She stopped me as I reached for the door with my travel bag over my shoulder.
–Dad! Don’t leave without giving your daughter a hug.
She headed towards me, legs strutting, arms out-stretched. I set the bag down just in time for her to wrap her arms around me and press her head against my chest. Her hugs are gifted from the heart. I had half a mind to call off my business trip, stay with her and spend the rest of the day watching the Disney Channel; just the two of us resting in our pajamas, watching capers by beautiful teenagers who never worry about life with cancer.
It is a difficult time for Jordan. In fact, it is difficult for us all. She missed school most of the week because her blood counts were down again. I have switched into strict anti-germ mode. I don’t shake people’s hands, and if I do, I immediately wash my own hands or saturate them in Purell. On the road, when I learned someone was sick, I moved as far away from them as I could. Every time I moved into a tight space, like an airplane or a meeting room, I worried; took shallower breaths; expedited whatever I could so that I could get out.
Jordan has taken the news the hardest. When she told me about the results of her blood tests, she was somber and slightly whiny. She said she needed to work harder at slaying this cancer. She’s been doing that a lot lately–beating herself up about her condition. We remind her whenever we can that she hasn’t caused her cancer to return. She didn’t do anything to lower her counts. In fact, we tell her, there is very little that she can do other than eat well, rest, and have a fighting attitude. I’m not sure she understands. Jordan is a creature of self-reliance. She believes she wills what she wants.
I hug her more and more these days. Sometimes, in my head, I imagine my hugs transferring vapors of health to her. I hold her for a long time, lean my head on top of hers, close my eyes, and let my mind wander to a place where Jordan is cancer-free–a place where she’s running and reading and sharing gossip with friends her age. She seldom pulls away first. I seldom walk away with a dry eye.
Two nights ago she came into our bedroom and complained of back ache. When we asked her where it hurt, she pointed directly at the spot where the tumor is growing, though we doubt she knew it. For Jeanette and I, it was a heavy revelation. Though the tumor has grown steadily, until now Jordan has had no symptoms. That’s why her medical team was willing to avoid surgery. But lately, her back has been bothering her. She is also tired. Yesterday, after the USC game started, she excused herself to go upstairs. When I checked on her a half hour later I found her napping, buried deep beneath a canopy of blankets on her bed. She slept for hours. Chemo takes a lot out of her, but we worry more is at play.
Jordan is worried about the scan she will have on the 27th. She talks about it often and she is open in telling us that it, “freaks her out.” She’s had so many MRI scans we’ve lost count. It’s not the procedure that’s troubling her. It’s what they might tell us. We have decided it is best to prepare Jordan for the worst. In all likelihood, the tumor has continued to grow. She has only had two rounds of chemotherapy and no one knows if the tumor will react to this protocol. The doctors told us that it could take some time before we find the right mix and the tumor recedes. I worry that if the tumor has in fact grown, Jordan will take the news as further proof that she has failed. Absent Jordan’s perfect health, I have only one wish for her: I want her to be happy. Throughout her Journey, she has weathered the most challenging setbacks because she loves a good laugh, because she loves adventure, and because she doesn’t know how to do anything other than live life to its fullest. These past few days that attitude has faded somewhat. She reflects and frets about what’s next. For the first time in her life, I think she pieces bits of information together and allows herself to wander into the same landscape of worries we consider every day.
On Friday, we watched a crime drama on television together as a family. A suspect being interrogated by the lead cop wore a wig to hide the baldness caused by his chemotherapy. When he refused to cooperate with the tv cops, one of them said, “like the wig you’re wearing because of your terminal cancer. You’re going to die, Mr. ___.”
Jordan was sitting on my lap. She started mumbling. Here’s what I heard her say, “He’s going to die like my friend Jenna–because of his cancer.” I could not make out the rest of the words. She was mumbling to herself, not really intending for me to hear. I had to wonder if she was drawing conclusions and relating to her own situation. It would be natural for her to do so, but unusual for a girl who generally thinks only about her capacity to win.
We are blessed with many friends and loving family. Most of them encourage us to think good thoughts. And we do. But it doesn’t change the fact that we are surrounded by somber realities. For the past six weeks, we have allowed ourselves to marginalize the beast nesting in Jordan’s spine. She’s being treated. She’s handling it well. With those facts we cross our fingers and think positive. But the cold reality is that we don’t know if the treatment is working. She is riddled with seizures. Her back is beginning to hurt. Her energy has dropped. All the positive thinking in the world won’t make these facts dissipate. And pleasant thoughts don’t calm a father’s mind when he wraps his arms around his daughter and hopes there will never be a day when she doesn’t hug back.