The Wrong Time

When I was in college I lived in an apartment in a series of red brick buildings, built just after WWII. They are gone now, swept away as though they were never there at all, in the Tornado of 2011, but that’s another story for another day.

There was an elderly couple that lived just across the way, their names lost to me now in the mist of time. They were alone in the world but for each other, and kind, and I would go and sit with them from time to time. Just inside the door, in their entryway, was a picture on the wall. I passed it every time I went in. It’s golden frame held the photograph of a beautiful little girl, with blue eyes and blond hair. Forever frozen at 3, swept away by a tornado of another kind, Leukemia.

I would sit with them in the stillness, surrounded by old things, listening to their stories and the ticking of the clock. I would glance at the picture of their little daughter as I left and think it was sad, knowing nothing yet of sorrow. And then one day, without either of us knowing it, it was the last time I came and went, and I consigned them to the drawer of memory.

I would remember them again many years later as I sat by the bed of another tiny patient, a boy this time, and 6 not 3, but the same mortal enemy. But for 3 years I would hold my boy, ghostly pale and limp, and wipe away vomit, and hope and pray and claw and fight our way to the cure she never had the chance to have.

One night after a long day at the Clinic my son fell asleep in my bed although he wasn’t supposed to. I was reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s masterful biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. I came to the chapter on VAMP, the first Clinical Trial that tested many of the drugs now used to treat childhood cancer. The name an acronym for the combination of drugs used. The year was 1961, and the regimen so toxic that many children died outright, and many died after a brief remission because they didn’t yet have the final piece of the puzzle, that you had to give radiation to the spinal fluid or it would come back. But for the first time there were remissions and for the first time there were survivors and it was the beginning of Leukemia becoming a curable childhood cancer.

I read, the words falling like drops of blood on my eyes, and I thought of those long ago nameless children, the hell they went through, and their desperate and courageous parents, and the incredible debt I owed them. And as I read, my hand kept slipping over to touch my beautiful boy, and be reassured by his warm flesh under my fingers.

And as it turned out, mine would live, and grow his hair back, and have birthdays and go to DisneyWorld, and hold his baby cousin on the day he was born, and play in the ocean, and go to camp, and kick a football and kiss a girl for the first time, and have it all before him.

And I thought of my long ago neighbors, and their long ago girl, who died years before the VAMP trial was ever thought of, when all there was of treatment was to take them home and make them comfortable as they faced their certain and miserable death. Guilty of nothing but being born in the wrong time. Consigned to be only a golden girl in a golden frame, in a room full of old things and the ticking of a clock.

One thought on “The Wrong Time

  1. Marcy Naivar

    Gratitude and grace all in one lovely written blog piece. A gorgeous tribute to a golden girl of yesterday and a beautiful boy who thanks to those like her are here today.

    Liked by 1 person

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