“They’re flying in the wrong direction,” Marika said. “The geese. They’re going the wrong way.” She was living back at home after her year in college and second summer in the hospital. We were about to leave for the hospital in Rochester when we heard, overhead, the shrill commotion of geese in their winter migration south. Autumn departures of geese are head and heart-turning events in Upstate New York as the sky fills with their cries, long before one spots the approaching V-formation of their flight.
“Maybe they’re just circling before they leave Ithaca,” I said. She was right. Wrong direction.
“Stupid geese,” she muttered, still staring up at them, expressionless.
“Well, we always end up driving the wrong way, and we have GPS and road signs down here,” I blathered, watching the commotion disappear. She grimaced briefly in my direction and plopped into the passenger seat.
To accommodate the complex treatment in autumn 2009, Marika and I drove to Rochester three times a week with an occasional overnight stay. The Roc Docs were urging us to move up there for two months, for the rigorous schedule of dialysis, spinal chemo injections, and IV arsenic treatments. Social workers had researched places we could rent nearby that had no stairs. But we wanted to stay in Ithaca. Carpenters installed handrails in the house so Marika could reach her bedroom upstairs. None of this fit into Marika’s plans once she’d been sprung from Strong. She wanted to get on with her life, to be free of me and doctors and cancer. The social workers abandoned the idea to have us relocate, and were suddenly helping Marika apply for social services so she could afford her own apartment in Ithaca. There were conversations that didn’t include me now.
Life was gray and clouded, like the autumn sky over Ithaca, as we waited in a holding pattern: Marika hoping for funds to help pay for an apartment, and myself, anxious about locating a donor for a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. Greg was not a match. I was edgy because it was a risky procedure. Also, Marika had completed her chemotherapy, and the protocol demanded a pause in treatments before the transplant. Which meant there was nothing holding the cancer at bay.
On a dark afternoon in mid October, we sat in the Cardiology Center at Strong. Marika was intently studying her cell phone, her head at an exaggerated angle to accommodate viewing texted messages with her good eye. She looked up slowly from the phone, right through me, out across the empty waiting area’s loveseats and end tables.
“Jake died,” she said, more to herself than to me. Then she was silent.
I glanced at her still tearless face and didn’t know what to say. The other almost-adult child with cancer was gone. And in my head something was cracking. Something piercing and threatening that I needed to escape. Much later I would wonder about the mother with a broken heart somewhere in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, but at that moment I muted everything. Marika and I returned home from the hospital and retreated to our individual rooms.
In November, we drove to Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo for a second opinion about the transplant. The new Buffalo doctor examined Marika and read her history while I waited, crammed into a small conference room with her father and his wife.
Doctor Wetzler had riveting eyes. And a kind of compassion I didn’t understand. We’d never met before and would probably never see him again. We were summoned into the exam room and it felt like when I enter an expensive boutique shop knowing I will not be buying anything. Doctor Wetzler purposefully touched each of us with his deep warm eyes, and then began,
“Marika is not strong enough to survive a bone marrow transplant.” He said, “With her damaged heart, a transplant would be fatal at this time.” There was silence. The world froze still as we digested those words. She could die? The cure we’d been waiting for and counting on for so long could kill her?
“She should have her own stem cells harvested and frozen after several months of chemo,” he continued, looking at Marika, “when you’re free of leukemia cells. For a future transplant. Your heart needs time to heal.”
So. No transplant. No more risky procedure with bleak survival rates, possible organ damage, donor cells attacking normal tissue. Life-threatening complications. No more. Nothing. The lead blanket we’d been living under was suddenly lifted.
So Marika and I quickly headed for the car and drove the few blocks to the Anchor Bar and Grill, home of the original chicken wings. We ordered a feast. She took sips from my beer and waved a wing in the air. And then she told me her news, what I knew was coming sooner or later, the other issue I’d dreaded for months.
“Mom, there’s an apartment and I’m gonna get a monthly check now so I can afford it and Julie lives there and it’s in Collegetown,” she bubbled over in a long overdue spark of excitement. A storm grew in my gut. The wings on my plate grew cold.