Issue 19: Layer of Longevity
Short Story Station
“The Nick of Time”
Its roots stretch back to the spring of 1968, a full year before the first man set his footprint on the moon, showing the world that anything is possible if we just reach for it. Optimism ran upright and strong that year. The world witnessed changes never seen before, and America took the lead on most of those endeavors.
Bethany Roberson couldn’t quite grasp the enormity of the potential being mined across the planet. Those changes meant little to an 8-year-old beginning life in the quiet town of Williamston, Michigan. The fourth of five children—and the only girl—Bethany adapted to the rough play of her brothers, dishing out as many lumps as she received, toughening the girl in the eyes of neighborhood boys who’d long grown weary of entanglements that might put them on the losing end of pretty solid left jab.
Scraped knees and split lips never bothered her. A broken right arm proved incapable of drawing tears from the girl. But that spring, back in 1968, something seemed to fail inside her. Exhaustion crept in like a dark pall, bringing her low, keeping her in bed well after the other children had traipsed off to finish out the fading school year. The weight loss spooked her mother. Frequent nosebleeds twisted her father with worry.
Dr. Brandise spoke those terrifying words aloud to Bethany’s parents: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
“There’s nothing I can do for her,” he confessed. “This one doesn’t get better.”
A few hospitals around the country might help stretch her time by a year or so, he offered—though that wasn’t a guarantee. Nothing really ever is for certain in those sorts of matters.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia is a blood disease, making it a nasty enemy that invades the whole body, leaving destruction in its wake. Those in the know call it The Wasting Disease. Nobody survives this war.
But Dr. Brandise, well, he reached into his pocket and sprinkled a few bread crumbs across the path the Roberson family had been forced upon.
“Memphis,” he explained. “There’s a children’s hospital down there.”
Words and phrases like new drugs and experimental fluttered in on gossamer wings of hope. But even hope doesn’t arrive with promised fulfillment.
Second thoughts didn’t figure into this equation. Desperation fueled determination, and so early in April, Mr. Roberson loaded his only daughter into the back of the family’s Oldsmobile station wagon, and drove all night to a city known more for the blues and bar-b-que than for healing and miracles.
* * *
It came into existence six years earlier, back in 1962. Danny Thomas put the pieces into place, saying that “no child should die in the dawn of life.” Father surely knows best. They called the place St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, naming it after the patron saint of hopeless causes.
They were bold in their intentions, proclaiming they would “cure” childhood leukemia one day. And true to their promise, significant successes had been gained behind a mysterious curtain few were allowed to pierce.
Doctors gathered in Bethany’s room at the hospital, surrounding the girl as if she were a movie star. Blood was taken, workups performed, assessments made. Terms and phrases were scattered like seeds inside that tiny room. Hope sprouted here and there, growing, expecting to find harvest at the appropriate time.
They spoke in hushed tones about something called the Total Therapy V Study.
The medicines had come a long way in the few short years since the hospital came into being. But that didn’t make it easier on the patients.
Liquid fire entered Bethany’s body through an ever-present IV, burning her from the inside, leaving her too sick to keep a meal down. Sores opened on her hands. Muscles ached as if she’d aged by half a century.
“It’s going to make you all better,” her father promised.
Spinal taps introduced the girl to a most vivid sort of pain. Experimentation, it seemed. Throw it up and see what falls back down. A mixture of measured pharmaceuticals left her confused, light-headed; uncertain of all those promises on which she’d leaned.
She believed her father, though. He would see her through.
That’s what daddies do.
Days bled into weeks. Hope ran wild like an escaped thoroughbred, appearing momentarily on any given day, only to be spooked back into the tangled brush, obscured and seemingly lost. But even so, gloom and doom didn’t paint the whole affair black. Clowns visited the children in ward, bending balloons into poodles and monkeys and silly hats that made Bethany giggle for the first time since leaving home. Strawberry ice cream put things right—if only for an afternoon.
The fact that Bethany’s hair had been coming out hadn’t bothered the girl all that much. Mirrors weren’t allowed on the floor. A visit from her mother and brothers in early May changed all that. The boys didn’t mean to shake her. They’d just expected to find their sister as they last saw her—as they always knew her. The youngest cried and pulled away from her hug.
“He’s just scared, is all,” her mother explained. “He’s still a baby.”
Words couldn’t soothe the girl’s soul. “He’s scared of me!” Bethany cried.
* * *
Needles and blood-letting became a matter of routine as summer followed its course. The darkness began giving way to more and prolonged moments of light. Their experiments were proving useful, fruitful, more than simply promising.
By late August, Bethany’s leukemia and gone into remission.
“We won’t use the word cured just yet,” the doctors all said. False hope can really damage instinct and will.
With caution Bethany returned home at the start of fourth grade. Wigs covered her bald head. Home-cooked meals added to her weight. Even her brothers yanked her into their rough play in the family’s back yard. But her friends, they stopped coming around, unsure if they might catch whatever had taken her from their midst.
Remission remained the good word that following July, when she visited St. Jude, on the very same day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.
Her hair had returned—as did her friends—when Nixon traipsed off to China in 1972.
All those fears of relapse had vanished by the time Bethany Roberson graduated from high school in the spring of 1978.
College, marriage, children—all achieved despite that original prognosis. She outlived both of her parents and her oldest brother, witnessed the births of four grandchildren, and celebrated thirty years of marriage. But even today, caution remains rooted within. It’s become second nature to those who survive death sentences.
Dr. Brandise once called her a lucky girl for contracting leukemia in 1968. “A year earlier,” he explained, “and you wouldn’t have survived.”
Timing is everything in life. Longevity is something that isn’t guaranteed. It must be cultivated and worked on. It’s to be wanted—despite the struggle. And most importantly, it must be earned.
Life and longevity is never a given.