I emerged from the blackness to discover that I was lying on the parlor couch, a cool rag on my forehead, my father sitting beside me. He was saying soft words I could not understand, but just the sound of them made me feel a little better.
I opened my eyes, and the first thing I saw was my father’s worried face.
“Vickie” he said. “Welcome back.” He smiled. Looked relieved.
“Is it true?” I asked him. “Is it true about Gil Bysshe?”
“You know the boy?”
“Yes, he’s my partner for the science fair project.”
“Then he’s the one who’s been calling you, the one who—”
“Oh, Vickie, I’m so sorry. If I’d known … I never would have—”
“I know that, Father,” I said quietly. And now I was crying.
My father pulled me to him, hugging me hard, swaying back and forth, gently, as the sobs tore my throat, shredded my chest. I could feel my shudders passing through me, into my father.
Later, down in my basement laboratory, I accessed the school nurse’s database and read her brief notes on Gil. About all she had written was that he suffered from a form of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma/primitive neuropithelial tumor. Metastatic.
I’d never heard of it. The nurse indicated that he was under a physician’s care, was taking regular treatments at the local hospital, and should be allowed to leave class without permission whenever he did not feel well.
I quickly found the home page for the National Cancer Institute and located the following information about Ewing’s tumor:
Ewing’s sarcoma/primitive neuropithelial tumor is a rare disease in which cancer (malignant) cells are found in the bone. The most common areas in which it occurs are the pelvis, the thigh bone (femur), the upper arm bone (humerus), and the ribs. Ewing’s sarcoma/primitive neuropithelial tumor most frequently occurs in teenagers.
What about treatments? I scrolled down the page and found only this:
Like most cancers, Ewing’s … is best treated when it is found (diagnosed) early. If a patient has symptoms (such as pain, stiffness, or tenderness in the bone) the doctor may order x-rays and other tests. The doctor may also cut out a piece of tissue from the affected area. This is called a biopsy. The tissue will be looked at under a microscope to see if there are any cancer cells. This test may be done in the hospital. The chance of recovery (prognosis) and choice of treatment depend on the location, size, and stage of the cancer (how far the cancer has spread), how the cancer cells react to the treatment, and the patient’s age and general health.
But what about the word metastatic? The word the nurse had written after the name of Gil’s disease. I knew what it meant: The cancer has spread. But I scrolled down some more—just to see what it meant for Gil. And found the worst news of all:
Metastatic: The cancer cells have spread from the bone in which the cancer began to other parts of the body. The cancer most often spreads to the lung, other bones, and bone marrow (the spongy tissue inside of the large bones of your body that makes red blood cells). Spread of cancer to the lymph nodes (small, bean-shaped structures found throughout your body which produce and store infection-fighting cells) or the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) is less common.
The treatments recommended for this more serious form of the disease sounded awful.
Radiation therapy plus combination chemotherapy.
No wonder Gil was absent from time to time; no wonder he sometimes sat silent in class, his chin resting in the palm of his hand. No wonder.
And I? I—sometimes so arrogant about my knowledge, my abilitity to observe, to understand? I had been clueless. I had watched Gil’s behavior, had concluded that he was just strange. Well, maybe he was. But he was also deathly ill. And I had failed to notice—or even imagine the possibility.