A young boy is diagnosed with a brain tumor. His whole life is changed.
I've always hated Tuesdays. I know most people go to sleep on Sunday dreading waking up to school on Monday mornings, but for me Tuesday's always bring bad luck. Pop quiz, bad coffee, death of favorite pet...if you can think of it, it's happened to me on a Tuesday. Which is why it really shouldn't have come as a surprise that the day I found out my headaches were more than just average headaches was, you guessed it, a Tuesday.
I'd been having trouble with some nasty migranes for a few weeks, but I blamed it on the stress of Junior year. It was just before mid-terms and I had finals in physics, AP Calc, and AP Spanish. Needless to say, I was drowning in test prep and extra homework meant to "prepare" us for the final tests. I figured my brain just hurt from the lack of sleep mixed with way to much time spent taking notes and reading review packet. I didn't mention it to anyone, I just started popping Advil's like no one's business, waiting for the stress of finals to pass, hoping it would take the pain away with it. No such luck. The Tuesday of my Spanish final I woke up realitively headache free, so I let myself believe it might actually be a good day. I mean, I'd studied my ass off the night before and I figured I could at least get a B. I drove myself to school with out a problem and got to class in the nick of time. It wasn't until about a page into the Spanish final that I noticed something was off. My eyes kept going out of focus and I found myself having to reread the same questions over and over again. I could feel the pain starting at the base of my skull, and as it grew, my vision got worse. Finally, I raised my hand to ask Senor Carlos if I could go and get a drink of water, even though I knew leaving during a final was prohibited. He must have seen that something was wrong though, because he said I could leave, as long as I stayed quiet in the halls. I thanked him, got up, and managed to go about two steps before I felt the pain reach it's climax and I blacked out. When I woke up I was in a room at the hospital with my very worried father pacing back and forth and my even more worried mother sitting by my bed. I think she was praying, which is odd, because my mom isn't religious. Or she wasn't before that day. I hear her talk to God a lot these days. I do my fair share of reaching out to the Big Man, too. Mostly I ask questions, like "Why me?" and "Why now?". The memory of what happened the rest of the day in the hospital is all kind of a blur. I opened my eyes and my mom clutched her heart saying "Thank you, God" over and over and my dad rushed over to the bed.
"How're doing, kid?" He'd asked, his hand on my shoulder. I tried to turn my head to look at him, but even the small movement sent a crippling pain through my skull. I tried not to show it, but I must have winced more than I thought, because I heard my mom whimper.
"Oh , Austin, honey," she cooed in a very motherly fashion.
"What happened?" I mumbled. The last thing I remembered was asking to leave Spanish class.
"Senor Carlos said you weren't feeling well, so he let you get up to get a drink, but you callapsed before you made it to the door," Her voice was quivering the way it always did when she was worried or scared. "He called 911 and then us,and now we're here. We're supposed to call the doctor back once you've woken up to run a few tests?" She said the last sentence like a question, like she was making sure I was ready.
"Yeah," I said, letting her know I was ready, though from the look on her face she didn't look like she was. Like most moms I've met, mine is a big worrier, always fearing the worst, which is why I'm always trying to look on the bright side and hope for the best. Though that's probably the reason I ended up collapsing in the middle of a final. I try not to dwell on it too much now, but sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night wondering if maybe I'd told someone about my headaches sooner they could have done something, could have fixed me. But it's useless. Que sera, sera, right?
My dad hit some button or something and in about a minute, a man in a white coat was standing over me, asking me questions about my pain and asking my parents about a history of family illness. I remember hearing the words "cancer" and "tumor," but my head hurt and it hurt more when I tried to focus in on the voices around me. At some point my original doctor and some woman from neuro wheeled me down for a brain scan and some blood work. They asked more questions then, because my parents were out of the room. Things like if I'd ever done drugs that involved a needle or if I was sexually active. I answered no to both of these. I had a girlfriend, Sarah, but she wanted to take things slow. And drugs never had the appeal to me that they did to so many of the other guys at my school. This got approving nods from both the adults.
When they'd finished running all their various tests they brought me back to the room I'd woken up in. They said they needed to consult with some other doctors about the scans and that the blood work would be back in about a week. They also said they wanted to keep me overnight, maybe longer, so they could observe me and make sure nothing got worse. My parents weren't thrilled, but they agreed. Then the doctor told them to leave because they were going to give me some pain killer that would also make me sleep. I remember thinking that sounded nice and then my world faded into peaceful darkness.
The next week was perhaps the longest one I'd experienced in my sixteen-and-a-half years on this planet. The doctors kept me for a night longer than they'd thought, ran more tests, and furrowed their eyebrows in a very worried way a lot. My mom was there the whole time, but my dad couldn't get out of work, so he came by on his lunch breaks and after. It was the most time I'd spent with them in ages, because really, what self respecting teenager wants to be around their family? A few of my friends came by, too. Sarah brought me a toasted strawberry bagel with butter from the place by our school because she knew they were my favorite. Seeing her was nice and all, but it mostly just stressed me out more. She's a lot like my mom in the sense that she tends to worry a lot. I saw right through her optimistic grin. She was clearly scared. I couldn't blame her; I was scared, too. My best friends Mel and Erik came by and I was reminded yet again why they were two of my favorite people in the whole world. Mel barged into the room, her personality immediately bringing life to the dull, white room. I'd met Mel my freshman year in science. I noticed her because she was sitting in the back row, her converse-clad feet up on her desk, and she was reading George Orwell's 1984, a book I've read many times. We started talking about it and we've been close ever since. I even had a bit of a thing for her for a while, but then she told me she, well, batted for the other team. She became my guide to all things girl and someone I could always count on to go babe-watching with at the mall.
"Hey Austin, heard you fainted to get out of Senor Carlos's Spanish final. Wish I'd thought of that." I sat up to hug her. Her bold sarcasm and dry humor were exactly what I needed. Erik followed quickly, almost having to duck as she walked through the door. I'd met Erik in the second grade and he'd always been short. But when we hit 5th grade he had a rapid growth spurt and now he towers over me and most of the other people at our school. He had his reading glasses on, as usual. He claimed that chicks loved glasses, and even though they hadn't scored him a girl yet, he refused to give up on them. In his hands he'd had a bag of cookies I knew had to be from his mom. Erik mom, Stella, was practically a celebrity among the teenage guys for her incredible baking abilities. He threw the bag onto my lap and pulled up one of the highly uncomfortable looking plastic chairs provided for guests by the hospital.
"What Mel means to say is that we've been worried and we're glad to know you're okay," Erik said, giving Mel a look. She rolled her eyes, putting her feet up onto my hospital bed and rocking back in her chair.
"Yeah, sure. What he said." I laughed and quickly regretted it. It made me dizzy and I got tunnel vision for a few seconds. I could see it on my friends faces that they'd noticed, but I was grateful when they didn't say anything. We talked for a while about school, Mel's newest crush (a girl in her science class), and Erik's possible job at his uncle's auto body shop. They couldn't stay long because they were only their for their free period and had to get back for the last of their finals. They, like Sarah, promised to visit again soon. My mom came back from lunch (probably just crappy hospital cafeteria food) and we waited for dad to get off work.
At around noon on my third day, a friendly looking nurse with red hair and big glasses came in and told me and my mom that it was okay to take me home. We were both relieved. I asked if their was any news yet and she shook her head but said we should know by Sunday at the latest. She gave me some pills for the pain and helped us on our way. My mom called dad and I texted Erik, Sarah, and Mel to let them know I was heading home. I noticed how much lighter my moms steps were as soon as we got out of the building. She had a new hope and even though she still had dark circles under her eyes, she was smiling. I couldn't help but smile with her. Something about being in a place full of sickness makes it hard to be hopeful, but the fresh, cold January air seemed to lift the heaviness off her shoulders. Inhaling deeply, she looked at me from over the hood of the car.
"Feels good to be out of there," I nodded in agreement. "Want anything special for lunch on your first day off hospital food?"
I decided we should go to Dickie Joe's for hamburgers and milkshakes. My dad met us there and we spent our first stress-free afternoon together since Tuesday. It felt nice, seeing my parents looking truly relieved and happy for the first time in days. I also felt a sense of joy and relief, but I couldn't stop the nagging voice in the back of my mind reminding me that I wasn't out of the woods yet. The doctors hadn't really told us anything. I suspected my parents had the same voices in their minds, but for now it seemed we were all choosing to ignore them.
I checked my texts, seeing that Sarah had requested I call her as soon as I was done with my parents. She wasn't able to come see me because of family obligations but she wanted to hear my voice. As soon as my mom and i got back to the house I ran upstairs to my room and dialed her number.
"Hey, you," she said, her voice soft and sweet, "How's it feel to be home again?"
"Amazing," I sighed, "Remind me to stay out of hospitals in the future. They're sad and boring." She laughed, but I could hear that she was still concerned.
"How are you feeling? How's your head?"
"Better. They gave me some pills to take for the pain and they're working well. They say they'll have a better idea of what's causing them by this Sunday."
"Good," she breathed, "And you'll let me know as soon as you know?"
"Of course," I replied, "You'll be the first one I call. I promise." I could hear her smiling gratefully even though the line was silent for a moment. Then I heard a voice in the background and I knew she was going to have to go.
"Austin, I have to go. They are getting ready to bring out grandma's birthday cake. I'll call you tonight though. I love you."
"Okay, I love you too." Again, the line was silent for a minute. This usually happened because we both have issues being the first one to hang up. I heard the voice, probably her mom, calling her name again. She sighed exasperatedly.
"Take care of yourself. Talk to you later, babe." And then she hung up. I laid down on my bed looking up at the ceiling. She was a pretty great girl, really, and I was lucky to have her. I smiled, flipping to the photo's I had on my phone of us. Sarah and I had met the summer after my sophomore year at band camp. She'd just moved from Iowa and her mom had sighed her up in the hopes that she might meet some people in the area. She was the pretty sandy-haired alto sax player and I was the semi-awkward but still adorable brunette playing the french horn. We bonded over our mutual dislike of a certain trumpet player and by the third day we were flirting so obviously it was almost disgusting and not long after that we were finding any opportunity to sneak off and make out. Before I knew it I had my first serious girlfriend and a few pretty great "this one time, at band camp..." stories. I hoped she was able to handle whatever news we got.
Overall my first day home from the hospital was uneventful and fairly decent. It was the next few days that quickly became helI-ish and anst-ridden. I spent my time counting down the seconds till Sunday, often finding myself doing activities around the house that allowed me to be close to the phone, just in case the hospital called earlier. I felt almost constantly sick to my stomach and I barely touched any of my food. My mom started biting her nails again, a habit she'd given up when I was about five. She chewed them till they bled and eventually my dad just took to holding her hands whenever he was home, both to comfort her and keep her from further mutilating her fingers. They whispered to each other a lot, too. I knew it was me they were discussing because, even though they always hushed up the second I was within earshot, I could hear them at night through the thin walls of our house. They were discussing what they would do if I had cancer, if it was terminal, how they would tell people, who they would tell, and how they would support me. It was weird to hear them talk about me like I might not be around for much longer, but I knew it was a possibility. I had trouble sleeping that night.
Erik and Mel came a few times and Sarah stopped by once, but her family was still in town so she didn't have much time. The days kept getting longer the closer Sunday got. My house was full of tension and it was heightened by the fact that no one wanted to admit the fears they were having. Even Mel seemed to get a little nervous as the day approached. When Sunday finally did arrive, after what felt more like months than just days, my parents and I practically lived within a five-foot radius of the phone. Every time it rang one of us leaped up to grab it, each time feeling a mix of relief and disappointment when it wasn't the call we were waiting for.
It wasn't until about seven that night that the call came in. My dad answered. We'd been in the middle of watching one of my favorite Chopped reruns on the Food Network. When he didn't come back quickly, my mom and I both got up, rushing into the kitchen where the phone was and giving him quizzical looks, which he answered with a brief nod. My mom and I both sat down at the table and watched his every facial expression, hanging on his every word, but we weren't able to get much from it. It was mostly a lot of eyebrow furrowing and "Yes"'s and "Mmhmm"'s. When he hung up my mom looked at him.
"So?" She asked, her voice quavering slightly.
"They want us to come in. Now. They want to talk to us in person." My dad was trying not to show it, but I could see the fear in his eyes. I felt my stomach drop to somewhere near my knees. I tried to think of any good reason they'd call us in like that. Maybe they'd found the cure for AIDS in my blood, or maybe there was some kind of prize for the one thousandth person's blood tested and I was the winner! I knew all of my ideas were crazy and my mind kept wandering back to those words I'd heard before the medication had put me to sleep. Silently we all walked to the car and drove back to Sacred Heart. I texted Sarah.
"They called. Want to talk in person. Going to SH now. Let you know when I have more. I love you." She replied quickly.
"I love you too. Everything will be okay." I didn't believe her and I knew she didn't either, but I appreciated the support.
The silence didn't break until we reached the front desk and my mom told the nurse working the counter who we were and why we were there. She told us to take a seat. The same nurse who'd said I was okay to go home came and got us and took us to meet with the doctor who's done by brain scans.
"I don't know if you remember, but I'm Dr. O'Key," she said, her hand extended, her tone warm. We all shook her hand. "Take a seat," she said, gesturing to a few chairs in the room. I could feel my palms starting to sweat; my parents were holding hands. From what I'd gathered from medical drama's they only asked you to sit down if it was bad news and I braced myself as best I could. Dr. O'key flipped a switch and it lit up a board thingy that my brain scans were posted on. I noticed there was a blotchy looking thing near the temporal lobe. Again I felt my stomach drop.
"I'm afraid the news I have isn't good," the doctor said calmly. "You see this?" she gestured to the aforementioned blob on my brain, "It's a brain tumor. We still don't know if it's cancerous or not, but either way, it's dangerous." She paused.
"Is there anything you can do?" My father asked.
"We'll know more once we determine if it's cancerous or not, which will require Austin to come in for a biopsy, but it's very near the brain stem which adds a certain degree of risk to any attempt at surgical removal." My father nodded. I stared at my hands, turning my phone over and over in them nervously. A brain tumor. I tried to let the news sink in but it was like they were talking about someone else, some other boy named Austin. Everything sounded far away like I was listening to a conversation while under water. My head was filled with a buzzing sound, like someone had released a hive of bees in through my ear. I was so confused. I couldn't believe it was really happening, and yet, it was.
"Austin, honey?" I heard my moms voice through the distance. "Sweetie, we can go now. We just have to schedule your biopsy at the front desk." I nodded, pulling myself up with some effort as my body now felt like someone had replaced my bones with titanium rods. I was vaguely aware of the presence of my dads arm around my shoulders guiding me through the hospital. I can barely remember getting back home.
When we walked back through the door to our house I didn't say anything to my parents except "I'm going to go take a shower." I didn't call Sarah, I didn't stay downstairs to discuss my feelings with my parents, I just numbly made my way to the bathroom, robotically removing my clothes and climbing in to the hot water. Despite the heat, I felt icy cold. My shoulders were shaking and it took me a moment to realize I was crying. I heard my phone ring, it was Sarah, but I ignored it. Instead, I stood in the shower and let my silent tears become sobs that rocked my entire body, folding myself into the smallest possible form, hugging my knees and letting the water rush down my back. I had a brain tumor. A possibly inoperable brain tumor. I'm only sixteen I thought. I cursed God and the universe and everyone else I could think of for doing this to me. I cursed myself for being so stupid and not asking for help sooner. I cursed my parents for not noticing and making me do something. But mostly I just cried until the water got cold.
When I finally made it to my room I collapsed, exhausted, onto my bed. I knew I should call Sarah, I'd promised. But I couldn't handle telling her the news; that would make it feel too real and I wasn't ready for that. Instead I sent her a quick text.
"Not ready to talk about it yet. Please don't be angry. I love you. Everything will be okay." She texted back.
"I love you too. I'm not mad. Everything will be okay." Thankful that she was at least pretending to handle things well, I set my phone aside and closed my eyes.
When I woke up the next morning my head was pounding. I fumbled around on my nightstand for the bottle of pills, knocking my phone off in the process. "Damn," I mumbled, hearing it hit the floor as my fingers grasped the bottle I was looking for. Sitting up I grabbed the now like-warm water from the table and swallowed a few pills down, giving myself a second to recover from the massive head rush I was having before reaching down to get my phone. I had 5 new texts, a mix from Sarah, Erik and Mel of course, all wondering how I was doing and if I'd heard news and all that. It was at that moment when the events from the night before came rushing back to me and with it another wave of pain. Clutching my temples I laid back down, my teeth gritted. As the pain began to fade I knew I owed my girlfriend a call. It was almost nine in the morning so I knew she'd be up. It only rang once before she answered.
"Austin," she said, the relief evident in her voice. I didn't say anything. She waited a few minutes before speaking again. "Austin?" this time her voice was laced with concern.
"I have a brain tumor, Sarah," I said finally, my voice not sounding like my own. For a long time we both sat on the phone in silence. I could hear her taking deep breaths, trying not to cry. I couldn't help but feel a little angry with her. I knew it was out of compassion but she wasn't the one with the possibly-terminal-absolutely-terrifying brain tumor. I was.
"I-I'm so sorry," she finally whispered, her voice thick with held-back emotions.
"It''s okay," I said, even though it wasn't, "It might not be too serious. They don't know yet. I have a biopsy in about a week." I was fighting to keep my tone light to keep her from freaking out, but talking about it was hard. Maybe calling had been a mistake; telling her just made it real all over again.
"Mhmm," she replied. She was crying now. Great.
"Really, Sarah, it'll be okay," I said in the most comforting way I could. We were quiet again. My head was killing me. "My head hurts. I'll talk to you later."
"Okay," she said in a small voice, "Bye."
"Yeah, bye." I replied, hanging up quickly.
I really hadn't meant to sound so cold, but I had a lot going through my mind and I couldn't deal with an emotional girl right now. I was hardly handeling my own feelings as it was. I did feel bad for not telling her I loved her, but I'd tell her later. I hoped she wasn't too upset, though I knew she probably was. Ugh.
I laid back on my bed, contemplating popping a few more pills since the first batch didn't seem to be working very fast. I grabbed my pillow and placed it over my face, breathing in the smell of fabric softener. My mind was racing through so many thoughts and worries and fears, it all sounded like some terrible static mixed with nails on a chalkboard on repeat inside my head, adding to the already signifiant pain I was experiencing. Was I going to die? Was it cancer? Where my parents okay? How should I handle Sarah? When would I tell Erick and Mel? So many who's and what's and why's and how's rushed through my mind. I pressed the pillow harder over my face, trying to smother them, but they wouldn't stop. I wanted to scream.
I was temporarily pulled from my thoughts by a knock at the door.
"Austin? Honey?" It was my mom, "I made you breakfast. Are you awake?" Pulling myself up and tossing the pillow aside, I dragged myself to the door and opened it. There was mom, standing there, that look of concern and love on her face, holding a tray with warm pancakes and syrup, orange juice, and bacon. The breakfast of champions. Just seeing and smelling it improved my mood a bit.
"Thanks, mom. This looks really good," I said, trying out a small smile, "But you didn't have to bring it up."
"I know, but..." she trailed off, not quite making eye contact. But you might have cancer so I'm being extra nice, I finished for her. Still, it's not like I was going to say no to bacon, even if it was sympathy bacon.
"Thanks," I said again, taking the tray from her and walking back to my bed, sitting down on the edge. My mom stood awkwardly in the door for a minute and I could tell she was trying to find the right words to say something. I took a bite pancake, waiting.
"You know," she started off slowly, "whatever this is, your father and I will love and support you through it. And you can always talk to us...about anything you might be feeling." I took a sip of orange juice, nodding in response. "If you need anything..." she continued, trailing off.
"I know. Thanks, mom. Tell dad thanks, too," I hoped she'd leave now. I wasn't feeling terribly social after my talk with Sarah and I still had to find a way to tell my two best friends. I owed them both texts, or maybe even calls with news like this and i just wasn't ready to go through the process of telling more people I knew loved and cared about me. Maybe I should wait to tell them until I knew more, I thought. I mean, there was still a chance this thing could be benign and they could just cut it out, give me some meds, and watch it shrink away. The doctor's hadn't said it was for sure inopperable; they could remove it. Or maybe it was one of those things he could just take pills for the pain and live with his whole life.Maybe waiting would be good. My phone buzzed again. Mel. No, he couldn't wait. He went to look at the text. He had 12 unread messages. There was no way he could keep his friends waiting any longer. Opening up Mels latest message, he didn't even read it, he just hit reply and typed.
"It's a brain tumor. Yes, I'm fine. No they don't know much about it yet. Finding out more next week." I flipped back up to the contacts and added Erik to the text as well. I didn't have the engery to type him out a seperate message.
It didn't take long for their replies to come in.
Mel: "I'm really sorry. I'm sure it'll work out. Let me know if you need anything ;)"
Erik: "Really sorry, bro. You'll be fine. Need more cookies?"
Again I felt a rush of graditude and love for my two best friends. They knew how to keep it simple when I needed it. They didn't bombard me with questions I couldn't answer and they were keeping their emotions to themselves. It probably helped that I'd texted instead of called, and I appreciated that they didn't give me any shit for that, either. I probably should have called with news like that, but the call with Sarah had gone so poorly and I felt so emotionally exhausted. Just thinking about facing her again later made me want to curl up and sleep forever.