The next day I established that the USS Dallas was finally back in its home port of Groton, Conn., and it seemed a good idea to get the little guy aboard while he was still largely intact. The Navy fast-tracked a visit for him. On the day after Kyle's CAT scan, the crew of the Dallas gave my little buddy what was probably the best day of his life. He bubbled about it. "I got to shoot a torpedo and look out of the periscope, and I ate everything they served for me!" he told me that night. They made him a member of the crew, and presented him with gold dolphins that he still wears. Five days later, his left leg was taken off.
The resilience of these kids is something that confounds reason. Kyle was at this point only 7 and had already been through an experience to crush the soul of any adult. He sat up on the gurney and steered himself into the operating room. Then began yet another bout of chemotherapy. When "phantom pain" from his amputated leg caused him discomfort, Kyle would say out loud, "I'm sorry, the leg you have reached is no longer in service. Please contact the right leg for further information."
Kyle's parents. It requires no great insight to note that they were living through the ultimate nightmare. Set aside the fact that they faced the death of a child. Consider for the moment only the day-to-day routine. When the child is in the hospital, you live there with him, sleeping in a chair of dubious comfort, eating whatever you might warm in the nearby microwave. Forget your job. Forget your spouse. Forget the rest of your family. Forget sleeping more than four hours at a stretch. You learn a lot of what the medics have to know, and end up as a highly skilled nurse's aide. You get to sit there and watch poisons drip into your child's bloodstream. You are the one who has to be strong for a child who occasionally get discouraged.
Every time you return to the hospital, you learn about another child -- Oh, God not her, she has the same disease that . . .. You learn to decode what the doctors and nurses tell you, searching for hope among the circumlocutions. And there's always the lingering fear that someday you will leave this place for the last time, and the wrong reason.
Oh, yeah, all this goes on for months -- if you're lucky.
But, perversely, the parents are lucky. Consider the doctors, nurses and technicians. They are bright, sharp, dedicated and so fiercely competitive as to make an NFL coach look mellow. Their personal enemy is Death himself, and they fight their nasty little war on many fronts, each one of which is the body of a human child, hairless, pale as parchment, with sunken but twinkling eyes. And these health professionals lose the battle a lot. We award medals and honors to professional soldiers who risk their lives in battle, typically in a brief span of hours. These medics put their souls at risk, and do it every day, and do you wonder then who are the most courageous people in the world?
Kyle's principal physician was Norma Wollner, director of the Pediatric Day Hospital at Sloan-Kettering. She is a woman of 60 years and pixieish proportions who started treating kids with cancer when hope was a lie. Professional soldiers would say that she has a clear sense of mission and tenacity of purpose with few parallels except in her own elite community. Norma was the blue-force commander in the war, and she fought valiantly, with consummate skill and obstinate determination.
Unfortunately, the red-force won.
I got a call one afternoon in May from Kyle's dad. The little guy was terminal. Make-A-Wish, an organization that grants wishes to dying children, was sending him to Disney World. I was unprepared for this. Probably I am too optimistic, and perhaps the family was overly careful in what they had told me. That night I had to travel to Baltimore for a college trustees meeting. I checked myself into a nice place with a nice bar and proceeded to consume a good deal of alcohol in a puerile and pointless exercise. I had to see Kyle, of course, and I cursed myself for not having taken the time sooner. Since I am something of an expert on Disney World (seven trips), I offered my services as tour guide.
Why did I go? Fear. Everything about this frightened me. I was afraid that I would lose control of myself while with my little buddy. I was afraid that we'd be alone and he would turn to me and ask the question he'd not asked his mom and dad: When am I going to die? But most of all I was afraid of living the rest of my life as someone who failed to stand up for a sick little boy.