Fireflies

How do you tell your 12-year-old son that his best friend has died?

When we left Florence the day after Christmas, Colin was doing better. They were weaning him off the ventilator. He was responding to his parents and siblings with smiles and nods. I thought that he might actually beat the odds.

The weekend before Colin got sick, he’d stayed with us. I had noticed, at one point, that he seemed paler than usual. However, he’d behaved normally, rollerskating on Friday night and throwing popcorn at the screen on Saturday during the love scenes of the latest Twilight movie, which he and Ben were required to attend because I’d promised Ben’s sister I’d take her and a friend.

As usual, Colin and Ben had alternated between playing outside and coming in to play video games. Colin’s energy level seemed normal to me, and I was paying attention because his pallor worried me. It was winter, and he was fair skinned, I told myself. Nothing to worry about. But I was wrong.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, Colin had leukemia. When his mom took him for his annual checkup, the doctor gave him a chicken pox booster — recommended at age 12. But because of the as-yet-undiagnosed leukemia, the vaccination overwhelmed his system, throwing him into an extremely rare illness, hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, or HLH. Basically, in HLH, your immune system goes into overdrive, and begins attacking your organs as well as the virus it’s actually after.

But HLH starts slowly. After spending the weekend with us, Colin wasn’t at school on Monday. Via computer, Colin told Ben he had chicken pox. He sent Ben a photo of a few welts. Okay, sometimes a booster will do that. It’s rare, but it happens. I still didn’t worry.

Then Colin went into the hospital. Doctors at McLeod were stymied. His condition worsened. He was transferred to Columbia and placed on a ventilator. The doctors in Columbia finally diagnosed him with HLH. Now, I worried. As a nurse, I knew the odds. I also knew that Colin’s mom, a Pediatric Intensive Care nurse, knew the odds.

But the news was good. They were treating him with chemotherapy. Colin’s condition began improving. They began weaning him off the ventilator. He began responding to his parents and siblings when they spoke to him.

So I thought it was safe to follow through on our after-Christmas plans of a mountain trip. We made it as far as Rock Hill. On Dec. 27, my phone rang. Colin’s dad was on the other end. Colin hadn’t beaten the odds after all.

So how do you tell your 12-year-old that his best friend has died? Colin, the person who got his sense of humor. Colin, the person who said he’d go to IB with him. Colin, his wingman on the soccer field. Colin, his best friend in the whole world.

You go into his room, and you say, “Ben, I need to tell you something.” Then, because there’s no way to soften the blow, you say, “Ben, Colin has died.”

And you hold him in your arms while you both cry.

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