The Road Not Taken

Written by Rachel

What if the wedding had taken place?

Kirsten woke up to find Charlie sitting on the edge of the bed staring into the hallway. She looked over to the clock on their bedside table. It was 4:30 a.m.

"What's wrong? Did the baby cry?" she asked.

"What? Uh, no, I just . . . I couldn't sleep. Go back to bed. I'll check on the kids," Charlie answered pushing himself up off their bed. He walked across the hall into the nursery. As he looked down on the sleeping baby he couldn't help but feel incredibly lucky. How could he have ever thought that marrying Kirsten wasn't a good decision. Even two years later he was amazed that he had even considered it the morning of the wedding. Thank goodness she had seen through his nerves and reassured him. She had been an incredible blessing in his life. She was a great mother to Owen and the rest of the kids and now they had been blessed with their own child. Not biologically of course, but they had been able to adopt and little Peter Salinger had arrived only the month before. Owen wasn't quite sure what to make of the baby. He had been the center of everyone's attention for so long, but after only a few days he was every bit as taken with the baby as the rest of them.

The house was so quiet in the early morning calm. The baby was asleep in the crib they had all slept in and Owen was sound asleep in his "big boy" bed. After all the years with the family in this house it was strange to think that Bailey and Julia would only be back to visit. Bailey had moved into an apartment near the university and Julia had started her freshman year at Stanford, their mother's alma mater. Even Claudia was growing up so quickly. She had started her freshman year at Grant High School. Last week he and Kirsten had taken Owen and the baby to see her perform at a pep rally. She had gotten the honor of being the Grant High Possum.

Charlie took another glance at his sons and then returned to the master bedroom. As he crawled back into bed he felt a sense of foreboding. It was strange, in the past couple of years he had been able to keep that oncoming tragedy feeling at bay. His mother used to say that he had the intuition of a woman. He hoped that it was just his pessimism and not an actual approaching disaster.

Kirsten got up as the baby started to cry. She had to hurry or Peter would wake Charlie and he had not been sleeping well. Kirsten had made an appointment with his doctor last week. She knew if she left it up to him he would never do it and he just had not been himself. At first she thought it was the excitement of the new baby, but Charlie had lost his appetite and not been able to sleep well at all. Kirsten figured that if she could get him to the medical center today she could get him into the doctor's office and they could find out what was wrong.

It was strange for Kirsten to show up at lunch time and without Peter. She had barely let the baby out of her sight since they had picked him up at the hospital. It all seemed like a distant memory now. The lawyer had called and said he had a pregnant girl in her eighth month who wanted to place her baby. They had been talking about adopting a baby for almost a year and within three weeks this little perfect creature was asleep in their crib. Kirsten had worried about the horror stories of babies being taken back from their adoptive parents, but Peter's mother had signed over her rights before they took him home from the hospital. He was a Salinger now.

"Hey there, can I take my husband out for lunch? I hear there is a great new little place just down the street," Kirsten joked as she walked up to the bar. With her long blonde hair she looked as beautiful as the day Charlie had met her.

"Bite your tongue, missy. Any new little bistros will only take the bread out of your mouth and that of our little ones. Speaking of which, where is our little one?" Charlie asked.

"He's at home with one of my students. I checked out her credentials and thought that a masters' degree in early childhood qualified her for a couple hours of watching TV while Peter takes his nap." Kirsten had taken a position at San Francisco State after finishing her PhD. Fortunately she had been able to take the semester off to stay at home with the baby. "I thought maybe we could use some time by ourselves."

"That sounds great. Let me just tell the cook we're leaving," Charlie said as he went into the kitchen.

"This is a romantic lunch destination. Did you have a hard time getting reservations?" Charlie asked as they pulled into the parking lot at the medical center.

"I'm sorry for tricking you, but I have asked you like 4 times to go to the doctor. Charlie, you have woken up with night sweats practically every night for weeks, you have no appetite and I know you have been getting sick when you do eat. I'm sorry, but you look like hell. I want you to see the doctor." Kirsten opened the car door and looked expectantly towards Charlie. "Let's go and get this over with."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Charlie begrudgingly agreed with her and got out of the car.

The examination had gone pretty well. The doctor agreed that Charlie's symptoms were significant enough to warrant the appointment. He had done a number of tests including a biopsy of a lump under Charlie's arm. He said he would call them later that afternoon with the results. After checking in at the restaurant and finding out everything was under control, Charlie and Kirsten went home to wait for the results.

Kirsten got up to answer the phone. She and Charlie had been sitting on the couch rather mindlessly watching an afternoon talk show. Charlie had been very quiet in the car on the way back from the doctor's office. He hadn't shared his thoughts from the night before, but he had a very bad feeling about what the doctor would find.

Kirsten picked up the phone. "Hello....Yes, this is Mrs. Salinger....Yes....Yes, we can do that....Okay, we'll see you then."

"What is it? What did they say?" Charlie asked with an anxious tone.

"The doctor wants to see us in his office this afternoon. We are supposed to be there at 4:00 p.m." Kirsten walked back over to the couch and sat down. "I should call Shelly and see if she can come back over here and watch Owen and Peter."

"Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Oh man, Kirsten, I have a really bad feeling about this." Charlie leaned over and Kirsten rubbed her hands slowly over his back.

Despite their apprehensions the words still cut through Charlie and Kirsten like a knife. Cancer. Hodgkin's disease. Kirsten's cousin Amanda had died of Hodgkin's when they were in junior high. She looked over at Charlie. He looked like he had been hit by a bomb. It was a bomb. Cancer. She reached over and touched his arm. He looked at her with tears in his eyes. He opened his mouth, but didn't speak.

"We would like to get going as soon as possible with some more tests. We need to see what the extent of the disease is and determine the best treatment. Would you be able to set the tests up this week?" the doctor asked.

Charlie sat stunned in his chair. "Of course, we want to do them as soon as possible," answered Kirsten. She and the doctor made the arrangements. Charlie still hadn't said anything. When they had finished Charlie and Kirsten got ready to leave.

"I know this is an awful shock Mr. Salinger, please let me know if there is anything I can do," said the doctor as he put his arm on Charlie's.

"Thank you," he said finally as they walked out the door.

"Charlie," Kirsten said quietly. They had been sitting in the driveway for a few minutes. "We need to go in."

"Yeah, I guess so," he said in a voice without emotion. "We had better tell Claud what's going on."

"I think that's a good idea. She's going to wonder what's the matter. Do you want to call Bailey and Julia?"

"Not yet, let's tell Claudia and we'll ask the others to come over this weekend when we can tell them what exactly is going on. There's no sense to get them all worked up." Charlie opened the door of the car and got out.

Supper had been a quiet affair. Claudia had chattered on about her day, but when Kirsten and Charlie responded so infrequently she eventually stopped talking as well. After supper Claudia and Charlie cleaned up while Kirsten put the boys to bed. She came back down as they finished the last of the dishes.

"Claud, we kind of need to talk to you about something. Do you want to sit down?" Charlie gestured to the kitchen table.

"What's going on, because you two are really acting weird," Claudia stated the obvious. "Is something wrong with Owen or Peter?"

"No, it's nothing like that," Charlie began. "I haven't been feeling very good and I went to the doctor today." He stopped and looked over at Kirsten.

"Charlie had a lump under his arm and they tested it. It showed that he has a disease called Hodgkin's," Kirsten said.

"What is that?" Claudia asked.

"It's...It's cancer, Claudia. But we're going back tomorrow to find out what's going on and things should be okay." Kirsten put her hand on Claudia's arm.

"Cancer?" Claudia asked, her eyes filling with tears. "Is it bad? Are you going to die?"

"No. I won't, I can't. Man, Claud, I've got too many reasons to stick around. We wanted to tell you because we trust you and we need you. I think I'm going to get pretty sick before I get better and we need you to help Owen, so he isn't scared. Things are going to be pretty weird around here for awhile. Can you do that?" Charlie asked.

"Yeah," Claudia wiped her eyes. "I'll do whatever you need."

Bailey thought the request was a little strange. Charlie had just left a message at his apartment to come for supper on Saturday and plan to spend the night. Even with Julia down in Palo Alto they had tried to eat at Salinger's at least once a month. A family dinner at home was a bit out of the ordinary and the request to spend the night was down right strange. He opened the door to the house. It smelled great, the scent of garlic hung in the air. It was almost like those dinners they used to have when his mom and dad were still alive. Their dad had been such a good cook, very creative and always making up new dishes.

"Hey, that smells really good," Bailey said as he came into the kitchen. "What is it? It smells vaguely familiar."

"Actually, when I was looking for Owen's baby clothes I found a box of old cookbooks. There was one in there that had recipes your dad had written down. I don't know if they are things he found or things he invented, but I have been trying a few of them. This is a garlic noodle dish. I don't know how it's going to turn out, but if it's really bad we can always order take-out," said Kirsten as she continued to stir the noodles.

"Actually, I think I remember that book. Was it a blue binder? My mom had tried to recreate something my dad made once. When she couldn't do it, she told him he should start writing down his creations so others could make them too. I hadn't thought about that book for a long time. I even remember this dish. I think Dad made it for someone's birthday, probably Julia's. She is the big garlic fan." Bailey stuck a spoon in and sampled a noodle. "This is great Kirsten. Where is everybody?"

"Claudia is still at her lesson, Charlie took Owen with him to pick Julia up and Peter was asleep the last time I checked. Do you want to go and get him up? If he sleeps much longer he won't go to bed tonight and we'll all be sorry."

"Speaking of tonight, what's the reason for the family slumber party?" Bailey asked.

"Uh, well, Charlie and I just have some family stuff we want to talk about and we thought it might be easier if, well, we just thought it might be nice to have some time all together." Kirsten's words ran together in a confused fashion. That made Bailey even more suspicious.

The door slammed shut and the hall was filled with voices. Charlie and Julia had picked Claudia up on their way back from Palo Alto. Julia carried her laundry down to the basement as Claudia came into the kitchen to help set the table.

"Hey, Claud," Bailey reached over to muss her hair. "How goes the life of a Grant High School student?"

"Pretty good, the football team is still in the playoffs so the Possum lives for at least another week," answered Claudia as she put the plates around the table.

"Are we ready to eat?" Charlie asked as he walked into the kitchen.

"Yeah, everything's ready so let's sit up and see if we can eat before the baby wakes up," said Kirsten as she walked over to the table with the garlic noodles.

The conversation wound from life at Stanford, new developments at the restaurant and the latest activities of the baby. It seemed to flow smoothly to Bailey and Julia. They missed the looks that were passing between Charlie, Kirsten and Claudia. As Kirsten got up to get the coffee, she looked at Charlie and nodded slowly.

"Actually, there is something we need to talk about. I didn't want to worry you until we knew what was going on, but..." Charlie stopped and looked over at Kirsten.

"What's going on here?" asked Bailey with a concerned look on his face.

Kirsten sat down next to Charlie and took his hand. "Just say it, it'll be easier once it's out and we all know."

"Know what?" Julia asked, her face pale.

"I've been having some tests done and they found something. It's, well, it's a kind of cancer, Hodgkin's disease. It's most common in people my age and if treated right has a pretty good cure rate. I've had some more tests done and it is at the 2nd stage. I started six weeks of radiation treatments on Thursday."

"Cancer?" Julia asked.

"What, what can we do?" asked Bailey.

"Actually, you're doing it. We want you to keep on with your lives as much as possible. If we need help with something we'll tell you. For instance, Bay, I might need some help down at the restaurant. Would you be able to give me some time?" Charlie asked.

"Yeah, Charlie, whatever you need, just name it," Bailey answered.

"What about me?" asked Julia.

"We need you to concentrate on school for the next couple weeks and then come home for break. Things are going okay now, but the doctor said that the treatments will eventually make me pretty sick and I know we will be able to use your help here with the house and the kids. But, school is really important, so you need to concentrate on that," answered Charlie.

"So, Bailey can help out, but I'm supposed to just go to school, god, Charlie, how can I concentrate on anything with you sick, and Kirsten and everybody doing something except me. I'm coming home. I'll just take incompletes this semester. I can make them up later."

"Absolutely not. You are not quitting school. I won't even consider it. This is going to mess up our lives for awhile, but I will not ruin your life because of my problem," Charlie shouted getting up from the table.

"Hey, Charlie, settle down. Now, Julia there is no reason for you to come home right now. We all need to keep things are normal as possible, for all of us. The best thing you can do is to finish the semester and then we'll talk. Okay?" Kirsten looked at Charlie and Julia. "Yelling at each other is not going to help this."

The sound of the baby crying cut the silence in the room. Charlie got up to get check on Peter. After he left the room Kirsten addressed the family again.

"We need to help Charlie, however he needs it. This is really scary for all of us, but especially for him. I need you to try to keep things as normal as possible and to be willing to help out when he needs it. I hope that I can count on you for that."

"Absolutely, whatever you need," said Bailey.

"Yeah, you can count on us," added Julia.

"No matter what," said Claudia.

Kirsten pushed open the door to the bedroom. Charlie was sitting on their bed with the baby.

"What are you doing? Is everything okay?" Kirsten asked as she sat down next to him.

"So, is that how it's going to be now. You asking me if I'm okay every time you see me."

"Well, I wondered why you didn't come back downstairs. I am concerned about you. You're sick and I . . . I worry about you. I am allowed to worry about you. You're my husband, the father of our children and about the most important thing in my life. We haven't really talked about this Charlie. I know the odds and they are more in our favor, but I worry about. . ."

"I'm not going to die," Charlie said as he pulled her into his arms. They both sat there with the sleeping baby between them.

"I just, I have to think about the possibilities. I want you to know that I am going to be there with you no matter what happens. I love you, Charlie. We made a deal two years ago and this is the better or worse part. Promise me that you'll be honest with me, that you'll tell me how you're feeling. You need to tell me when you're scared and when you feel sick and I promise I'll do the same. This scares me. I don't want to be anywhere without you and so, being here, with you, that helps me. I know we can get through this." Kirsten took Charlie's hand and held it. "We can do this."

"Absolutely," said Charlie as he leaned in to kiss her. "We'll get through this together."