Life was so easy that first summer that Tad and I were married. During the evenings, we would take off with the dog for a walk on our country road because we could not get enough of the luxurious summer nights.
“It hurts,” my nine-year-old son Spenser said. He pointed to his thorax region. His pale face, shrouded by darkness, expressed no intense pain. Neither did his voice. Instead, his countenance was the same as always, one of bemused contentment.
“What hurts? Your side?”
“It hurts,” he said. He trotted along, without stopping or bending over, with no apparent agony on his serene face.
As a steep hill lessened the gravity underneath our feet, our walking broke into a jog. “It’s probably just a stitch in your side. Bend over, stretch,” I told him. “That would happen to me when I rode horses.”
On other summer nights, with the locusts screeching, Spenser might say softly, but only occasionally, “It hurts.” He again would point to his chest, with a slight smile. It never hurt when we were in the house. It never hurt when we were eating dinner. It never hurt when he got up in the morning. Only sometimes at night, in the thick, sweet scent of Russian olive trees did it hurt.
According to the autopsy report, Spenser died from T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, stage IV, arising from the mediastinum. The report states that “the significant gross findings included a large white, fungating mediastinal tumor (1,350gm) which encased the heart, aorta and great vessels, and extended posterior and inferior to involve periaortic, and mesenteric lymph nodes as well as both kidneys and adrenals.” The resident pathologist concluded the summary by stating, “It is likely with a tumor of this size the patient would have been symptomatic.”
In other words, we should have known, but I swear, other than his terrible appearance right before he died when his chest bulged out from the tumor, we had no warning, other than this soft, simple statement of “it hurts” that he randomly said, only sometimes, during walks on summer nights.
“Why didn’t we take him to the doctor when he first told us it hurts?” I now will ask Tad as we hike on the dirt road. During a full moon the countryside is so bright that we don’t need flashlights.
“I remember thinking at the time that maybe we should have,” Tom answers. The dog trots in front of us, dragging her leash.
“But we did, we did take him to the doctor, the Tuesday before he died because he had been tired. They diagnosed a sinus infection,” I say. By the time we emerge from the tunnel of trees, the vista opens up into wide fields. So whether the branches are laced with dainty ice, or the rolling hills blaze with orange and yellow, we keep having this same conversation. Why didn’t we take him to the doctor?
“But we did, we did end up taking him to the doctor.”
“The Tuesday before he died, and the diagnosis was a sinus infection.” We keep circling back to this deserted, rusty place, where questions and intentions lie strewn around like abandoned junk cars, their chrome glinting in the sun.
A few months after Spenser’s death, I sat on the plaid couch in the basement, talking to Spenser’s pediatrician on the telephone.
“They all think we’re crazy,” I began, my elbow leaning on the arm rest. “I guess I should have known that he was sick. But really, he had no symptoms. He had been tired for a month, and that’s really all there was.”
I was not telling the whole truth. There were those times walking the dog, under the overarching woods at dusk, that Spenser smiled, pointed to his chest, and said, “It hurts. Here.”
Now I listened to the pediatrician’s calculated phrases. “There’s really no way that anybody could have known. The only way that the cancer would have been detected would have been a chest x-ray,” the doctor stated,” and it just isn’t practical to do a chest x-ray every time a mom comes in complaining that her kid has been tired.”
He’s right. I never blamed the doctors, who did all they could.
In the middle of another conversation, Tad and I strolled down the hill.
“Could we somehow have prevented this? What about the herbicides and pesticides in our food? Or the toxic fumes from cars?” I asked.
The road was dappled with moonlight, and all kinds of night creatures throttled in full force: rattling, droning, hissing and shrieking in an exuberant crescendo. Maybe they were all talking to us, trying to reassure us that we couldn’t have done anything differently. But they don’t have any answers, and neither do we.
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