Chapter Thirteen

I didn’t see Dr. Singh’s office again. I was taken to a ward in the hospital for children with leukemia which was headed by Dr. Singh. Two other doctors came in to see us kids regularly. Dr. Singh only came in once in a while, but he always recognized me and greeted me.

“High five, Max.”

He would give me a high five, which was certainly incongruous when you saw the humorless look on his face.

One of the other doctors, Dr. France, was a very young man with dark hair and an athletic body. The other was Dr. Grace, a dumpy woman with stubby hands but a kind face. I grew to like her a lot.

No one told me exactly what kind of leukemia I had. But I had read a lot,  and knew the different types. Acute myelogenous leukemia, acute myeloblastic leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia, chronic myelogenous leukemia. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, ALL, is the worst. your prognosis is four months.

The basic problem is that your stem cells, the cells that produce the bone marrow, stop turning into white cells and turn into myeloblasts, cancer cells. You lose your resistance to infection, and eventually the cancer kills you. There are a lot of transfusions, chemotherapy, and you may have to have a bone marrow transplant.

The word “blast” amused me briefly, but I didn’t like the part about the abnormal cells spreading through the body. They spread through the blood and the marrow, and can spread to the brain, the nervous system, and the skin. That freaked me out.

None of this looked good to me. The articles were evasive as to my life expectancy. They kept stressing how much the survival rate had increased in the last twenty years. I had the sense that something was being kept from me, the way parents always hide things from children.

I hoped that whatever I had would let me live a normal life. I wanted to grow up and get married and have children. I felt I could overcome the autism in time, and I didn’t want this leukemia to interfere with the rest of my life.

But I had a bad feeling.

Earlier I said that kids would never start a war. I don’t think women would ever start a war, either. Women don’t have that macho psychology that men have. Men need to beat the other guy, to show how tough they are. Wars are just a projection of this on a huge scale. Have you ever heard of a war waged by women? I haven’t.

The women on our ward were very nice. None of them wore nurses’ uniforms. They were all dressed informally, in colorful clothes that were supposed to cheer up the kids. They were very gentle, very kind.

And there was one more thing about them. They were relaxed, while we were all scared out of our minds. To them it was all in a day’s work. It was routine.

“Come on, Max, let’s get this pump going.” It was Rachel, one of the cutest of the nurses, who said this to me. She wore slacks and red sweater. Boy, was she cute. Dark hair, beautiful eyes… And she was nice.

“Hold on one second, let me not screw this up — ah, there we go,” she said, getting the IV into my arm. “You’re a champion transfuser, Max.”

I watched her pretty figure as she moved to the next kid.

Over time this relaxed briskness of the nurses had an effect on us kids, mentally. It  allowed us to forget for a moment that we were fighting a bad disease. It allowed us to feel that this place was just like school, a place where routine things happened, where life was normal. We all clung to this. I think that was the point. They probably had meetings on how to look brisk and unworried. It was a part of the therapy.

And this atmosphere of fun played into our own fear of dying. The more fun we had, the more we laughed, the less we could think about death.

I was the only autistic kid on the ward, but nobody seemed to notice.

The other kids talked to me, and when I couldn’t answer they just kept on talking. I managed to communicate certain things with my eyes, or by nodding, or by performing an action.

“Kid, you want to play a video game?” a boy asked.

For my answer I walked across the ward with him and played the game.

“Kid, you’re good,” he said. “You’re almost as good as me.”

The girls liked me, which wasn’t surprising. They all talked to me. Some of them actually told me they thought I was cute. I smiled when I heard this.

This one girl, Madison, had a crush on me. She was always coming over to talk to me. She wasn’t bad looking, but she was annoying. She hung on me like a barnacle. She wouldn’t go away.

“You have the same color eyes as me,” she pointed out. “And you’re left-handed like me.”

She bragged about her parents. They were one of the richest families in the city. her father was a corporation executive, her mother was the head of an internet company. Madison had two sisters, both of whom were brilliant students, magna cum laude, going to Harvard, blah blah blah. Yet Madison seemed more desperate, more lonely, than any other child on the ward. Her family life, I guessed, must be pretty horrible.

Why she glommed onto me instead of somebody else, I don’t know. I wasn’t a great conversationalist, I couldn’t answer any of her questions. I was good-looking, though. I admit that.

Maybe it was my silence itself that attracted her. Maybe in that chichi family of hers nobody paid any attention. Maybe she was starved for attention.

Anyway, she drove me crazy.

There was another girl, a Chinese girl, named Mei. She was very shy, but she liked me too, and came over once in a while to play with me.

I managed to ask her wordlessly whether she spoke Chinese.

“No,” she said. “Neither do my parents. Only the grandparents.”

She had short dark hair when she came in, but it fell out after they started the chemo. Somehow her baldness endeared her to me. I began to feel something for her. I didn’t think I was being unfaithful to Sherry in this, because I was separated from Sherry forever by the cancer. Mei was one of us, and she liked me.

She was very delicate. Her eyes had a melancholy look. She had beautiful long fingers. She was a pianist, I learned. When she worked on puzzles those fingers moved like a painter’s brush or a conductor’s wand. She was quite exotic.

I met her parents. They were both very young, a lot younger than my parents. The father was slender and handsome, the mother rather dumpy and not good-looking. But since they were wearing surgical masks, it was hard to get a good look at their faces.

They spoke to me, because Mei pointed me out and asked me to come over. They shook my hand and asked about my family.

“Max can’t talk,” Mei said. “He’s autistic. But he’s smart as a whip. He can do anything.”

They nodded politely, but I could see the terror in their eyes.

Not surprisingly, Madison was jealous of Mei. She would rush up to me when it looked like Mei and I were going to do something. She would pull me away to another part of the ward and start in with her endless stories of her family. When I tried to leave her she would grab my shirt and pull me back. She was a pain in the neck, even though I had the feeling she was so possessive because she was scared out of her mind.

Strangely, even in her most desperate talk, she would brag, she would try to one-up me.

“On my sixteenth birthday my father is going to give me a Ferrari,” she said. “We went skiing in Switzerland last summer. Where did you go?” “We have a chauffeur who takes me anywhere I want to go.” It was as though she was listing everything that might encourage  me to take up with her, and belittling me at the same time. Inside her own mind she must have been very confused.

Anyway, I didn’t like her.  She was too pushy.

One of the interesting things about being on a cancer ward is that the visitors seem far more scared than the patients. We all had the disease. They could only imagine it. And they were horrified by their inability to help their children. The disease was beyond their powers, there was nothing they could do but place their confidence in the doctors and the chemo. But they all knew that most of us were going to die.

So this was a serious barrier between us. The parents wanted to help, to commiserate, but they really couldn’t. The cancer cut us off from them. Sometimes they didn’t look quite real to me. They looked like figures behind a screen, or a person on TV. They didn’t have much reality. Once again I was facing a wall between me and the adult world. The autism started it, the cancer completed it. Adults could not get over that gap.

But there was a wall between us kids too. We were only here because our lives were in danger. We lived with a constant dread that wouldn’t allow us to care as much about each other as we would have if we didn’t have the disease.

It’s hard to really empathize with another bald kid, a kid who might not be here next week, next month. Our friendships were sort of like friendships that develop between people on a cruise, or on a summer vacation. They’re real enough in the situation, but when the ship reaches port or you go back home, they’re forgotten.

But this ship was death. A voyage to nowhere. It was very hard to deal with that. We would never go home to a normal life. We would always be victims. We would always be cut off from the people in the world who were not victims. Our bald heads were the visible symptom of this, but the taint went much deeper. If the adults seemed unreal, we seemed unreal too. As unreal as Bethany in those laughing sunlit days when I thought she would live forever.

For example, that girl Madison I told you about. I kept thinking of ways to get rid of her. But then the leukemia took the problem out of my hands. She died.