Chapter Twenty Two

All this torture, which almost killed me, did get me into remission.

My numbers were way down. Hemoglobin down to normal. White cells coming back. I still felt like death, but my numbers were those of a recovering person.

I was on the ward for two weeks, being closely observed. Then they decided I could go home.

My parents were almost out of their minds with relief. They couldn’t stop hugging me, kissing me, talking to me. I enjoyed it at first, then found it annoying. Kids don’t like to be the center of attention. When your parents fawn on you it’s embarrassing.

Still, I knew how they felt. They had probably given me up for dead. They were probably preparing themselves to be childless parents who had lost both their children. My recovery must have seemed like a gift from God.

Even my mother sat me in her lap and hugged me over and over again.

“Max, you don’t know how much we missed you. There is no way to put it into words.”

My father was less voluble. He just held my hand and let me do whatever I wanted to do. But the look in his eyes was eloquent. It was a combination of relief and exhaustion. I could see how much those many months of worry had taken out of him.

My bedroom seemed like a foreign country. It wasn’t just that it had been so long since I had seen it. I had gone to a different world, and now come back. My own toys, my pillow, my clothes seemed to belong to another dimension.

I only spent a few minutes there before going to Bethany’s room. This seemed more like home to me, perhaps because death had always been the pathway between me and Bethany’s stuff.  I saw the picture of me, the picture of Elvis, the picture of the lion tamer with his head in the lion’s mouth.

I asked my parents’ permission to sleep in Bethany’s room. They were in no mood to deny me anything, so they agreed. When I first went to sleep with my head on her pillow, I felt at home for the first time.

Look at that, Max. Isn’t that the stupidest thing you ever saw in your life?

The ghost of her sarcastic voice, the echo of her laugh, comforted me more than anything else.

At the end of my second week home my parents told me something bizarre.

“Max, don’t be upset. Audrey is dead.”

I was upset. Audrey had been my favorite teacher, along with Mr. Bakewell. I had been looking forward to seeing her. I wanted to hear her jingling jewelry and take in her tremendous energy.

My eyes asked my parents “How?”

“I’m afraid she committed suicide, Max,” my father said.

“It’s not well understood,” my mother hastily added. “She had a history of — of not feeling well.”

I was really shocked. Not only because I had missed Audrey so much, but because I couldn’t understand why a person in perfect health would take his or her life. Kids like Melanie and me, so close to death, understood the idea of suicide perfectly. It would only be a small step from where we were to the other side. But for a healthy person to do it, no matter what his or her unhappiness, seemed absurd.

My parents saw my tears and tried to comfort me. But they couldn’t understand what I was feeling. It wasn’t just the death of one person I was crying about, it was to deaths of everyone I had loved. I couldn’t see any way out of it, this triumph of death over life.

After a long series of blood tests and physical examinations, I went back to school.

Sherry was there, and her eyes lit up when she saw me.

She came up to me and kissed me.

“Max, you’re back.”

I was shocked. Sherry was talking.

We had lunch together. She had this big smile on her face. “Max, you’re back.” I realized she couldn’t say many words, but she was way ahead of me. During my months in hospitals I had had no work on my autism.

I hated to have her see me this way — I was thin as a rail, and my hair was only a pale fuzz on the top of my head — but she didn’t seem to mind.

The teachers made a huge fuss over me, hugging me and kissing me, but the kids weren’t so warm. They were afraid of the leukemia.

For a brief moment I pondered this new barrier that separated me from the human race. It seemed that I had been born to be cut off from other people, except a very few who could be my friends, because they were in the same boat.

I didn’t let it depress me, though. I concentrated on catching up with the other kids academically.

Somehow the local media had gotten wind of my situation, and a reporter from the local TV station came over to interview me and my parents.

It was really annoying. She didn’t know what she was talking about. Her questions revealed an ignorance about leukemia — and autism–  so complete that my parents didn’t bother to correct her.

“We’re just so glad to have him back,” my mother said. “It seems like a miracle.”

The reporter wanted to stage certain kinds of play, me playing on a swing, me playing baseball, so we went along with it. She also interviewed a few of my teachers, who were of course thrilled at my recovery.

We saw the story on TV. It had that same generic, sanitized quality of all the stories you see on the local news. It could have been a commercial for soap flakes. I looked like an idiot on the TV screen. But even in that foolish context I could see the love in my father’s eyes when he talked about me.

There were a lot of stories in the local papers, and a couple made the national media. My school dedicated a room to me, with a plaque showing a picture of me and the legend, NEVER GIVE UP.

All this made me feel important, but it was very annoying. What I wanted more than anything else was to fade into the normal world of kids and be forgotten. Standing out, being in the public eye, only embarrassed me.

I was watching my parents carefully during this time, and thinking about Nancy. I didn’t believe my recovery could really heal the problem between them. When they were together — and they did hug, they did touch each other — it seemed artificial.

In the middle of this chaos, a letter arrived from Sweden. My mother thought it was some sort of fan letter. I took it into my room and opened it.

Dear Max,

We are sad to have to tell you that our beloved Elin died early this week. She spoke often of you when she returned from Arkansas, and she showed us a picture of you.

We know you will remember dear Elin as we will, and we wish you the best of luck with the illness.

Ake and Signe Lilje

This letter brought me back to reality. I hated the idea that Elin had died, but at least I was back in contact with what the leukemia really was.

Suddenly it seemed natural to ask my father to take me to see Nancy. I did this in a veiled way. He understood immediately.

Nancy was standing in the doorway when we drove up. She rushed to the car, opened the door, and pulled me into her arms. She was crying.

“Oh, Max, I missed you so much!”

She carried me into the house and put me down on the couch where I had always sat.

“Don’t mind me, Max, I can’t control my emotions, you know that.” Her pretty features were drawn down by grief and anxiety. But she was still Nancy. There was something much more human about her than about my mother. I wouldn’t mind marrying a woman like Nancy, I thought. She was — what’s the word people use? — she was genuine.

All of my favorite foods were there — popcorn, pizza, Skinny Cow — and Nancy made a big deal of my homecoming. Yet her natural tact kept her from hovering.  I realized now that she really understood me, better than any adult, possibly even including my father.

I drew pictures of my friends who had died, writing their names. I put big circles around Bart and Melanie and Elin. Nancy understood.

“Sweetie, you’re so young to lose friends,” she said. “It’s normal for old folks like me and your father, but it isn’t fair for you. I want you to tell me all about them, after you’ve had a chance to relax a little.”

When she was in the kitchen with my father I heard her ask, “Does he know about?” And my father’s muted response. They must have been talking about Audrey.

The three of us sat around for a long time, saying almost nothing. Nancy held my hand, almost the way Melanie had held it. I came close to crying, but I held it in.

After lengthy consultation about my immune system, we went out to a movie together. They let me choose which movie, and I chose one with a serious adult theme. It was about a family with a lot of problems, including substance abuse, infidelity, mental problems, but it was very good. Some of the characters ended up happy, some didn’t. It was very interesting.

I saw my father and Nancy cringe a little when the infidelity was shown, but I didn’t really see their relationship as infidelity. I saw it as a necessary means of survival for my father.

When we got home I was exhausted and had to go right to bed.

As the shadows billowed on the ceiling of Nancy’s bedroom and the curtains stirred, I watched the colors change on the nightlight Nancy had put in for me. This place really felt like home.

What I really wanted in this world was for Dad to marry Nancy and have children with her. But I couldn’t say that.