A couple of days before Christmas 1990, my family and I boarded a plane in Oakland bound for San Diego, a.k.a. Grandparentland, where we usually spend the holidays.
My wife and I both graduated from Crawford High in 1968; we’d met in eighth grade, at Horace Mann Junior High. She’d been living in Berkeley since 1969 and I since 1975; our children had been born and were growing up there. Still, San Diego constituted the ancestral homeland, and we made the pilgrimage at least annually. The kids — Jessamine, then 11; Gabriel, then 7; and Peter, then 4 — always eagerly anticipated the trip, for the goodies and favors their grandparents and other relatives would surely bestow on them, especially at Christmastime. This occasion was no exception. But as we strapped ourselves into our seats — we’d commandeered one of those aisles with three seats facing frontward and three facing back, perfect for our little squad — Gabe leaned forward and gave us a look that conveyed pain and distress. “My belly hurts,” he said.
Michelle and I glanced at each other, then at him. The plane was taxiing toward the runway. If he needed to use the bathroom, he’d have to wait. If he was getting sick to his stomach, we’d deal with that as it developed. If he was getting some kind of flu…well, hopefully he wasn’t getting the flu. In any case, there wasn’t much we could do right at the moment. I forget exactly what we told him, but it was something general like, “Just try to relax, and we’ll see how you feel when we get there.”
As I recall, he didn’t complain of any more bellyaches for the rest of the flight. He wasn’t having a problem with his bladder, and he wasn’t getting the flu. We didn’t find out for another couple of weeks, but he was developing something worse.
We had a typically festive if exhausting week in San Diego, and I for one didn’t notice anything untoward going on with Gabe. My father-in-law later reported that he’d thought Gabe — whose intense drive and vast energy reserves normally exceeded those of anyone else you could think of — looked wan and “just didn’t seem right.” Maybe it was harder for me to see the difference, being around him every day. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe I simply assumed that my kids, who’d always been blessed with good health, would never be faced with a medical crisis.
After we returned to Berkeley, Gabe started to complain a bit more, of tiredness and minor pains. We figured it for some kind of flu. When it persisted, we called the pediatrician, but we couldn’t get an appointment until a few days later: Monday, January 7, 1991, a date that became the great demarcation point in my family’s history.
With Pete in tow and Jessamine in school, Michelle took Gabe to see Dr. Kittams. I was working at my home office when she called to say the doctor suspected a kidney infection and wanted her to take Gabe to Children’s Hospital Oakland for X-rays. I was to meet her there. But when I arrived at the radiology department, I was told the test had been canceled — which I took as a good sign. With Michelle and the boys nowhere in sight, I headed home. “Well, I hope I never see you again!” I said cheerfully to the folks in radiology. We all had a good chuckle over that one.
But as it turned out, the X-ray had been canceled because the doctor decided instead to order a blood test. He’d found Gabe’s spleen and liver notably enlarged. There were also petechiae (tiny, hemorrhaged capillaries) evident across Gabe’s belly, a sign that his blood was low on platelets, the cells that enable the blood to clot whenever there is a cut or a bruise. All this indicated something bad in Gabe’s system, and a complete blood count was the first step toward determining what it was. So while I was rooting around in radiology, Michelle was off to the hematology lab, where a phlebotomist pierced a vein in Gabe’s antecubital joint (the “inside” of the elbow) and withdrew a couple of vials of his blood. She then took the boys home, by which point I was back in my office about 30 yards away, blissfully unaware of the deepening drama.
It was cold that winter. While we were in San Diego the temperature in Berkeley had fallen to 29 degrees, a rare low for the Bay Area. But that frost was nothing compared to the chill that blew into my office a few hours after I got back, when Michelle, who’d just gotten a call from Dr. Kittams reporting the results of the blood test, jolted me away from my computer screen as she burst through my door.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” she said, “but your son has leukemia.”
Dr. Kittams had told Michelle straight up that this was serious; he wanted us to take Gabe back to the hospital right away, to be admitted. But he also offered some encouragement, mindful of the fact that huge breakthroughs had been made in recent decades in the struggle against childhood leukemia, which had previously been considered a death sentence. “This is gonna be a hard road,” he told Michelle, “but it’s nearly 100 percent curable.” Or at least, that’s what she understood him to have told her.
We were less encouraged a few hours later, in the emergency room at Children’s, when one of the oncologists receiving Gabe’s case, asked directly to confirm what our pediatrician had said, hedged. “Well, I hesitate to use words like ‘cure,’ ” she said. “But the odds are pretty good.” We learned that for kids diagnosed, like Gabe was, with “average-risk” acute lymphocytic leukemia — by far the most common form of childhood leukemia, and also the most common pediatric cancer — there was something like a 75 percent chance they’d finish their treatment and go five years without a recurrence of the disease. For kids making it that far, the odds of relapsing were no greater than the odds of a diagnosis of leukemia in the general population; in the parlance of oncologists, that’s about as close as anyone comes to “words like ‘cure.’ ” Still, that percentage gave us real reason to hope, and in the months that followed I found myself saying to others more than a few times, “I’ll take those odds.”