She couldn’t burden one son with the problems of another

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A VG Serial: ToxiCity

Episode 47

Four Years Earlier

The problems started when TJ was three. At first it was just a rash, red and raw, that spread over his stomach and back. But it was summer, one of the hottest ones on record, and Maggie figured it was heat rash. She treated it with cortisone lotions and creams, and eventually it went away.

By autumn, however, TJ started running high fevers and throwing up. He wouldn’t eat, and he couldn’t sleep. He was still too young to tell her what hurt, and Maggie was worried. She took him to the pediatrician, who diagnosed a virus. He prescribed Tylenol and suggested she feed him the “brat crap” diet until his stomach settled down. But after two weeks of rice cereal, applesauce, and mashed bananas, TJ wasn’t better. Maggie took him for a second opinion.

The new doctor laid TJ out on the table and palpitated various parts of his body. He kept coming back to his abdomen. TJ screamed each time the doctor poked. The doctor stopped, rubbed his nose with his finger, then looked at Maggie. “I think your son has a growth somewhere near his abdomen. Let’s get him to the hospital.”

Maggie arranged for Dusty to stay with a neighbor and drove TJ downtown to Children’s Memorial. Greg was out of town, but she left word with his dispatcher. On the long drive down to Chicago, she sang TJ his favorite songs, but she nearly lost it when she started in on “Mockingbird”.

“Mama’s ‘gonna buy you”—It wasn’t a diamond ring. Or a Billy goat. A week in the hospital? Surgery? Her eyes welled up. She stopped singing.

The first thing they did at the hospital was a full body x-ray. Too young to understand what was happening, TJ kept trying to get off the table. They asked Maggie to hold him still, but he rolled and twisted so much they had to strap him down. She tried to play a counting game with him to pass the time, but he howled and shrieked, his tiny voice growing hoarse. She had to bite her own lip to keep from screaming. A few hours later, they had the results. TJ had a large tumor on his adrenal glands near his left kidney.

They operated the next day. The doctors thought they got it all, but the news wasn’t good. TJ was suffering from neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer that attacks the adrenal glands and the autonomic nervous system, which, as Maggie learned, controls the heartbeat and breathing. Tumors were common with neuroblastoma, and they grew rapidly, spreading to the eyes, chest, pelvis, liver and lymph nodes. TJ would need intensive chemotherapy, and even then, his prognosis was guarded. Unlike other childhood cancers like leukemia, survival rates with neuroblastoma were better in infants than small children. TJ was three and a half.

Maggie moved into the hospital with TJ. Greg took a leave of absence to care for Dusty. The chemo was horrific; TJ lost his hair, his energy, and his good humor. His tiny immune system was so weak that he was prone to raging infections which made him shake, sweat, and whimper. Maggie, garbed in mask and surgical gown, never left his side. She’d tell him stories when he could stand the noise, or hum quietly when he couldn’t. He never blamed the doctors or nurses for causing him pain with their needle jabs, medicine, and endless tests. He just lay there, day after day, a shadow of himself, trying to hang on.

Greg came as often as he could so Maggie could have a break. Sometimes Dusty came with him, and they’d stroll down Lincoln Avenue for a hamburger or a new tape. She’d ask him about school and soccer, wondering if he knew she was just going through the motions. She didn’t know. For a kid who had just become a teen-ager, he was unusually polite and considerate. Once when they passed a toy store window, she spotted some Playmobil figures in the window and broke down. Dusty put his arm around her and hugged her. She cupped his chin in her hand and kissed the tip of his nose. She knew it wasn’t fair to burden one son with the problems of the other.

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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