Gabe had been taken into the emergency room and held there while a room was being prepared for him on the fifth floor — in “5 South,” a ward we would become way too familiar with in the years to come — because his complete blood count had shown that the leukemia was already eroding his immune system, so he was at risk of infection and needed to be kept in isolation, starting immediately. The doctors explained to Gabe and us that he had contracted a very serious disease, one that threatened his life, but that he was going to get the best possible treatment for it. He was going to be in the hospital for at least a few weeks, maybe longer, depending. There would need to be more tests first, to confirm exactly what kind of leukemia he had and what condition he was in. They didn’t say this, but we would also need the next day or so to begin the task of coming to grips with what they were telling us, to put our life completely on hold, to go so far into shock that we’d need help just to imagine what “normal” looked like, and then to start climbing out of that hole.
The doctors were kind and sympathetic, and especially tender with Gabe. A nurse came along and started an intravenous line going into a vein in the back of Gabe’s left hand, so they could give him blood transfusions and pump certain solutions into him to help his body off-load toxins — and so, when treatment began in a day or so, they could give him the smorgasbord of poisons known collectively as “chemo.” Eventually they brought Gabe upstairs. He seemed reasonably comfortable and not particularly upset — it would be many months before he’d remark on how scared he’d been at the time — and he immediately settled in on the bed with Michelle and started watching TV. The other kids were at home with neighbors, and it was getting late. Somehow, wordlessly I think, we figured out that Michelle would stay with Gabe that night and I the following night, initiating a pattern that would be repeated many times in the following years. As I left I bent over to kiss the two of them, saying, “This will be an adventure of healing and transformation.” I don’t know where a guy gets that kind of stuff. I can’t tell now if I was bluffing, if I honestly believed it, if I was trying to put a positive spin on things, or what. A few days later I started a journal, and the first entry recorded my thoughts just before and after leaving the hospital that first night:
Now we were here, high up in the hospital we’d driven past thousands of times (usually with the thought, “I hope never to see the inside of that place”), and there was no denying it. Our son’s life is in danger and everyone else seems to know what to do but this is not okay I don’t want this to happen nobody asked me first I wasn’t ready for this you can’t do this there’s been some horrible mistake let us just go home now don’t give me that here’s-another-poor-family-who-just-found-out look I want out of this now I’m taking my wife and boy and going home NOW!
…The drive home was cold and quiet, except for my head. I have to tell the kids. I have to tell the neighbors. I have to tell the whole freaking world. My son has leukemia. My son has leukemia. I have to tell somebody. If I tell everybody, eventually I’ll tell somebody who can undo this. Somebody who knows how to put it back the way it was. There’s somebody out there who knows how to do that; I just have to find that person. Meanwhile, I have to tell people.
So I went home and delivered the news, thereby ruining Jessamine’s and Peter’s lives. It didn’t really register with Peter, who at four only understood that his big brother was very sick. Jessamine started crying and asked if Gabe had gotten sick because she’d kicked him a day or so earlier. I was able to reassure her that she had nothing to do with Gabe getting sick. When I explained that he’d need transfusions, she immediately said, “I want to give him my blood.” I had to disappoint her with the news that she was too young to be able to do such a thing. This whole day was teaching me that the world sometimes seems to prefer the arbitrarily cruel to the sweetly good or heroically kind.
Eventually the neighbors went home, in stunned silence, and I got the kids to bed. I forced myself to eat a sandwich. I called my best friend — another old Crawford High grad, with whom I roomed for much of the time we attended ucsd, from 1968 to 1972 — who was then living in Olivenhain. Finally, I fell into bed, exhausted and enervated. I was soon asleep and slept through the night. The next day I would find that this unwelcome turn of events was not some colossal misunderstanding, and there was no authoritative someone who could recognize the mishap and send us home to laugh off a big scare. When I awoke, it was, to my dismay, into a world in which my son, my vibrant boy, my baseball prodigy and nature mystic, my proud and volatile and handsome son, who inherited my Italian curls and birthmarks and possessed more natural charisma and physical vigor than I could ever dream of — a world in which this boy I adored had leukemia.
From the time he was a toddler, Gabe evinced an iron will, a tenacious drive to prevail, a thirst for adventure and experience, a boldness that came alive at the prospect of challenge. At the age of two he would throw himself into backyard games of Whiffle ball as if they were deciding contests of the World Series. His face lit up with discovery and joy at the first encounter with a new sound, new game, new machine. (He adored bulldozers and such and was ecstatic when a gas-company crew parked its heavy equipment right in front of our house for the duration of a project.) When he latched onto a fun thing, he was inexhaustible. The first time I thought something was seriously wrong with him turned out to be the evening before he was diagnosed; we’d been tossing a football for only about ten minutes when Gabe, who’d normally play catch until the seasons changed, came up to me and said, “I wanna stop. I’m tired.” The leukemia was depriving his blood cells of hemoglobin, meaning his blood wasn’t carrying enough oxygen to his muscles, brain, and other organs. (Try running up and down the block without oxygen sometime. You have to be Gabe to go as long as ten minutes.) He did not suffer defeat or even temporary setback cheerfully; he used to drive me crazy during those backyard games when, just as he (or his “team”) started to lose the advantage, he insisted on changing the rules to ensure his eventual triumph. He never could accept an outcome other than prevailing. This sensibility often made him hard to live with, but it became his single most important asset in the long struggle to defeat the disease that was quietly and relentlessly trying to eat him alive from the inside out.