Charlie got into the truck and sat there. He didn't want to go home yet. It had taken all of the morning to get the test results, talk them over with the doctor and then set up the radiation appointments. He would go in every day at 10 am for the radiation. He thought that would allow him to get Claudia off to school and Owen to daycare before he went to the hospital. He could be back to the restaurant before lunch and pick Owen up at the end of the day. This wouldn't have to upset anyone's routine. Maybe that would settle Claudia down. Without Julia at home to help out they would have to figure out how to get by.
The radiologist had warned him there could be side effects from the treatment, but he did say that about 10% of all recipients didn't feel any ill effects. Charlie smiled as he felt a little of Nina's optimism. He was sure that he could make it through without great inconvenience. He had to, there wasn't any other way.
He started the truck up and pulled onto the street. He headed away from the house, towards the Golden Gate bridge. Maybe he would head up into the mountains, or Muir Woods. As his hip throbbed again he knew that it was not the day to walk off his troubles. Besides, the rain still hadn't stopped. What kind of mood-setting coincidence was that? It hadn't rained all day like this for months. He turned down another street and then another until he ended up, almost as if he had been drawn, at the cemetery where his parents were buried.
They didn't come out here as much anymore. On holidays and birthdays sometimes, but not every month like they used to. They should come more often. It was important to talk about their mom and dad, keep them alive for Claudia and Owen and that talking always seemed to work the best when they were here. He pulled the truck up by the stones and sat there. It was still raining, but he needed to talk to them. He got out of the truck, pulled his coat on and ran under the tree near where they lay.
"Mom, Dad, sorry it's been so long. Things have been pretty hectic lately, but I'm sure you know that. Bailey is back in school and doing really good. He and Sarah are managing an apartment complex together. I think the drinking thing is under control. I hope it is..." his voice trailed off as he thought about that terrible day when they found out about their dad's alcoholism.
"Julia's doing great, too. We had a wedding for her and Griffin last week. I think they are way too young, but you know it's really weird, but I think they really love each other and hopefully being too young won't hurt that."
"I can't keep track of what is going on with Claud. You wouldn't even recognize her. She is so grown-up. I mean she has always been way more grown-up than me, but she is turning into a woman already. She's having love problems. She doesn't tell me about them, but I know something is going on with this guy at school. She played at Julia's wedding and you would have been so proud of her."
"And Owen, well I don't even know where to start. I just put him in this new daycare and he is really doing well. He's made new friends and I think this was a good change for him." He stopped. Even talking to himself, it was hard to say the words.
"I'm...I'm not so good. I went to the doctor and I have...why is it so hard to say it...I have cancer. There are these things growing in my body and I can't do anything about it. I can't stop it and I can't make it go away. I'm trying to know what to do, but everything I do seems to be wrong. I tried not to hurt the kids, but instead I made it worse. They're all mad at me, even Kirsten. I don't know what to do. I am so scared. I...I wish you were here. God, do I wish you were here. I keep thinking about what will happen to Owen and Claudia if I..." Charlie's voice cut out as he began to cry again. The rain dripped on his head and coat and his body seemed to crumple under the weight of his burden.
"I know I have to do something different here. But what? How can I make this better?"
He sat there holding his knees thinking about his actions since the initial diagnosis. It had been no one's fault that things hadn't worked out with Nina. It was too much, too soon. Maybe if they had been dating longer. But, it had scared him. He had tried to not put the whole burden on the others. By not being completely honest he had alienated those who meant the most to him.
He knew what he had to do. He would go back and if they would still talk to him he would start from the beginning. He knew it was what his parents would have told him to do. It had paid off coming here. It was still the best place to get in touch with them.
He drove back to the house trying to figure out how he would get them together. He was ashamed of the way he had handled things. It wasn't fair to take it out on them. Yes, Julia and Griffin had problems, but he should not have discounted her willingness to help out. He also should not have been so rough with Bailey. If Bailey started to drink again because of the way Charlie had acted... Charlie couldn't even think about it. He would also have to try to make it up to Claudia. She was only trying to help. There had to be a better way for him to let her talk about this. Maybe there was someone she could speak to at school or somewhere. He would have to call her homeroom teacher in the morning. They had done that with Bailey and Julia after their parents had died.
He saw Griffin and Julia's car parked on the street in front of the house. He wondered what they were doing there. As he walked up the steps he tried to figure out where to start; probably the best place to start was the beginning. He opened the door and could see the light from the kitchen. He heard Claudia's voice and then Bailey's. They were all there. Well, that was the first problem solved.
He walked slowly into the kitchen, not even stopping to take off his wet jacket. His nose was running from the rain, the cold air and the crying, but he didn't even notice. They were all at the kitchen table looking like their best friend had died. But wait. He stopped to collect himself.
"So, were you talking about me," he asked.
From the looks on their face and Bailey's hasty negative answer he knew they had been. He brushed it off and started in on his planned speech. Instead of explaining how scared he was, he apologized for the way he had acted. He knew now how wrong he had been. The scared part could wait a few minutes.
"I want to tell you everything. From the beginning." He leaned up against the counter facing the foursome. "I have cancer. It is Hodgkin's Stage IIA. The scan found more tumors in my lymph nodes, but they are all above the diaphragm and that is good. I am going to start radiation treatments tomorrow at 10 am. I'll be going every day for six weeks. The treatments might or might not make me sick. I won't know. After the treatments are done they will do the scan again and if it looks okay then I am done. I'll have to go back every six months for a scan for a couple years, but after five years then it's gone. If the tumors aren't gone then I'll have to have chemo, but that is a remote chance and we won't have to worry about that until the radiation is over. Any questions?"
"How are you feeling, really?" asked Julia. Her words were slightly clipped, but the concern in her voice made it clear that her initial anger at Charlie was lessening.
"I'm actually doing okay. It makes me feel pretty worn out and nauseous most of the time, but that passes. I haven't been sleeping that great, I get night sweats, so that doesn't help me being tired all the time. What I really am feeling and what you need to know... I'm scared. I wanted to, I didn't think it was fair to put that on you, but I've decided that the only way this is going to work is to be completely honest with all of you. I found out about two weeks ago. I fainted when Paul and I were playing racquetball. He took me to the hospital and they found the lump under my right arm. I had a biopsy and the doctor had me come in the next day for the results. I didn't tell any of you because I didn't want to ruin the wedding. I'm sorry I kept it a secret, but it seemed like the only thing to do."
"You waited, because of us?" Julia asked. "How have you kept this secret, for like two weeks? Charlie, no wonder you've been scared."
"I told Kirsten. And Nina, when she got back from her trip."
"Where is Nina? She hasn't been her since, like the wedding?" asked Bailey.
"We decided it would be better if we didn't continue it. This really scared her and I don't blame her. We really just met and this was too much. I guess I was just worried that it would be too much for all of you."
"We're a family, Charlie. That is totally different. You should know that and you should have told us, " Claudia spoke in measured tones. She was glad that Charlie was being more forthcoming, but his harsh words the night before still stung a little bit.
"I'm sorry, Claud. It won't happen again. From now on, full disclosure will be the rule."
"We want to do what we can to help. Griffin and I are moving in. We talked about it and it is ridiculous for us to be anywhere else when you need us here. We want to clean up the garden shed and live there..."
"The garden shed," Charlie interrupted. "That doesn't make any sense. We've got a perfectly good attic that is already a bedroom. I could move some stuff around and give you a place for a sitting room or something."
"No, Charlie, but thanks. We want to have something of our own. The shed will be fine." Julia worked to keep her temper remembering the promise they had made to not get angry with Charlie, to work it out amongst themselves.
"Okay, but if you need to, you can change your minds."
"Thanks, Charlie. We appreciate it." answered Griffin, speaking for the first time.
"I didn't know where to go this afternoon. I felt really alone. Without really knowing where I was going I ended up at the cemetery. I felt like, I don't know, somehow Mom and Dad could help me if I was there. It really did help. I know we can do this. Everything, everything is going to be all right." Charlie finished talking and walked over to hug Claudia. As he pulled her in, Bailey joined them, then Julia and finally Griffin. They would be able to face this. It just would take all of them.
Charlie rolled over in bed, wiping the sleep from his eyes. It was strange, since telling the kids and doing the tests he had actually been able to sleep better. His shirt was a still a little damp, but nothing like the night sweats he had been having. This was it. Day one of treatments and really, the first day of the rest of his life. This is what it was all about. He felt good. He could do this. The talk with the family had really helped. Even having Griffin and Julia around would be good. They could be back-up if he needed it. But, as the radiologist said, 10% of all radiation patients didn't have symptoms and he could definitely be in that 10%.
Charlie got out of bed, dressed and went to wake Owen. The little boy seemed to not be aware of the stress in the house. So far there hadn't been any questions, but Charlie thought he should say something, just in case.
"Hey, Owen. Can we talk here for a minute, man to man," Charlie picked his little brother up and put him on his lap. He was growing up so fast, it didn't seem possible.
"Sure Charlie, man to man," Owen smiled up at Charlie.
"I'm a little sick and I'm going to have to go see the doctor. My tummy might hurt like when you ate all that Halloween candy and I might not be able to play with you sometimes. But, Claudia and Bailey and Griffin and Julia, they'll all be here to help out. So, if you need anything you just let them know and if you have any questions, you just ask me. Okay buddy?"
"Are you going to throw up like me?" asked Owen.
"I sure hope not," Charlie said with a laugh. Charlie dressed Owen and got him ready for daycare.
Charlie and Owen came downstairs for breakfast. Everyone else was already there, Claudia eating, Griffin finishing up and Julia was sitting at the table with a cup of coffee.
"What time does Owen have to be at daycare?" Julia asked.
"He goes at 8. I'll take him on my way to the restaurant. We get our produce this morning and I should be able to get it taken care of before my appointment," Charlie answered fixing himself a bowl of cereal.
"What time is the appointment?" asked Claudia.
"It's at ten. Usually I'll be back for the lunch rush, but it might take longer today. They have to do some extra things before they start. I guess I'll be done by one for sure, so I can pick up Owen and bring him back before we open for dinner."
"That's crazy Charlie, why don't you let me come with you and we can get Owen later?" Julia stood up to rinse her cup.
"We are not all going to change our routines until it's necessary. I might get sicker, but right now I feel fine. Just don't worry about it. I've got it under control. If I need you, I'll let you know."
Julia bit her tongue, remembering the family's discussion the night before. They would not let Charlie see their frustration. This time had to be about him getting better, but it wasn't going to be easy. Especially if he kept denying that things weren't okay. She thought they had moved beyond that the night before when Charlie had talked with them about his fears, but it seemed that the reality of going to the hospital for the first treatment was clouding his judgment once again.
Charlie pulled into the hospital parking lot. He wondered what the treatment would be like. He parked the truck and walked into the medical center. The radiation therapy facility was in the basement. It seemed somehow prophetic that it would be in the darkest part of the building. He entered the reception area and gave the nurse his name. She handed him a chart with yet another medical history survey. It seemed like he had filled out a hundred of these since he had first felt sick over a month ago. At this point he knew better than to complain. He picked up the clipboard and started answering the questions: 27, single, mother: deceased, father: deceased. It looked so strange there on the piece of paper. He was glad that Claudia had told him to get their medical histories. As much as all of her questions had made him crazy, he didn't know that much about his mom and dad's health. They had always seemed fine to him. His dad had high blood pressure and his mom had had two miscarriages between Julia and Claudia. It all seemed so strange and removed. He finished the form and handed it back to the woman at the desk. It would be a few more minutes she told him.
Charlie sat down and picked up a magazine. Sports Illustrated; celebrating the career of Joe Montana. Man, could the magazines in doctor's offices be anymore out of date? He continued to look at the feature, not really reading the words, but rather trying to keep his mind off what was to come. He heard the nurse call his name.
They walked into a small room with a table. The nurse gestured towards one of the chairs and then sat down herself. Charlie sat down and looked at her with apprehension.
"Mr. Salinger..." the nurse began.
"Please, just call me Charlie. I am still at the point that I look for my dad when people call me Mr. Salinger."
"Charlie, today is the first in a series of 42 radiation treatments. We will do them every day for six weeks. I understand that you met with Dr. Devlin and Dr. Rabin about this schedule."
"Yes, I think we have set them up for each day at this time."
"Good. Today we are going to start by making some shields to protect the unaffected portion of your body from the treatments. We will be directing the radiation on your neck and chest area. The treatment does not take long and some patients do not suffer adverse reactions, but you should be prepared to feel nauseous and to be more tired than usual. You may also feel some general weakness. It is important for you to keep the doctors aware of how you are feeling. There are some medications they can prescribe that may help with some of the side effects. Do you have any questions?"
"Are there things I should avoid that might make the side effects worse?" Charlie asked.
"What is you daily schedule like? It is important to take extra time to rest, avoid stress and try to keep eating. It will be especially hard to keep your strength up if you aren't eating a healthy diet and enough food. This will also be a challenge if you are nauseated and feeling lethargic."
"My schedule, it is a bit strange. I run a restaurant, so I am there quite a few hours sometimes and I have family responsibilities. I, uh, I have my brother and sister at home. He's almost four and in daycare and Claudia is fourteen. My sister Julia and her husband Griffin have moved in with us, but they have their own lives. I don't want to take advantage of them."
"Charlie, I am going to tell you upfront, you need to take advantage of any help anyone will give you. Do you have someone to help you at the restaurant, someone you trust? You should identify someone because there are probably going to be times when you aren't able to be there. You also need to take the help your sister is offering. A four year old can need a lot of attention. It is going to be scary for him, seeing you sick, but if you save the energy you have, you will be able to keep on top of everything. Don't worry about things you don't have to and don't take on stress that isn't necessary. Take the time to be sick." The nurse stood up and opened the door. "Now, let's get started."
Charlie pulled into the driveway and unfastened his seat belt. Owen had been pretty quiet on the trip back from daycare. When Charlie asked what was wrong, Owen just said he was trying to be nice to Charlie like Claudia and Julia. The comment seemed a little strange, but sometimes Owen's perception of things was a little off.
They walked into the house and found Julia in the kitchen making dinner. She had water boiling and the smell of garlic hung in the air.
"What's this? Homemade spaghetti?" Charlie pulled the spoon from the kettle of sauce and tasted it.
"Well, it is your favorite and I thought you would probably want something you like? Is this okay? Does it make you sick?" Julia asked while drying her hands on her apron.
"No, no it's good. I am actually feeling better today than I have for a while. I called Bailey and asked him to come over for supper. I had a talk with the nurse at the clinic and we need to talk about some things. Some changes in all of our routines."
"Good, I have to tell you Charlie, and please don't get mad, I felt this morning like you hadn't listened to anything you said last night. You need to take care of yourself because if you don't, there is no way you can take care of Owen or Claud. And, they need you, they really do. Not just to pick them up and do things for them, but to be there for them. You're their dad and they count on you."
"Yeah, I know. I guess I just need some more time to get used to what's going on. I almost feel like this is all going to happen and be over with and I'll still be trying to get used to being sick."
They all sat at the table eating quietly. Charlie's announcement that he would need their help seemed reasonable, maybe the most reasonable thing he had done yet. He had asked Bailey to work at Salinger's with him after class. Julia would be in charge of the house and getting Owen to and from daycare. She was going to look for a job, but it would have to allow her to meet the family responsibilities as well. Charlie had appointed Claudia the keeper of the schedule. She felt like it wasn't much of a responsibility, but as Charlie had pointed out they did need to know who was going to be where and when now more than ever. Griffin had volunteered to help wherever necessary, but Charlie had told him his primary responsibility had to be his business. Griffin could help out where and when he had time.
The next crisis had passed. They could pull together and make everything
work out. Because, as Bailey had told Sarah, "that's what family's do."