come back to me. Your heart is stressed out. I know because of my paramedic training. A nurse is coming. We'll get a doctor for you okay Jake? Please?"
I must have been panicky sounding. I saw his face change to a scowl. I stopped talking. I kissed him very softly. I stroked his cheek.
"Love you Daddy. Help me." It came very softly but I heard it.
"I will love. You gotta let me."
He tried to open his eyes again. I kissed his forehead. "Keep trying. Jake, I don't want your last words to me to be 'goodbye Daddy'. Fight, love"
He did. He thought about nothing else. I could feel him trying. I felt Jake exactly like Skip felt me. I understood it now, and I knew then that Skip's love for me was deeper than anything he thought about. Jake opened his eyes and he looked in mine. He smiled as much as he could.
"You're very sick," I said, trying now to sound dramatic.
"I know. Too sick."
"Do you regret the transplant?"
"No. It would be an insult to Skip."
"If it weren't an insult to Skip?"
"Still no regrets. I would die otherwise."
"What if you still do?"
I was not being cruel. I wanted Jake to think about everything, not just react. He understood coming into this how hard it would be, but did he consider it'd be this hard?
"Then I die fighting."
"There's my son. It took 14 years to find you love. I won't give you up."
"I'm going to be okay, Dad. I'm not afraid. Even if I die, I'm not afraid."
"I am, but that's because a dad seeing his son very sick is almost the worst thing on Earth."
"And the worst thing is seeing him die before his eyes."
I nodded. Jake was no dummy. He was sweet and young. He was no longer innocent. His prick father had stolen any innocence Jake ever had. I couldn't give that to him.
"Just hold me Daddy."
I did. I kissed him lightly on his lips and then his forehead. I held him while we waited the nurse and then a doctor.
After being examined, his nurse found that his blood pressure monitor was giving a false reading. She replaced the unit. 180/120. Shit. There was some sort of compression inside that made it so high. Jake should be 120/70 when all was right in his world. His doctor ordered up tests for Jake's kidneys, adrenal gland, and thyroid.
"Do you know what's wrong?" Jeff asked me as I sat in the sunroom with him and Matty.
"I think one or both of his kidneys is shutting down. Most of his blood is foreign. His body doesn't know how to fight the infection or infections. It's not handling all the changes. Like how we all react to sounds too loud. It's overwhelming."
"In more ways than one. Look Aaron, I'm sorry I didn't know what to watch for."
I shook my head. I looked Jeff in the eye and then leaned forward and took his hands in mine. I looked over at Matty. I took his hands too.
"You couldn't know. The only reason I do is because I'm a paramedic."
"No Aaron. You're Jake's Dad first. Then you're a paramedic. You would have felt all this without being trained. It's why you and Jake belong together."
"Definitely," said Matt. "A piece of defective equipment started it. Technology is good in its own right, but medicine still needs people skills. If you could see it, surely they could have."
I shrugged. It didn't matter. Anything even a few minutes in the past doesn't matter. These moments.
"Aaron? What time is it?"
"Where are you?"
"And what are you?"
"These moments. And Jake's Dad."
"My older brother too," said Jeff.
"Mine too," said Matty. "You knew that anyway. We love you Aaron. We've seen you struggle too hard and now we've seen your son do it all over again. I'll be glad when you can get a break. I don't know how to give it to you."
"Then don't worry about it. I'm healing. My legs are half-way there again. Andrew might have shut down the tumor factory finally. If not, he knows what to do. I don't know what to do for Jake."
"You already did. You told his doctor and nurse that something was wrong. It's enough Aaron."
I stayed silent. It's enough for this moment, but what about getting Jake through the night. Jake still wanted me to stop fearing the night. I feared this night though. Twelve hours.
Jake's doctor found us.
"I can get his blood pressure under control over the next few hours. More fluids will help flush out his kidneys. They're backed up a bit. He's been passing urine, but it could be better. We're going to have to watch more than just his bone marrow."
"Was anything wrong in the platelets and Skip's bone marrow to start with?"
"No. Skip's bone marrow is perfect. Jake's body is a complicated thing. I'll watch him each hour for a while instead of every four to six. You know your son very well and I like that."
"I'm not his real father you know."
"You more his real Dad than his father ever was. I've talked to these guys and Jake. I know his story. I can't make promises Aaron, but I can say I'm hopeful.'
"Let him rest awhile before you go back. When you do go back, keep doing what you were."
"I wondered if I'm a cause for any infection."
"You're not. He's getting past the infection hazard stage. Balancing his chemistry is the next chore, but that's the good news. We know how to do that very well."
"Thank you. I wish ... "
He shook his head. "You haven't done anything wrong. We know you had to be away for a while. But you're healing too."
"Then cut yourself a break. You did good today. Matt, you should take your friend home and all get some quality sleep. I'll be here until you come back in the morning."
I looked at Matt and Jeff. Neither had hardly been away from this place for weeks. It was an easy choice to make.
Like Scooby Doo knocking Shaggy over, Snoopy jumped into my arms and took me down to the carpet. Easy to do since my balance was still questionable. He was happy to see me. I giggled like a little kid when a puppy licks his or her face. He didn't let up until I picked him up and held him to my chest.
Matt brought a cup of hot tea for us both. We sat on the deck out back and looked up at the starry night. Crickets sang for us. After we finished our tea, Matt reached out to me and brought me onto the lounge chair with him. He wrapped his arms around me, kissed my neck, and told me to sleep.
I woke up briefly to find Matt putting me in his bed and settling down behind me. I could feel his steady breathing in his chest against my back. Snoopy lay in front of me. I patted his head and went to sleep.
I stirred a bit when I felt Matty disengage carefully from me. I opened one eye to see Snoopy and Matt heading out the bedroom door. I thought about Skip. He had gone home with Billy. I had insisted. He was physically weak from helping Jake in more ways than I could count or repay. I was in my home, home that I was comfortable being in. I sat up on the edge of the bed and broke down.
Matt stood in the doorway. He did not come to me right away. I wiped my face, embarrassed, getting it together. Trying to, and failing. I cried more.
"Don't assume Jake's going to die," he said to me as he came and knelt in front of me. He put his hand up against my cheek.
"You've seen the color of his skin. You've seen how thin he is. He got everything against him."
"And one thing on his side. His Dad."
"Come on Matty, I'm not enough to keep my son alive."
"Yes you are. The only reason he's fought this hard is for the day when you bring him home, back to the life he knew. His life is 1000 times better than it ever was and he loves you so purely it makes me hope for a son just like Jake."
He took my hand and then he sat beside me. We did not say anything for a few minutes. He hugged me close, wrapping both arms around me, kissing my neck.
"I love you Aaron. I could make a long list of why, but it would still fall short of the much longer list that Jake could make. Jake is not going to die."
"How can you know?" I said it softly. It was not really a challenge to what he knows.
"Because he won't. Come on. I'm going to help you shower."
We stood and shucked our boxer briefs. I was capable of showering myself, taking care of myself. But everything was so hard. Sleeping took effort. Eating was the last thing I wanted to do, but those around me made me. We walked into Matt's bathroom. He got the shower water just right and pulled me in. He put shaving cream on my face. I don't remember the last time I had shaved, but my stubble was beyond stubble. He shaved me and then washed my face and hair. He soaped up my body with a washcloth. I let him wash me all over. He then washed himself and then turned off the shower. He took a big thirsty towel and dried me off, and then himself.
"Yeah. I'm sorry ... "
"I wouldn't be any different if my son were in danger, Aaron. Jeff would do for me what I'm doing for you. It's easy to care about someone who can't care for himself for a while. You need to adjust your attitude before you see Jake today. If he feels what you do, he's in for a tougher fight."
I nodded. He was right, of course. Jake could read me. He'd rather not see me at all if all I could give him were my own fears. I'd be that way, so I knew. Jake needed forward progress every day. If he fell, I'd catch him. I'd carry him a long while if I had to. He'd rather walk on his own.
So would I. Matt and I dressed and then headed out into the early morning fog. Perfect. I couldn't see what was five feet in front of us. I couldn't see beyond today either.
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