A 13-year-old boy searches for the beauty of life with only six months left to live.
I will be dead six months from now. Gone. Another corpse rotting in the ground. Worm food. A skeleton with hollow eyes and maggots feasting on my brittle bones. I sound dramatic. I'm only thirteen-years-old, so of course I'm dramatic. I deserve to be dramatic, just as much as I deserve to live a long, dull life where I'm scarping by with a job I hate, and trying to keep my head above water amid student debt and piling bills. Hell, maybe I would "make it big" and become a famous person, someone other people look up to, someone that could make my parents proud, and my older brother jealous. Or, maybe I could fall somewhere in between, where I have a long and fulfilling life--not necessarily famous--but with a career I enjoy and a wife and kids I adore. No matter what would, or could, or might happen with my life, I'll be buried six feet under and never live past thirteen.
The devastating news came three days ago, while I was sitting in a doctor's office, waiting for test results, after undergoing emergency surgery to remove a bone tumor the size of a racquet ball just below my elbow.
"The surgery saved your arm," Dr. Ferguson announced with a serious expression, "but the cancer metastasized. We'll start aggressive radiation and chemo treatments immediately, but your prognosis is six months."
Sick to my stomach, voice trembling, I asked "Without treatments?"
His voice left no room to argue. Mom was crying. Hayden was silent. Dad couldn't look me in the eye. I was in shock; I couldn't process his words. Dr. Ferguson, a well-known and successful child oncologist at St. Jude's Children Hospital, gave me an expiration date like I was a jug of milk.
Those treatments were three months of Hell that I mostly spent in the hospital unable to eat, losing my hair in chunks, putting up with fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, the risk for secondary infections, and pity just to stave off the inevitable. Everyone treated me like I was dying except my parents. Mom and Dad scoured the endless depths of Google and Bing every day and all night, combing through pages upon pages of websites, searching for hospitals and research facilities that offered new clinical trials for cancer patients. They would buy and read lengthy medical journals drenched in jargon that suggested obscure holistic treatments, home-made cures, or a one-in-all miracle pill sworn to eliminate cancer. I lost count of how many world-renowned doctors and specialists Mom and Dad went to in search of second-, third-, even fourth opinions, all so that they could deny the inevitable, both hoping--by some miracle--that cancer wouldn't kill me. I got sick of it. Specialists, doctors, black-market drug dealers, third-world medicine people, and voodoo practitioners confirmed the same reality I knew--I am dying, and there is no way to stop it. Even Hayden accepted the harsh reality, and he's not even eighteen.
I'm fighting hard. I make every chemo and radiation appointment even if I think they're killing me faster, or they make me miss Hayden's soccer games, or they force me to give up my dream of playing on the Men's US national soccer team. I eat right, exercise, sleep well, and avoid stress in some secret belief that if I follow Dr. Ferguson's orders, I'll live a little longer than six months. I battle depression, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, loneliness, all of it--because I don't want to die. I'm afraid to die. I act brave and face down my grim diagnosis with a weary smile, if only for my parents' sake. I never tell my peers and teachers that I overhear their whispers in the halls: "He's so ill," "He's living on borrowed time," "Six months? No way--he's only got three." That last one really stung, and came from one of my former friends to boot.
I pushed my best friends away. After my diagnosis our conversations wilted like water-starved ferns and were full of tension. It's not their fault; I reminded them that death is real, and I looked like Frankenstein's monster with the gnarly scar the surgery left on my arm. They tried to make me feel better, but their bracing words and gestures only made me bitter. They get to live, and I get to die. They would say "You'll beat this," "You're strong," "Hang in there," but I saw the pity in their eyes, the side glances, the way they carefully worded their sentences. I'm not an idiot. I already died in their eyes. Even my guidance counselor couldn't cheer me up when he put me on homebound tutoring because chemo made me miss too many days of school.
"If that doesn't work, there's always homeschool," Mr. Teague had suggested in a conference with me, my homeroom teacher, my parents, and the principal.
No one realizes I'm drowning in grief and pain. Everyone spends so much time and effort assuring me "The doctors are wrong," "You're gonna survive and beat the odds," "You're strong," that they stopped seeing a teenager and believe I'm on my death bed instead. Why does illness and death make people uncomfortable? Why are people keen on minimizing my struggle or giving me false hope? All I want is to be treated like a normal teenager--not coddled to death by my parents, not given sugar-coated answers from my oncologist, and not patronized by my peers and teachers.
A weary sigh falls from my mouth as I half-heartedly chuck a rock into the city park pond, and watch ripples disturb the algae bloom around its slow-moving edges. The medium-sized body of water meanders throughout the park as its amoeba-like arms stretch in off-kilter directions. No one swims or fishes in it, and on the hottest days of summer, it develops a sickly-sweet smell. Swimming and fishing may be out of the question, but the pond's bottomless depth and sprawling body makes it a perfect candidate for Rowing teams, kayakers, and canoers. A vendor rents out cheesy swan paddleboats, kayaks, and canoes during the early spring and late summer months on the pond's southern-most end. Of course, tourists are the only ones who take advantage of this because most locals already have the equipment, or are simply content with feeding the ducks and swans. In my case, I prefer to sit under one of the only three weeping willow trees in the park.
I enjoy sitting under this willow tree the most because it is the only one whose drooping branches dip partially into the pond. During the humid summer months, the long and elegant leaves provide the right amount of cool shade to fight back the sweltering sun and keep the mosquitos at bay. I sneak away from home or cut school early and come here to think when I feel overwhelmed, or when I just need time to myself. When we were younger, Hayden and I would take turns seeing who could climb its thick branches the highest and fastest. Now, I'm content to sit against its stout base and watch chess tournaments take place across the pond from me.
An old brick bridge with a cobblestone footpath sits just left of the willow tree. It was crafted by the Masons in the early 1800s and is adorned by cast iron orb lamps that create an eerie golden-yellow glow in the thick late evening fog and dewy early morning. The cobblestone path branches out from either end of the historic bridge to create a complex maze of pathways that connect key areas of the park to each other. Old-fashioned orb lamps spaced ten feet apart flicker to life once the sun has set to bathe the pathways with haunting Old-World England light.
Normally I never cross the bridge and venture over to the chess tables, but today is different. An elderly man dressed in a black three-piece suit with wispy white hair and a mirror-like shine in his black dress shoes is sitting at a chess table in one of the oak wood slatted chairs. The blood-orange glow of the late evening sun casts an intimidating shadow over his tall and lean frame. I'm not sure when he first appeared or why I didn't notice him before, but for the past two weeks, every evening at five o'clock, he plays chess with himself in the park. I watch him for about thirty minutes before going home, always wondering if he would like company or why he waits so late in the day to play chess. Today I've decided to stop wondering. Today I'm going to squash my doubt about seeming creepy and approach him.
My purpose-driven feet lead me away from the willow tree, across the bridge in confident strides, and plant me right beside the old man's chess table. I open my mouth to introduce myself but the assertive words "My name is," shrivel on my tongue. My burning curiosity to understand and get to know this stranger is gone; in its place is mind-numbing trepidation. Why did I leave the safety of the willow tree's branches to intrude on this peaceful man? Should I turn back, or would that seem even creepier? I need to say something. I fidget with my hoodie sleeve, swallow once, and go to speak--
The old man speaks first, "Would you like to join me?"
His smooth, deep baritone voice startles me. I didn't expect this quiet man to welcome me into his personal space without so much as a word from me. I bite my lip, still waffling on my decision, until I notice his hands are in his lap as he waits for me to join him. His demeanor reminds me of a therapist or a funeral director--unhurried, calm, patient, and accepting. Somehow, I know he isn't upset that I interrupted his silent game just as he wouldn't be upset if I declined his offer. A part of me wants to scamper from him like a mouse escaping a tom cat, but a larger part wants answers, and despite my wariness, I know he has them. I join him as he resets the board.
"Have you played before?"
"A few times with Mom," I confirm, fidgeting with my jacket eyelets. The elderly man smiles, as if remembering some old joke, before speaking again.
"I was a former chess champion; now I just play for fun."
I rub the back of my neck and let my shoulders slump. "Great. I'm gonna be checkmated in three moves."
"Nonsense; I'm a fair person. I don't rush games, and I'm certainly never in a rush," his cloudy hazel eyes capture mine for several moments as if making a point. Suddenly, I realize he's blind, but instead of averting my eyes in discomfort, I'm caught in a trance. Underneath his easy-going demeanor sits a deep-rooted wariness as if he resigned himself to some inescapable fate. His drooping shoulders, creased forehead, and sagging facial features are testimony as much.
"Got it. So," I clear my throat grasping for a topic or something to say. The old man beats me to it again.
"Harold, but I prefer Harry."
"Tom," I reply before another silence falls over us. There's something unnerving about the silence, like the bloated silences I experienced with my friends after my cancer diagnosis, but Harry seems unaffected by it. "So, no offense, but why are you dressed like a funeral director?" I move my Queen side white pawn two spaces forward to avoid looking him in the eye. I might have offended him.
Harry moves his black pawn to block mine, "Well, that's because I'm an undertaker. Chess helps me unwind after working with the dead all day, and the park reminds me that beauty is found in life's fleeting nature."
"Life's fleeting nature, huh?"
"Sure," Harry returns unfazed by my derision. "Full moons captivate people because they only happen once a month. Sunsets and sunrises have awe-striking colors, but they only last for a few hours at best. Birthdays are over before they start, and holidays last maybe a day or two days at most. If any of these events were permanent and happened every day, they would no longer be special or beautiful; people would take them for granted because that's human nature."
Silence blankets us again as we take turns capturing each other's chess pieces. This silence doesn't unnerve me; rather, it gives me time to consider Harry's words. Harry has a down-to-earth and worldly perspective on life. I shouldn't be surprised as death is everyday business to him, so of course he would find beauty in death. Maybe I should take his advice.
"I'm dying," I announce suddenly at the same time he checkmates me. He doesn't say anything; he just waits for me to continue. I don't know why, but I feel the urgent need to explain my bitterness. "I have Stage Three Metastatic Osteosarcoma; it hasn't reached my lungs yet, just my bones, but when it does...yeah," I trail off with a grim nod. "Surgery came too late; some of the cancer was non-resectable, and couldn't be removed. Now I only have two months left to live."
"That must be difficult--for you and your family."
Harry didn't try to comfort me, or express sympathy, or placate me as so many other people do when I tell them. Instead, he validated my feelings and took my grim news in stride. Of course, what should I expect from an undertaker? Harry's sightless eyes deadlock onto mine, and as I hold his intense gaze, I see past the old age, past the wariness he wears like a cloak around himself, past the wisdom, and discover urgency.
"Go home Tom, and enjoy the small moments."
Harry's firm words hold a double meaning to them for sure as they break my trance and snap me back to reality. When I made the choice to sit down and talk to this man, I never expected sage-like advice or open acceptance. Somehow, my conversation with Harry did what no one else could do--restore my hope, answer my questions, and ignite a new vigor to live my life.
Hayden's 1987 GMC pick-up truck rattles to a stop beside the other cars in the dirt lot. He turns off the headlights and cuts the ignition. I'm in the passenger seat dressed in ratty jeans, muddy hiking boots, one of his old band tees, and a green plaid flannel shirt. The truck doesn't have AC, so we drove thirty minutes past the city limits and five miles up a semi-maintained gravel road into the Rocky Bear Campsite with the windows down. Normally I wouldn't mind, but with May just starting, the humidity is unbearable. It clings to my clothing like a baby kola bear would cling to his mother's back, and causes sweat pool under my arms. I look like I just cliff jumped into the Rocky Bear Quarry.
I make a face and pull the soaked fabric away from my body. "Remind me why I agreed to this?"
Hayden raises his eyebrow and crosses his arms, "Because you need to have fun for once, and I finally convinced you. You can thank me later."
"I didn't ask for an impromptu shower, y'know."
Hayden rolls his eyes and ruffles my sweat-slicked hair, "That's humidity for ya. C'mon, we're wasting valuable time!"
I slide out of the passenger seat and feel wet mud squish between the tread in my hiking boots. I'm all for camping--God knows Mom, Dad, Hayden, and I live for it--but that doesn't mean I have to like goopy mud. The humidity is less intense so high up in the mountains, so I can at least breathe a little better. I would remove my flannel shirt, and pick jean shorts instead of regular jeans to wear, but thanks to the chemo treatments my risk of developing pneumonia is doubled in humid weather. So, naturally I have no choice but to wear layers if only to protect myself from illness.
I dutifully follow Hayden into a nearby forest clearing with a roaring bonfire, keg stands everywhere, and booming techno music. Several teenagers are grouped in small clusters chatting among themselves while holding Red, Blue, and Yellow solo cups. Some teenage couples have wandered away from the bonfire and slipped deeper into the woods, most likely to have sex or make out. Other teens dance to the music and twirl around the bonfire as if they are Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans paying tribute to their respective gods and goddesses. Overall, a YOLO vibe permeates the normally quiet clearing, and the social boundaries dictated by cliques are blurred. This high school party rocks compared to the boring middle school dances I attended.
Hayden shoves a plastic cup in my hand and orders me to "Drink, don't think," before he hops over to a group of his soccer buddies. I haven't been social in months, and never in large gatherings like this party. I'm lost without my extroverted older brother. I chug back the punch, noting a vague bitter taste to it, before walking over to Hayden.
One of his friends--Trevor, I think--spots me first and loops his arm around my shoulders, guiding me around the clearing like a proud fraternity leader boasting about the notches on his belt.
"Tom! Glad you made it. The boys' varsity soccer team is proud to offer a night of decadent debauchery, humorous hijinks, and unsupervised underage activities. Everyone chipped in on the kegs--including Hayden--and Mike's college-aged sister made the vodka-infused punch for us. If that's not your thing, head over to the Igloo cooler for some fruity wine coolers, classic beers, and Johnny Bootleggers. Just be careful--overindulgence will cause you to have too much fun."
"Wow, you sound like a salesman," I comment as he guides me to the punch table and refills my cup.
"I'm aiming for a business degree in advertising once I graduate. Mom always said I could sell the shirt, shoes, underwear, socks, and pants off an unsuspecting customer. I agree with her, except I'm not going into the porn business--I'll have my own used car lot."
Something particularly cunning and evil crosses his face before it's gone and replaced with a loan shark smile.
"Drink, be merry, and drink some more!" He pumps his fist in the air before chasing after a stunning blond-haired beauty. I shake my head wondering how people can have so much energy. Hayden invited me to the party without question, but Trevor made me feel welcomed.
I chug this cup of punch as well and pour another one for good measure. You Only Live Once. YOLO is the biggest phrase my seventh-grade class is obsessed with now, and originally, I considered it a mocking slogan reminding me that I'm dying. However, in this context, plied with copious amounts of alcohol and feeling more alive than I have in months, even I embrace it with open arms.
"Warden-alert!" Someone shouts through a megaphone.
Everyone freezes, and a pregnant silence chokes the air around us. Then, triggered like a group of geese getting shot at, everyone rushes into action. Someone shuts the boom box off while Trevor and the soccer team scramble to pack the alcohol away. Some teens ditch the scene altogether and hop in their cars to drive away. Other teens hide deeper in the forest leaving their half-empty cups and trash scattered throughout the clearing. Hayden douses the bon fire with two buckets of water.
True to form, a game warden's vehicle pulls up to the trashed campsite. A flood light scans the field; everyone tries their best to avoid the light beam. After several tense minutes, the light turns off and gravel crunches under all-terrain tires as the warden slinks away, the shadows swallowing his vehicle once again. Once the coast is clear, everyone starts cleaning up and leaving. Apparently the warden's appearance killed the YOLO vibe.
I'm way too wasted to go back home now--Mom and Dad will kill us. I'm not sure how much Hayden had to drink, but I'm certain he's not safe to drive either. What should we do? What can we do?
Hayden finds me sitting on the tailgate of the GMC. He climbs in beside me and wraps an arm around my shoulders as we watch the clouds drift across the full moon.
"Did you have fun at least?"
I frown. How could he think that? "Of course I did. It was the most fun I had in months."
"Even if you get a hangover? Even if the alcohol reacts badly to your meds? Oh shit, your meds! You haven't taken those yet," Hadyen rubs his forehead. "How could I be so stupid?"
I put a hand on his knee. "Don't. I had a great time. Thank you."
"Now you sound like my ex breaking up with me after a bad date."
"Shut up," I toss back with a light punch to his shoulder. We laugh, and in that moment, I feel like everything would okay. I had my brother, and I've embraced YOLO. I'm living life to the fullest, and I'm taking Harry's advice--enjoy the small moments--to heart.
"...and Hypnos laid beside the woman while Thanatos whisked her away to the Underworld," Dad finishes with a flourish.
He is doing his best to upstage Mom's storytelling, and even though he is a Mythology Professor with a Ph. D. in History, his stories pale in detail compared to Mom's storytelling skills. Her skills were crafted and honed to perfection between a Bachelor's in English Language and Literature as well as a Master's in Education. Dad doesn't stand a chance.
We're camping at White Water Creek Campground deep in black bear country. The small campground consists of five log cabins and five gravel sites for tents. The gravel sites are closer to the center of the campground, and away from the river bed's edge. They have premade fire pits, discolored picnic tables, and charcoal grills. When Hayden and I were younger, our parents would always use two tents--one for us and one for them--a mosquito net canopy to protect the picnic area from pesky mosquitos, and tarps to keep ground water from seeping into the bottom of the tent. Thankfully the tents came with built-in tarps that could be staked into the ground to protect the edges and the tops from rain. The main building in the center of the campground doubles as the campground bathrooms and the general store. The bathrooms contain claustrophobic but clean shower stalls. I would love nothing more than to camp out in a tent like before, but with my weakened immunity, we rented a cabin instead.
The log cabins sit on the outer edges of the campground and follow the bed of the river. They're built on stakes, and have screen porches with a two rocking chairs on either end. The porches overlook White Water Creek, and during the rainier days of summer guests get see how the unassuming babbling creek earned its namesake. When the owners first built the log cabins along the river, they had no clue that the creek is notorious for flash flooding, so the original cabins didn't have stilts. The owners amended their mistakes by using the insurance money to fortify the gravel sites and rebuild the cabins with stilts and sturdier wood. When the creek swells and breeches its banks, guests can safely watch the roaring rapids from their screen porch. However, if the flood waters become too violent, the owners evacuate the campsite and shut it down until the raging torrent becomes a babbling creek again.
High water warning signs decorate the creek's access points and the campground's website has printable evacuation and safety plans. Flood water is not this campsite's only problem; black bears wander into the camp from time to time. The owners advise campers in tents to keep their food locked away at night, and to carry bear spray. Why stay at such a dangerous campsite? The beauty of the site is worth the risks.
A large outcropping of rock towers over the humble creek and provides climbers with the best rock climbing experiences. Multiple hiking trails lead campers up the ridge, and each trail is assigned a color based on its level of difficulty. Hikers that take on the level five trails face treacherous ravines, steep steps, shifting rocks, and slick bridges; however, if they manage to reach the mountain's peak, they're rewarded with a breathtaking view of endless mountains and deep pristine springs. I would love to go on a level five hike with Mom and tackle the rock face with Hayden and Dad, but I doubt I'm healthy enough.
Despite the aggressive chemo and radiations treatments all those months ago, regardless of the emergency surgery that sealed my fate for six months, the cancer slithered from my bones and burrowed into the soft tissues of my joints. I'm sure the cancer will come for my lungs next. I doubt I'll go on intense hikes with Mom or battle crumbling rock foot and hand holds. However, I will still enjoy this time with my family, regardless of flood waters, black bears, or my cancer.
"C'mon Tom, it's your turn to tell a story. Oh, and hand me that s'more if you're not gonan eat it," Hayden breaks me from my thoughts. I look down at delicate s'more melting between my finger tips and take a bite of it. Yeah, this camping trip was the best idea.