Sometimes trips are long because one travels a great distance but there are times when a trip is long because of reasons beyond distance. The outward journeys our bodies take are often paired with an inward journey of the mind. The distances we travel in our mind can be both journeys of time and place. It is easy to travel back to 7th grade and relive the pain of those moments when I was a fragile shell of a person. Dwelling on those feelings of isolation and rejection can make my heart race and before I realize it I am reliving the time Jeff Harter took my sweet, long-handle comb and wouldn’t give it back. The mind can also extend moments and expands distances as we live through them. Ask anyone who has ever been in a car accident what they remember of the event and you will see how a moment in time is opened and expanded by the mind. So, when my phone rang at 11:01 on February 1st, I picked it up and started the longest trip I have ever taken. According to my iPhone the call lasted one minute, but that minute has altered my life as much as any minute ever has.
I spent the afternoon watching the Superbowl at a friend’s house. My son, Dylan, stayed home because he wasn’t feeling well and when I got home my wife wanted to run Dylan into the emergency room at the local hospital. He was in some discomfort and complained of stomach pain. Being who I am, I gave him a mini-lecture about eating right before my wife took him off to the hospital. I went to bed thinking they would be back soon and Dylan and I would spend the morning talking about why the Seahawks decided to throw a pass on the one-yard-line when they have the best running back in the NFL. When my phone rang at 11:01 I thought my wife was calling to say they were heading home, what I didn’t expect was what she said: Cancer. Cancer? Yes, Cancer. I didn’t know what to say, what can you say in a moment like this? It was like a dream where I was falling backwards through an eternal darkness, but this was no dream and there wasn’t going to be any waking up.
I drove the thirteen miles to the hospital in silence: The longest drive of my life. I turned the radio off and listened to the dull hum of the car wheels on the pavement. My mind ran through all the reasons the ER doctor must be wrong. By the time I got to the hospital arrangements were already being made to transport my son to Seattle for care. My wife and I did what people do in emergencies, we ignored every dark thought entering our minds and busied ourselves with calling in sick to work, getting plans to school, and then it all began. The ambulance arrived and my son was packed inside. I drove home, dropped off the car, and then my wife and I drove to Seattle to find our son in room at Swedish Hospital on the Oncology floor.
The next twelve hours were a blur. Three and a half liters of fluid were drained from my son’s stomach, blood was taken, bone marrow was drawn, ultra-sounds of his liver were taken, and multiple doctors gave varying possible causes for his stomach infection. The doctors who held out the least dangerous causes were listened to intently and the doctors who said things like liver cancer and lymphoma were marginalized.
My mom drove to our house to be with my daughter and the rest of us went to sleep in room 12– knowing that the morning would hold the answers to most of the tests being taken.
I was a nervous parent when my son was born 20 years ago. The moment he entered this world the doctor handed Dylan over to me and I watched him breathe. The short baby breaths worried me. He seemed unbelievable fragile and the world seemed so crushingly large. The nurse took him, cleaned him, wrapped him up, and handed him back to me. I felt unprepared for the journey I was about to embark upon, but the world has been cranking out babies for a long time and parents have probably always felt as unprepared as me, but that didn’t stop me from getting up each night and standing over his crib as he slept. I would watch him breathe. His little lungs puffing up and down. There were nights when I would hover over him wondering if he had stopped breathing, but those fears drifted away as he grew and grew and grew.
Those fears returned last week as I watched my son struggle with short breaths sleeping in a hospital bed in Seattle. He was now twenty times larger than when he came home, but that night he was still a fragile little boy whose father felt ill-equipped to help.