I don't even remember how this started exactly.
I know it was 1999 and I know that my father had a seizure. I know his
blood didn't look right. And that there was something going on with his
bone marrow that looked to be pre-cancerous, but needed to be confirmed
with a genetic test.
I also know it turned out that he has myelodisplasia, a rare form of
bone cancer that causes immature bone marrow cells to explode before reaching
maturity; that these explosions are known as blasts and without treatment
these blasts are going to escalate until he has full-blown Leukemia.
The doctor at Sloan-Kettering says that my dad may have been sick for
awhile because his red blood cells looked low as early as last summer.
The doctor also said that my dad needs a bone marrow transplant and that
the disease is worse then they thought and progressing, though it's just
hard to imagine how that's possible.
My mom says people can walk in to see a doctor, hear they have this
disease and die three months later. Of course, she also says that people
who get bone marrow transplants can live five more healthy years.
The thing is there needs to be a match, and while siblings are the best
bet, it turns out that they only match about twenty-five percent of the
time. In comparison, children only match about three percent of the time,
however, so they won't even test my brother Jerry and I until they are
So, maybe my uncles will be a match. Or maybe it will be Jerry or I.
And if it is one of us then maybe they will wheel us into some cold and
antiseptic hospital room and put tubes into our lower back and then very
slowly draw the bone marrow that could very well save my dad's life.
That would be something wouldn't it?
Sure it would, though this is assuming of course that he doesn't die
on the operating table, that his body doesn't then reject the transplant
or that some opportunistic infection doesn't wreak havoc on his now compromised
But let's say that there is a match, and that these things don't happen,
who knows what's possible, right? I can feel a little hopeful, can't I?
Well, I don't actually know that anyone would quite say that, because I
don't know that anyone really knows anything, most of all me.
I do know though that I have this image of the old man that I plan to
hold on to. I pulled up to the house with my wife Kerri today and when
I arrived my father was up on the porch leaning over the rail and tending
to his bushes. He was in his ratty old Cape Cod sweatshirt and he was surrounded
by all this foliage and shrubbery. It was this brilliant day and he was
smiling up there, all active and healthy looking, tending to his plants,
the plants he planted with his bare hands. He looked so peaceful and focused
up there, nothing like he could have looked like, tired and sallow, beat-down
and sickly looking. And before I yelled hello I paused to take it all in,
my old man, Monet-like, in his garden, relaxed and happy.
It's the image I won't let go of. It's a keeper.
I call Jerry to talk about our dad and we will talk about him, we just
won't talk much about what's going on. Jerry doesn't do that.
People joke about how siblings always seem to have somehow grown-up
in different homes and yet somehow that usually seems to be the case. Families
do change over time. Parents change. Circumstances change. Sometimes its
financial, or the outcome of more, sometimes less members. The dynamics
are always swirling.
My dad never worried about Jerry. From the start Jerry seemed to know
what he was doing and he was treated as such. He could come and go as he
pleased and so for him the house was a way station between things and the
world he lived in was far removed from the anxieties and tensions that
intermittently sprang to life wrapping my mother and I in tendrils that
still linger even if they're more like ghosts now, hovering and watching,
if not totally apparent to the naked eye.
There is one association with growing-up that we hold in common though,
and it is always something we can focus on when other topics are too difficult
to tackle. Our dad was from New York and he thought of himself as a tough
"So, this one time," I say to Jerry about to repeat an oft
told story of my dad's legendary toughness, "dad and this friend of
his were up on the roof of his building and its summer and it's real hot,
so hot that people are unscrewing the plugs on the fire hydrants so everyone
can splash around in the cold water. And the tar on the roof is melting,
"Right, continue" Jerry says even though he has heard and
told this story a thousand times.
"Anyway, so the tar is melting, and dad and his friend get this
idea that they're going to fill paper bags with the tar and then pelt the
windows of police cars as they drive by. And then they do it. And the police
try to chase them, but they can't catch them because they run across the
rooftops and make their escape."
"Yeah, I know that one," Jerry says before moving on to another
story, which I will know, but he will tell anyway, because that's part
of the game, "and then there was the time he went to Chinatown with
his gang to buy some firecrackers from a rival gang. For some reason the
deal went bad and they found themselves running away from the other gang
and trying to figure out how they were going to make it home."
"It's funny isn't it," I say.
"What?" Jerry says.
"Dad never seems to notice that every story he tells us involves
running away from someone or some situation."
"I don't see what you mean," Jerry says.
"Dad, running away
Jerry doesn't really remember the bad stuff, or let himself get angry.
I envy that.
"Hey," I say, hoping to get us back on track, "so they're
on the run, and then what, what happened next?"
"What happened next," Jerry says, "they threw the cherry
bombs at the other gang and stopped them dead in their tracks."
We both laugh.
"And you know that just might be true," I say.
"Yeah, maybe, I hope so," Jerry replies.
We get quiet.
And then we get off of the phone.