Life was so easy that first summer that Tom and I were married. During the summer evenings, we would leash the dog and take off for a walk in the dark because we could not get enough of the luxurious nights. The whippoorwills and barred owls sung from the trees, as we wended our way under the verdant arching branches.
“It hurts,” my nine-year-old son Spenser said. He pointed to his thorax region. His pale face, shrouded by darkness, expressed no intense pain. Neither did his voice. Instead, his countenance was the same as always, one of bemused contentment.
“What hurts? Your side?”
“It hurts,” he said. He trotted along, with stopping or bending over, with no apparent agony on his serene face.
As a steep hill lessened the gravity underneath our feet, our walking broke into a jog. The spring peepers making a racket in the meandering stream, and the bats flying in irregular angles over our heads, beckoned us to plunge down into that hollow.
“It’s probably just a stitch in your side. Bend over, stretch,” I told him. “That would happen to me when I rode horses.”
On other summer nights, with the locusts screeching, Spenser might say softly, but only occasionally, “It hurts.” He again would point to his chest, with a slight smile. It never hurt when we were in the house. It never hurt when we were eating dinner. It never hurt when he got up in the morning. Only sometimes at night, in the thick, sweet scent of Russian olive trees did it hurt.
According to the autopsy report, Spenser died from T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, stage IV, arising from the mediastinum. The report states that “the significant gross findings included a large white, fungating mediastinal tumor (1,350gm) which encased the heart, aorta and great vessels, and extended posterior and inferior to involve periaortic, and mesenteric lymph nodes as well as both kidneys and adrenals.” Further, the bone marrow was “completely replaced by tumor cells with no megakaryocytes and no evidence of normal hematopoiesis,” and besides being present in the heart, left lung, spinal cord, both kidneys and adrenals, the tumor cells were also present in “sections of gastroesophageal and gastroduodenal junctions.” The resident pathologist concluded the summary by stating, “It is likely with a tumor of this size the patient would have been symptomatic.”
I swear, other than his terrible appearance the weekend before he died when his chest bulged out from the tumor, we had no warning, other than this soft, simple statement of “it hurts” that he randomly said, only sometimes, during walks on summer nights.
“Why didn’t we take him to the doctor when he first told us it hurts?” I now will ask Tom as we hike on the dirt road. During a full moon the countryside is so bright that we don’t need flashlights.
“I remember thinking at the time that maybe we should have,” Tom answers. The dog trots in front of us, dragging her leash.
“But we did, we did take him to the doctor, the Tuesday before he died. They diagnosed a sinus infection,” I say. By the time we emerge from the tunnel of trees, the vista opens up into wide fields. So, sometimes when the branches are laced with dainty ice and we’re bundled up, or other times when the rolling hills blaze with red, orange and yellow, we keep having this same conversation. Why didn’t we take him to the doctor?
“But we did, we did end up taking him to the doctor.”
“The Tuesday before he died, and the diagnosis was a sinus infection.” We keep circling back to this deserted, rusty place, where questions and intentions lie strewn around like abandoned junk cars, their chrome glinting in the sun.
A few months after Spenser’s death, I sat on the plaid couch in the basement, talking to Spenser’s pediatrician on the telephone.
“They all think we’re crazy, “I began, my elbow leaning on the arm rest. “I guess I should have known that he was sick. But really, he had no symptoms. He had been tired for a month, and that’s really all there was.”
I was not telling the whole truth. There were those times walking the dog, under the overarching woods at dusk, that Spenser smiled, pointed to his chest, and said, “It hurts. Here.”
Now I listened to the pediatrician’s calculated phrases. “There’s really no way that anybody could have known.” He deliberated even longer, and in that space I speculated that he was teetering between compassion and potential lawsuits.
“The only way that the cancer would have been detected would have been a chest X-ray,” he continued,” and it just isn’t practical to do a chest X-ray every time a mom comes in complaining that her kid has been tired.”
He’s right. I never blamed the doctors, who did all they could.
Another issue is whether it was my fault that Spenser died of lymphoma, a form of cancer. The child certainly didn’t drink or smoke, and I’m not aware that he was exposed to dangerous substances, but what about the pesticides and herbicides that are poisoning our food? What about the toxic fumes from gas-powered engines? Could I have prevented any of this?
In the middle of another conversation, one of many after he died, Tom and I strolled down the hill. “He was ten, but what would have happened when he was a teenager?” I asked. “He had crushes on girls. He loved Belle Johansen. They all would have thought of him only as a friend.”
“Yeah, that’s another way women have of saying they don’t want a relationship.”
“Who would have married him? Well, maybe another disabled person, but what would his quality of life have been? Where would he have worked? ”
A train whistle moaned in the distance.
“Maybe his death was a blessing. Maybe he is better off dead.” I didn’t know if I really meant it. Tom sets his mouth in a straight line.
“No, it was a horrible tragedy. A very sad thing. He should be here with us. No, he is not better off dead.”
“But that psychic said that he had a ten year contract, that when he came in he knew he was going out quickly,” I said. As we ascend the steep hill, my breathing became labored. “A road show. She called it a road show, with high energy and great humor and a great sense of calm. That he had no regrets about anything in his life, because he did it all.”
The late spring blossoms of the Russian olives wafted a sweet menthol fragrance. The road was dappled with moonlight, and all kinds of night creatures throttled in full force: rattling, droning, hissing and shrieking in an exuberant crescendo. Maybe they were all talking to us, trying to reassure us that we couldn’t have done anything differently. But they don’t have any answers, and neither do we.
About the Author----------
This excerpt is from Searching for Spenser, a memoir that Margaret Kramar has written about the death of her disabled son, published by Anamcara Press in November, 2018. Dr. Kramar teaches English at the university level and lives with her family in northeast Kansas where they grow organic fruits and vegetables.