Graham’s Story: Part One

24 Jul

Graham Marsden, photo by Joe Rodriquez

The following articles, “Graham’s Story,” were published by the “Greensboro News & Record” in Greensboro, NC, over six consecutive days, appearing on the front page of each issue. They were accompanied by incredible photographs taken by News & Record staff photographer, Joe Rodriguez, who shadowed my family for several weeks. I have been granted permission to reproduce both the stories as well as the photos on my blog.

I am much in debt to Sarah Marsden, my daughter-in-law and wife of Graham, for transcribing the articles from photocopies. At the time, digital media did not exist.

I plan to release one part at a time over the following days.

It is thirty years since that summer and that day: July 24, 1982, when Graham was diagnosed with ALL (acute lymphocytic leukemia). Much has changed. Much could not be foreseen at the original writing of the articles.

A lot of the medicines and the protocols have changed in the treatment of ALL.

Despite that, when you are the parent of a child diagnosed with a deadly disease, you want all of the information available. You want to know that your child has a chance to survive and beat the odds — whatever they are. You want to be embraced and assured that everything will be alright — that your child and you will one day look back on this.

Fortunately that was the case where Graham was concerned. The family, however, did not emerge unscathed. For many families, it hasn’t and won’t be the case. There won’t be a thirty year anniversary to celebrate.

For you, I grieve.

For the children, men, women who are newly-diagnosed, the particulars of this series — the chemo and the therapies — are different. But the heart of the story remains true, I suspect.

So, for Graham, his mother, his wife, his sister, and all of the extended family that now lives and breathes — including those who were not around at the time — and you, the reader, I present this series.

— L. Stewart Marsden

* * *

(reprinted by permission)

Greensboro News & Record, vol.75 no.346, December 12, 1982

forward by Ned Cline, Managing Editor:

Skip and Maggie Marsden are special people. So is Graham, their 3-year-old son.

But they’re all going through trying times. Graham has cancer, Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia.

Things have been tough for the family before, but not this tough. Skip’s aspirations to become a screenplay writer in New York had faltered. Maggie’s plans to become an actress never really got started.

They returned to Greensboro to start over. But a business venture went sour. He took a job as a shipping clerk in a local textile mill, mostly in desperation, to feed his family, which also includes a daughter, Jessica, 9.

Then Graham, always bright and healthy, became ill.

The news came last July 24, the Marsdens’ 11th wedding anniversary.

Skip, 33, and Maggie, 29 are eternal optimists. But in the last six months they have been living through a personal trauma that most people never encounter and some couldn’t handle. But they’ve handled it remarkably.

News & Record readers will learn of their heartaches, their determination, and their joys in a series beginning today in the Life and Leisure section.

The series is called Graham’s Story.

Skip asked to tell their story, not for Graham, but for others who will want to know or might be forced to live through the same occurrence.

Skip and Maggie Marsden have wondered a lot about life and God since Graham’s illness jolted their faith.

They pray a lot now. And they cry a lot, too. But they also show what seems to be unbounded courage.

“I was close to losing all love for everything, before this happened,” Skip says. “Now I look at life differently and I am less hassled by the things that I once thought were important.”

“It’s impossible to go it alone,” Maggie adds. “There is a lot of compassion out there and you can’t go it alone. This has brought us closer even as it has pulled at us.”

The low point came some months back when Graham wasn’t responding well to treatment. Then came the letter from another mother who said her son with the same disease was once at the same stage as Graham, but he was almost well now and Graham could be, too.

Doctors say Graham has a 75 percent chance for long-term survival, which they call five to 10 years. Skip and Maggie prefer to call it likelihood.

“Every day he goes, his chances improve,” Skip says. “And we thought we were worse off than anyone else until we saw people with greater problems than we have.”

“You see them and you know they’re going to die,” Maggie continues. “Graham’s alive.”

Graham’s Story is warm, caring and compelling. I commend it to you.

* * *

Part 1:

Graham's Story - Greensboro News & Record - LeukemiaA child so small, an illness so great

A family’s search for ray of hope in the overwhelming darkness

by Skip Marsden
Special to the News & Record

July 23, 1982. Friday began normally at our house – noisy and confusing. A busy schedule faced my wife, Maggie, and me, and the only redeeming factor of the day was that it was the eve of our 11th anniversary. We anticipated with pleasure a romantic dinner and the Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Maggie left to take Jessica, our 9-year-old daughter, to day camp, and then to do errands, while I dressed and fed Graham, our 2-year-old son. He and I were scheduled for a morning appointment with the pediatrician. For the past week Graham had run a slight temperature, complaining about stomach aches. We had been treating his symptoms with aspirin and fluids, keeping him quiet.

We weren’t too worried about Graham until he began complaining about a sore neck.

It was drizzling when we pulled into the clinic parking lot. Graham began prattling nervously when he realized our ultimate destination.

“Am I going to get a shot? I don’t want to see the doctor! But I don’t feel sick anymore… see? I’m all better now!”

Dr. David Rubin examined Graham carefully, massaging his stomach, listening to his breathing, inspecting his limbs, probing about his eyes and ears and throat. In the bright light of the examination room, I noticed how pale Graham looked. I wondered why I hadn’t been aware of it earlier. I asked Rubin if Graham looked pale to him.

“He does,” he replied, gingerly feeling the glands under Graham’s jaw. “Have you noticed any insect bites on him?” (I knew he was thinking about Rocky Mountain spotted fever.)

“No. None that I’m aware of.”

“Has he eaten any bad fish lately?”

“No. His sister bordered on anemia as an infant, though, and my wife has a history of asthma,” I volunteered. “What’s causing the paleness?”

“It could be any number of things. Anemia, hepatitis…possibly others. I think we ought to have some blood work done and check his hemoglobin. It won’t be much… just a finger stick.”

I took Graham to the lab for the blood tests. The technician was an elderly lady with a gentle voice. She ushered us into a room filled with vials and test tubes and stainless steel oddities.

Graham sat quietly in my lap and listened as she explained carefully what she was about to do.

“I’m going to stick your finger with this needle in a second,” she said, swabbing his finger, “and then I’m going to make your blood go up into my magic straw!”

“Hmmm, He’s going to want these results right away,” she muttered warily. I began to have murmurs of doubt but pushed them quickly aside.

“Are you going to want to wait for the results?”

It was nearly noon, and I was pushed for time. I would have to call Dr. Rubin for the results later, I said.

The drizzle had turned into a downpour by the time we reached home. I fixed Graham soup for lunch, which he only toyed with. He was tired and cranky. I felt his forehead and groaned – his temperature was going back up. (I hoped Dr. Rubin would prescribe some penicillin once the blood test results were in so we could return to a normal lifestyle.) Graham moved to the couch after lunch and listlessly watched television while I got ready for work.

I filled Maggie in when she and Jessica returned. She had worried about meningitis because of Graham’s sore neck. “Rubin said it was definitely not meningitis,” I assured her. “We need to call about the blood test results, though.”

She phoned while I finished dressing. Rubin was out to lunch, and the receptionist would not give Maggie the test results. The doctor would call us when he returned to the office.

“He’s got leukemia!” Maggie blurted out as she hung up the phone. (I have never liked spontaneous assumptions, especially ones as negative as hers.)

Graham's Story

At home, mother’s tenderness.

“I noticed the bruising a couple weeks ago, and I thought about it,” she continued frantically, “but I thought I was overreacting!”

“Shut up!” I exploded.

“It’s not leukemia! You’re overreacting now! All kids bruise… you have no idea what the problem is! It could be anemia, or hepatitis…”

“But she wouldn’t give me the test results!”

“They probably have a policy about that,” I argued, but I wasn’t fully convinced of my own reasoning. I left the room in an outward huff, but began to feel the same quaking fears Maggie was experiencing. My mind vacillated between cool logic and panic over the next moments.

Maggie had calmed down somewhat by the time I was ready to leave. She wanted me to await Rubin’s call, but I assured her there was nothing to worry about.  Deep inside I felt I had to get away, as if by not being home when the doctor called, Maggie’s fears could not be realized; that Graham’s illness would be a minor problem… nothing to worry about.

I had pulled out of the driveway and was turning up the street when she ran out of the house.

I knew before she opened her mouth.

“Dr Rubin’s on the phone.” It was a statement more than a cry. “It is,” she added, her face rapidly draining of color.

It is.

I barely heard her as she told me what conversation already taken place:

“Hemoglobin low… red cells… white cells… asked him if it was leukemia… wants us to take Graham to Duke or Chapel Hill.”

“Dr. Rubin?” The phone trembled in my hand as the pediatrician calmly and sympathetically repeated the technical data he had given my wife.

“We can’t tell definitely until we get Graham into the hands of the specialists.”

“What do you think? Is it…” I hesitated to say the word.

“It’s most probably leukemia.” His voice was calm and even-toned. “Would you like to come down to my office before you go to the hospital?”


I sat on the bed and tried to digest what was happening. In a few short seconds my world had been turned upside down. My son was dying – dying of a disease I knew very little about, and what I did know froze my blood. And I was helpless to do anything about it.

Once, when our daughter was still crawling about, she happened to pick up a small bit of onion peel in the kitchen and put it into her mouth. Moments later she was gagging and turning blue. I turned Jessica upside down by the ankles and smacked her on the small of the back. The peel popped out, and we all hugged and cried and thanked God that a catastrophe had been miraculously avoided.

There was no picking Graham up by the ankles this time. Thermometers, aspirin, vaporizers, storybooks and songs were the only weapons we knew to use against the normal, “innocent” childhood afflictions.

I grabbed Maggie and wrapped my arms around her. We tearfully shuddered and rocked together in the overwhelming darkness that had descended about us.

Jessica walked quietly into the room, aware that something terrible had happened. I got down on my knees and hugged her, sobbing uncontrollably.

“Graham is sick, Jessica, and we don’t know what is going to happen,” I tried to explain. “It might mean for the next few months that Mom and Dad are going to give Graham a lot more attention than you get. You may feel left out, and maybe a bit resentful. But if that happens, remember that we love you very much.”

“Is he going to die?” she asked simply, tears welling in her large brown eyes.

“We don’t know, Jessica.”

She went into her room and lay down on her bed. I could hear her crying softly.

Maggie began to pack while I tried to call relatives. My sister agreed to keep Jessica for a few days.

I called our minister. I needed to tell someone who could spread the news, get the concern and prayers of others, perhaps help in the areas where doctors and medicine would be of no value. Maggie called her mother, and then a friend in High Point.

“We need your love and your prayers,” she sobbed. The need to believe in a benevolent, caring, touching God had never been so great.

We continued packing and telephoning. The motion was mechanical sometimes, zombielike, as though we were in shock, unaware of the ripping pain searing our hearts. Our emotional dams bulged dangerously, and we repressed, as strongly as we were able, our raw feelings to keep from totally breaking apart.

At Rubin’s office he again explained the test results, showed us the figures and what they indicated.

He continued to press the immediate need for the trip without divulging how critical Graham’s condition was. Maggie and I, in our desire to wake up from this horrible nightmare, sluggishly responded. We finally decided to go to Duke. Dr. Rubin phoned ahead to set things up.

We returned home and my brother-in-law arrived to pick up Jessica. We told him what little we knew and promised to contact my parents, who were in Georgia visiting my brother. Maggie’s mother got home in time to wish us well and give her first grandson a goodbye kiss and hug. Rubin called and gave me the information about Duke Hospital.

And we finally left.

It was just after 7 in the early evening when we eased onto the highway. The rain clouds has moved northward, sweeping the sky of the day’s dreary shroud. Ahead, the blue sky darkened as night approached steadily. Behind us, layers of orange and gold and purple had stratified into brilliant layers – a magnificent sunset that was incongruous with the events of the day.

Graham sat in the back seat, strapped snugly in his car seat, nodding drowsily. Maggie and I were silent, each mentally searching for the reasons behind that last eight hours.

Maggie dwelt on the various obscure signals of Graham’s developing illness: the recurring bruises that lingered longer than normal; the increasing complaints of being too tired to walk; his increasing crankiness and ill will; his pale complexion.

I pondered the ironies. My parents had lost their first child to the mysterious “crib death” syndrome.

They would be crushed at the news of Graham. In June, Maggie had been so insistent I sign up for full family coverage under my company’s group insurance. I procrastinated nearly two weeks, just weeks before Graham’s preliminary diagnosis.

The most poignant irony was that a few years ago I had begun work on a teleplay about the cancer ward at Duke Medical Center. A friend had worked there as a recreational therapist among cancer patients, and I had contrived a plot based on her recounts of several patients. Now, it seemed, I could resume the plot from firsthand experience.

The question of God’s hand more than once passed through my mind, and I could hear an array of glib religious explanations from “God’s wisdom is not man’s window,” to predestinarian thoughts of “a purpose behind all things.” God seemed too big to me at that moment to belittle himself by crippling a 2-year-old child.

I held only to the faith that God, whatever form he or she had, held the same compassionate ache I had, and that somehow, some way, a cure would be administered for Graham’s illness. God was more than welcome to whisk through and miraculously heal my son and restore everything to blissful normalcy. But deep inside, I knew that would not be the course.

The sunset blazed in the car mirror and I reached over and took my wife’s hand. We’re gonna make it, I squeezed. She looked at me and smiled weakly, and we both knew that whatever strength we needed, whatever help, whatever solace – all would be provided.


2 Responses to “Graham’s Story: Part One”

  1. Catherine Dexter July 24, 2012 at 5:48 am #


  2. Consultorio de Psicología Costa Rica July 24, 2012 at 7:49 am #

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