Tag Archives: leukemia

Charley’s Angles

27 Jun

Charley’s Angles

By L. Stewart Marsden

Part 1

Charley and me were twins. Not identical twins. Fraternal. But you would never know that in a million years. He and me was different in every way. I got the looks and the athletic body and all. What’d he get?

The brains.

Charley was smart as a whip. Beat you in chess blindfolded. Tell you the capital of every country in Indo – Indo – well, everywhere. Could talk his way in and out of trouble without you ever knowing what was going on.

Dad said we was so different he wondered did he need to check the woodpile. I never knew what he meant by that, but Mom would look at him with the awfullest sneer whenever he said it. And he said it a lot.

“It’s possible to have the children of two different fathers conceived at two different times and they be born at the same time,” Charley said once at breakfast over a bowl of Cheerios and bananas.

“I don’t see how,” said Mom, that look on her face again.

Charley looked at her and grinned back innocently, “Everyone doesn’t understand electricity, yet that doesn’t keep us from using it.”

Even I knew what he was doing, and had to bury my face in my napkin.

Once Charley said something like that when Mom had a pan of biscuits fresh from the oven. He learned never to tease her again when she was armed. The pan missed his head by inches.

But Charley was ugly. It was bad enough to be smart, but to have ugly piled on top of that was just about the cruelest thing God could have done him.

His face was skinny and his hair moppy. His ears looked like radar dishes stuck on. He was missing two teeth that never developed – from Mom’s side of the family (or the woodpile, Dad would say).

He was also sickly all the time. Allergic to just about everything, and caught anything that came along at school. Flu? He caught it every time. Measles? Mumps? Chicken Pox? Them, too. Even had rare diseases, like scarlet fever. He was a mess.

He was older than me by six minutes. That was one thing he had on me other than smarts. He was my older brother.

“Good thing we don’t practice primogeniture or you’d be stuck with nothing when Mom and Dad die.”

Well, first, I didn’t know what primo – primo – whatever – meant. And second, I thought it was terrible to think that Mom and Dad would ever die – much less talk about it.

In spite of everything we didn’t have in common, we loved the hell out of each other.

All through school Charley was the butt of bullying and teasing. He got tripped going up stairwells, and had his face pushed in more than one bowl of apple sauce at lunch. So I became his protector.

He only made things worse whenever he tried to use his smarts to keep him from getting beat up. Nobody understood half of what he said, and he said a lot. Big words. Words with more than two syllables.

“I suppose because of your inferior intellect you feel overwhelmed by mine, and must compensate by resorting to your instinctual and Neanderthal brutishness.”


And he was flat on the ground with several guys diving on top, swinging their fists.

I would come running up and clear the bodies off him, threatening sure death to the rats as they scrambled away in fear.

He would smile up at me, him flat on his back. “Thanks, Brother!” I’d pull him up and we’d go on our way, arms draped over each other’s shoulder, and I would give him my advice.

“You gotta quit talking like that, Charley!”

As we grew older, Charley played Ying to my Yang. I was a star running back on the football team. He was the team manager. I was the hot power forward on the basketball team, and he was the team statistician. I was the slugger who batted cleanup on the baseball team, and he was the bat boy and kept the inning by inning score chart.

If it hadn’t been for Charley, though, I’d never have made it through high school. He kept me eligible for sports by doing most of my homework. That kept my grade average up in spite of my test scores, which he couldn’t take, of course. He always said it was too bad we weren’t identical twins.

“I could take your tests, too, if teachers couldn’t tell us apart!”

I knew there would be advantages for Charley if we were identical; those he could only fantasize about: girls.

∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫


Part 2


“So what’s it like?” he asked me one night when I came back from a date.

“What’s what like?”

“You know. Being with a girl?”

“I don’t know! Like being with anybody, I guess. I never thought of it.”

“From what I hear, thinking has little to nothing to do with being with a girl.”

“Oh! You mean what’s sex like?”


He sat up on his bed. He was all ears – which he was anyways. We shared a bedroom on the top floor. Our beds were separated by a table with a small lamp and wind-up clock on it.

I unbuttoned my shirt and threw it on the floor for Mom. Then turned my back to him and slipped my pants off and hopped quickly into my bed.

“You want to know what sex is like?”

“I do.”

“Well, one day you will know.”

“No I won’t. And you know that.”

“Yes you will! What? You gonna get some strange disease and die before you make it with a girl?”

I remember he sat there with the strangest look on his face. A sad smile and big eyes. Like our Golden Lab, Delbert. Like he knew something I didn’t – which was always the case.

“Sex. What’s it like?” And he waited, his head cocked to one side like Delbert when we were eating at the table and he begged for a taste. I could never resist feeding Delbert from the table either.

So I told him. I told him about Betty Sue – who was my first. How I slipped my hand under her blouse at the Center Theatre and she didn’t stop me. How she responded by putting her hand in my lap.

No!” Charley said in amazement, sitting up straighter.

How we awkwardly left the theater before the end of the movie and hurried up the dark aisle, all my buddies giving me the thumbs up and their dates grinning over big cups of Coca-Cola and boxes of popcorn. How we drove out to the lake. How I pulled a blanket from the back seat and kept the car radio on.

How Gary Puckett sang “Young Girl” just as Betty Sue slipped out of her blouse and unhooked her bra, displaying all her glory by the light of the waxing moon.

“Time for bed, Charley. Sweet dreams.”

Wow!” was all Charley could whisper.

I turned the light off.

The rustle of his bed sheets for several minutes told me Charley would indeed have sweet dreams – and more.

∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫


Part 3


“Say that again, Charley – slowly.”

I was distracted when he first said it, trying to reach a lone fry at the bottom of my bag of food from McDonald’s. Charley said it so casually just before he clamped down on his Big Mac as he sat in the passenger seat of my car.

“Leukemia,” he repeated, picking sesame seeds from between his teeth.

“What the hell is leukemia?”

“It’s a disease of the blood. The bone marrow, actually.”

“The what!?”

“It’s inside your bones. It’s where new blood cells are made.”

Rain splattered against the windshield of the car where we had parked. A sudden storm came out of nowhere with driving wind that shook trees and bushes around us. Customers made mad dashes out of McDonald’s to their cars, holding their shirts and jackets pulled over their heads in vain to keep dry.

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“I didn’t know for sure. And Mom made me promise not to.”

“Why the hell would she do that?”

“Well, finals. She said it would devastate you to the point you would blow it. If you don’t graduate, the football scholarship isn’t worth anything.”


“No – it’s okay! Really! I completely agree with her. Look, it’s not her fault. No one’s fault. These things happen.”

“But why you? Why not me?”

“Why not me? Look, please don’t tell Mom I told you!?”

“Jeesh, Charley! I’m the only one in the family who doesn’t know this? Because of a lousy scholarship? How – did you catch this from somebody? Who else knows?”

“I didn’t catch it. And nobody else knows. Even Dad.”

“What!? Dad doesn’t know?”

“His heart. You can’t tell him either.”

“Yeah. Yeah that makes sense. So what happens?”

“I have some time. There are treatments we’re going to try. Doctor Slate told us to go to Duke. They’re on the cutting edge of most medical conditions.”

“How long have you known?”

“Two days.”

“That’s where you and mom were, when you went to Duke?”


“I thought that was to interview to go there. This is so – so crappy!”

“I know.”

“Are you gonna die?”

“Everyone’s going to die …”

“–You know what I mean!”

“Don’t know.”

I pounded the steering wheel in anger, and the tears came – suddenly, like the rain.

“Oh, Charley!”

“I know.”

“I wish I could do something! I mean, it should be me, not you! I’d do anything to help – you know that.”

“I know.”

The rain and wind continued to beat down around us. Curtains of water swept across the parking lot and the streets. The car began to shake with the storm.

“There is something you could do for me. But, nah – I shouldn’t ask –”

“No–no–no! There’s nothing you can never not ask me! I’ll do anything to help! Honest to God, I will!”

A flash of lightning startled us both, and thunder rolled off into the distance. Charley was reluctant, and had trouble telling me what was on his mind.

“Honest, Charley! Anything!”

Another distant rumble.

“Remember when you told me about you and Betty Sue at the lake?”

It was the furthest thing from my mind, but not hard to remember.


“And remember how you said one day I would know what sex was like and I told you I wouldn’t?”

“Uh, yeah.”

His look came back to my mind. That strange look on his face. The sad smile and big eyes. Like Delbert at the dinner table.

“I was right. I won’t ever know what sex is like.”

“You knew about this back then?”

“I didn’t know – I had a hunch. An instinct. I had been feeling exhausted lately.”

“You’re always exhausted …”

“Worse than usual. And I was bruising in strange places on my body, and didn’t remember being hit or bumping into anything. No bullies lately, thanks to you.”

“That’s leukemia?”

“That’s the lack of platelets.”


“Simply, you bruise easily. And I was. So I looked up the symptoms in the school library, and I matched up with most of them. I told Mom, and that’s when we went to see Dr. Slate. A few tests, and …”

“So it’s for certain?”

“I can’t tell you that. Duke ran different tests to find out conclusively. But it doesn’t look good. I have to decide what to do. Do I go to Duke for treatment? Mom mentioned St. Judes. But, like I said – looks like I won’t ever know what sex is like.”

“That’s sad, Charley. Very sad. God, I hurt for you.”

“But, that’s where you could help me out.”

“Whaddaya mean by that?”

“Betty Sue.”


“So I don’t die without that experience! Like you said, very sad! And, like you also said, you would do anything for me, right?”

And it dawned on me what Charley wanted. I was so confused by the news of his disease! And it truly was sad that he could die without experiencing sex. And even if he didn’t die from it, who knows how it would effect his ability to – well – perform? And I could probably at least do something about that for him – if nothing else. It was a brother’s obligation, after all.

As if a sign of confirmation, the rain stopped as suddenly as it started. A shaft of sunlight pierced through the dark clouds and illumined the steeple on the First Main Street Baptist Church across the street.

It was the closest I ever came to having a real spiritual event, and was as if God himself had said through that shaft of light, “Go thou, and fetch Betty Sue for thy brother’s sake.”

“I’ll call her tonight,” I told Charley.

A big missing-tooth smile broke out over his thin face, and his large ears even seemed to wiggle in appreciation. I thought he was going to join me in a flood of tears.

“God bless you, Brother!” Charley said to me, gripping my shoulder with his trembling hand.

∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫


Part 4

Betty Sue was talented – in many ways. She played a mean trumpet in the band, and boy could she blow (if you know what I mean)! Not so bad in the classroom, either. She wasn’t exactly the girl you bring home to mother, but she was the experienced woman in our class.

She could drink any guy under the table, take the pot at poker every time, and smoke a cigarette and chew tobacco at the same time without turning green and puking.

I thought she looked like those posters of Rosey the Riveter from World War II.

I didn’t know what she would say when I called her about Charley, but I knew she had a big heart. She was a sucker for sappy stories, Golden Retriever, and little kids.

She didn’t disappoint me.

“Oh! God! Of course I will! When do you want me to come over? Tonight?”

That surprised me. It was ten o’clock when I called her. Of course, time was of the essence for Charley, and he nodded his head insistently when I replied, “Tonight? I don’t know …”

His ears, now burning red, flopped back and forth, his eyes wide open.

“Yeah, sure! Tonight’s fine. Say, midnight? That way Mom and Dad will be asleep. Can you climb trees? We’re on the second floor and there’s a big water oak beside the window. Not afraid, are you?”

“I’m not afraid of much. What’s your address?”

I gave it to her, and she made a kiss sound over the phone before she hung up.

Charley was beside himself with excitement and anticipation.

“Should I take a bath? Yes! I should take a bath!” And he stripped off his clothes on the way to the bathroom down the hallway. I walked in a few minutes later and lavender bubbles were creeping over the side of the tub as he completely sudsed himself. I laughed.

With a mound of bubbles peaked on top of his head, Charley stopped and nodded at me.

“I owe you big time. Thank you for doing this!”

“That’s what little brothers are for.” And we both laughed.

“I figure you don’t have protection,” I said as I squeezed my hand into my jeans and pulled a plastic packet from my front pocket. TROJAN was printed on the packet. I tossed it to him and he missed it, scrambling with his hands through the suds to pull it out of the water and look at it.

“Doesn’t using one of these take the sensation out of it?” he asked.

“Peggy Sue requires it. She doesn’t want little Charley’s running around pulling at her apron, right?”

“Remember when we were young and I found one of these in the woods behind Grampa’s house?”

I did remember. Neither of us knew what it was, but Charley opened it.

“Eeeyew! It’s all slimey!” he said at the time, holding the wound rubber up with two fingers. “It’s a balloon!”

We took the “balloon” to the city pool, and Charley unrolled it, and blew. He blew and he blew and he blew. It was off-white in color, and grew to an incredible size.

“Hey, Charlie! Where’d you get that?” asked one of the older kids, laughing.

“I found it at my Grampa’s.”

Everyone laughed.

Charley dried off as the tub drained, and combed his hair back. He brushed his teeth twice and rinsed with Listerine. Then he coated his underarms with Ban deodorant. He carefully popped the most obvious zits on his face, and squeezed out a few blackheads. He literally showered himself in Canoe, all the while staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, posing to the side and trying to look sexy. I could hardly keep from laughing.

“I suppose I’ll turn out the lights when Peggy Sue and I – you know.”

“Might be wise,” I grinned.

“Should I wear pajamas?”

“No. Underwear and a T-shirt.”

“Could I borrow a pair of your boxers?” He only wore tidy-whities.

“Long as you wash them.”

Back in our room Charley began to straighten up. He even made my bed, which I normally did myself at least once a month. He took down the Miss May fold out and stashed it in the bed table drawer.

“I don’t think Peggy Sue would mind the picture.”

“I mind. I don’t want her to think I’m that kind of guy.”

“What kind of guy?”

“You know –” and pumped his fist a couple of times. “You didn’t tell her I’m a virgin, did you?”

“Charley!? That’s the whole point of her agreeing to come over tonight!”

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, that’s okay.”

He was really nervous, and kept picking up the windup clock to check the time.

“You know what they say about a watched clock.”

“You’re right. Can I play your stereo? When she gets here? I’d like to play either your Johnny Mathis album or Dionne Warwick. Which do you think? Which will be best for the mood?”

I began to have second thoughts about this. I mean, Charley was a bit – I don’t know – over the top?

“Charley, relax! It isn’t like this is anything special for Peggy Sue! She’s not going to wear your ring or anything like that afterwards. It’s a one-time thing. You don’t have to impress her, or worry about what you look like, or how you smell, or your breath or anything! She’s coming here to bang you, man! That’s it. Nothing special for her.”

Charley slumped on his bed. I regretted the words almost as soon as I said them.

“Look – I didn’t mean it isn’t special. It is. For you, I know. And for Peggy Sue.”

“Right,” he said without feeling.

“Look, don’t play Mathis or Warwick.” I got up from my bed and went to my stack of albums and rifled through them quickly, pulling one out, which I handed to Charley.

“Your Led Zeppelin? For mood music?”

“Stairway to Heaven,” I replied. “Mood beyond mood.”

He looked at the label, flipped the album over and looked again for the song.

“It’s only eight minutes long!”

“Kiddo – that will be plenty of time, believe me.”

A tap on the window interrupted us. It was Peggy Sue, straddling the thick branch of the water oak that was closest to the window.

It was midnight.


∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫


Part 5

Peggy Sue had gone all-out for Charley, and I was so proud of her and glad for him. She wore a halter top tied in the front, and form-fitting satin pants. It was obvious she wore no bra, and I wondered if she had no panties as well.

Her long blonde hair was wavy – like she had rolled it. Later she told me she had. Plus she had taken a bath and powdered her body with Baby Powder, painted her nails and toenails. She smelled delicious, and I was a bit envious of the experience my brother was about to have.

Peggy Sue pecked me on the cheek with her deep red lips, and smiled. “You staying?”

“Oh, no! No, I’m leaving,” and she ushered me out of the room. Just before she closed the door I caught my final image of Charley as a virgin, sitting on the edge of his bed dressed in a white Hanes vee-neck T, and a pair of polkadot boxers that were way too big for him. The look on his face was priceless.

Peggy Sue closed the door quietly, so as not to wake my parents, who were long asleep in their room at the end of the hallway.

I turned and sauntered to the stairway, stopping halfway and pausing until I saw the bedroom light go out from under my bedroom door, and then heard “Stairway to Heaven.”

I was incredibly proud of myself, and grabbed a blanket and pillow from the downstairs closet, and curled up on the livingroom sofa for the night. Periodically I could hear footsteps crossing the floor upstairs, and “Stairway to Heaven” begin again.

Damn! I thought.

Six times the song played.

And on the seventh, all hell broke loose.


∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫


Part 6

Know how there are those times when you are listening to good music and you become “one” with it? How things around you kind of disappear, and how you swirl with the beat and the tune and you have no consciousness of anything around you? How, for example, the loudness of the music doesn’t register with you? Or you aren’t bothered by repeating that tune over and over and over again?

That’s what happened to Charley and Peggy Sue. Every time he got up to reset the stereo stylus to “Stairway to Heaven,” he also bumped up the volume a bit, and on the seventh time he played the song, the volume was full blast.

Neither one of them heard Mom complaining from her and Dad’s bedroom, “Turn the music down, please!”

Then, “TURN the music DOWN, please!”



The couple, leg-locked and totally naked in Charley’s bed, were also totally lost in each other and the music. They never heard Mom’s vocal complaints. They didn’t hear Mom jump up out of her bed and stomp heavily down the hallway toward our bedroom. They were completely oblivious of anything else but the music and the moment.

Until Mom swung open the door, turned on the ceiling light and screamed at the top of her lungs,


That scream awoke me from a very sensual dream that happened to star Peggy Sue, and it took me a few seconds to realize what was going on. Then I heard Peggy Sue and Charlie screaming, and Mom screaming, and Dad come out of his bedroom to join in the screaming.

Not exactly sure what to do, run or rescue, I chose to rescue, and bounded up the stairs to my bedroom.

Mom was in the middle of the bedroom flailing her arms at Charley and Peggy Sue, who were cowering behind the top bedsheet on his bed, and Dad was behind Mom, not sure where to look.

I walked in and Mom turned to me, possessed by a demon.


Not good. Her saying “YOUNG MAN” was not only high drama, but meant I was in deep doo-doo. But once again, as when Charley was being crushed and pummeled under a stack of bullies, I stepped in. Captain Rescue.

“It’s my fault, Mom. I set this up for Charley because of – well, (I looked quickly at Dad) – you know …”

“NO! I do NOT know! Because of what?”

I kept nodding my head toward Dad, not wanting to stress him with the revelation.

“You got a tick, Boy?” Dad said, his eyebrows arching close to his widow’s peak hairline.

“BECAUSE OF WHAT?” Mom demanded.

I looked over at Charley, who had closed his eyes and was slowly shaking his head.

“BECAUSE OF THE LEUKEMIA!” I exploded, tears bursting from my eyes. Peggy Sue also began to cry while Charley slowly crawled under the sheet.

“LEUKEMIA? WHAT LEUKEMIA?” Mom and Dad shouted in unison.

Then there was the pregnant pause.

My parents looked at me, and I and Peggy Sue looked at Charley, who was now bent over on his knees on the bed, covered by the sheet – except for his white behind, which was partially uncovered. That struck me hilarious in the moment, and while the seventh repetition of “Stairway to Heaven” ended and the scratch, scratch, scratch of the needle on blank vinyl began to repeat in the background, I started to laugh.

“Your ass is showing, Charley,” I said, a fit of laughter overwhelming me, so contagious eventually everyone in the room was bent over.

Somehow over the next few hours, after Charley and Peggy Sue had dressed themselves (she in the bathroom, and he under the covers), the truth unravelled. Only Mom and Dad were innocent. And, thank God, Dad didn’t keel over with a heart attack when he heard the word leukemia.


∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫


All of us survived the experience, although Dad did finally drop dead on his desk at work a few years later. Mom remarried when she was older. A nice guy. A vegan.

Peggy Sue graduated high school, worked her way through a local college, and ended up running an auto tire place and making very good money. She married and had six children – all girls. I wonder if they were anything like she was. One can only hope.

Me? I fractured my hip during my sophomore year of college in a game against State, and paid the rest of my way through college making pizzas at Dominos. I ended up selling insurance, and doing pretty good. I’ve got a daughter and two sons, and do the “dad thing” – ball games and proms and – well, you know.

Charley? Charley was like the ugly duckling who transformed into quite a handsome guy in his 30s. He went to Duke on scholarship, and ended up on Wall Street, where he cleaned up, financially-speaking. He lives on the Upper East Side with his wife and one son. I think his skill at coming up with angles benefitted him and kept him in such good stead that he came to the attention of one of the biggest money moguls in Manhattan: a guy named Bernie Madoff. He has done incredibly well, and keeps begging me to come to New York and work with him.

As yet, I haven’t done so. I don’t know, maybe I’m not smart enough – and maybe it’s dumb not to take him up on it. But after that experience with him and Peggy Sue? I’ll stay here and be content with what I got. Besides, a Southern Boy in New York City? Nah. I’ll leave that to Charley and his angles. He’s more suited to the big city.

By the way, have you looked at whether or not you have enough insurance, lately?


The End.


Graham’s Story, Part Five

28 Jul

Graham’s Story has drawn the most number of views from the most numbers of countries than anything else I have posted before. I am not surprised. My hope is that many are informed, and that many are encouraged as a result.

— L. Stewart Marsden

Greensboro News & Record, vol.75 no.350 December 16, 1982

Last July, 3-year-old Graham Marsden was diagnosed as having leukemia. Skip Marsden, his father, has written this series to tell his family’s story.

Graham's StoryPart 5:

The Treatment:

Alphabet Soup Of Medication

By Skip Marsden, Special to the News & Record

During the first 90 days of Graham’s treatment for leukemia, he has been in hospital on an inpatient basis for 21 days, has been given over 20 different kinds of drugs, has undergone five bone marrow tests and three spinal taps, has had at least 30 blood tests and 10 urinalyses, and has seen about 20 different physicians and countless nurses, physician’s assistants and various practitioners. The total cost for treatment for that time is between $15,000 and $16,000.

Chemotherapy is warfare. Concentrated, highly complex and often frustrating, a full battle is waged against cancer cells with one objective: total annihilation of the enemy. One microscopic blast cell anywhere in the body is enough to rekindle the devastating process of unbridled cell division.

The drugs are complicated. Prednisone, vincristine, L-Asparaginase, cyclophosphamide, methotrexate, hydrocortisone, arabinosyl cytosine, mercaptopurine –  each administered in particular amounts, in particular sequences, with specific objectives.

Simply put, chemotherapy poisons the body – kills certain cells, or inhibits cell division, or denies cells certain proteins and vitamins. It is a delicate balance of weakening the body to the point that cancer cells become vulnerable, yet not so much so that the body cannot fend off disease and infection.

Graham’s chemotherapy is divided into three parts: Induction, Consolidation and Maintenance. The first two parts are the most rigorous, and occur during the first 20 weeks or so of the therapy. The third phase, Maintenance, is less difficult, and will cover a period of roughly 2.5 years. At the end of this time, if Graham has remained in remission, he will be taken off chemotherapy for a period of about two years, during which time regular bone marrows will be administered to ensure that he is OK. If he remains in remission without chemotherapy, he could be pronounced cured.

The purpose of the first part of chemotherapy, Induction, is to induce a remission. Remission is when no cancer cells can be found in either the blood or bone marrow. Graham was given two very strong drugs to induce remission: prednisone and vincristine. Prednisone kills lymphocytic cells, while vincristine prevents cell division in quickly dividing cells. Graham experienced a range of side effects, from moodiness and constipation to slight hair-thinning.

By August 9, Graham officially was declared in remission as a result of his bone marrow test. Maggie called me at work from the hospital with the news. That night I celebrated the victory royally!

Consolidation, the next phase, is a period in which high concentrations of drugs are administered over a span of about 16 to 18 weeks. The effort is made to destroy and/or deny the growth of any cancer cell that has managed to find a niche in the body to hide until after the chemical fireworks are over.

In comparison with the medications one is readily familiar with, these drugs are exotic and not without risk.


The fifth week of his treatment, Graham was given two very potent drugs plus a bone marrow. One drug, Cytoxan, attacks the nuclei of rapidly growing cells and injures them. The problem with the drug is that it attacks all fast growing cells, including normal cells – the lining of the mouth and stomach, hair cells. Graham was quite ill that night, throwing up well into the early morning.

L-Asparaginase, the other drug, was even more frightening. A series of 14 consecutive injections, one each day, were to be given. Our pediatrician in Greensboro had agreed to administer the drug. At Duke, Maggie was given several boxes of L-Asparaginase to deliver to him.

L-Asparaginase, acts specifically in starving leukemic cells of a protein necessary for cell division. Normal cells have the ability to synthesize the protein and are affected by the drug for a short time.

She was told at Duke that there possibly could be a very rare allergic reaction to the drug, but it was only moments before she left for the doctor’s office that she realized just how serious the reaction could be. Taking out one of the boxes of L-Asparaginase, Maggie read, WARNING: MAY CAUSE SUDDEN DEATH.

She tore open the box and read the accompanying medical report. The report was repeated: Allergic reactions to asparaginase are frequent and may occur during the primary course of therapy. They are not completely predictable on the basis of intradermal skin test. Anaphylaxis and death have occurred even in a hospital setting with experienced observers.

It was the kind of information one would rather not know. Driving Graham to the doctor’s office that day for treatment seemed nearly the same as playing Russian roulette.

A syringe of adrenaline was prepared prior to the shot of L-Asparaginase, to be plunged into Graham’s heart in case he reacted to the drug. The drug was given. Dr. Rubin stayed in the room with Graham, monitoring his heart rate rate and blood pressure. Thirty tense minutes of observation passed. Nothing happened.

The same scenario was repeated daily for two weeks. An allergic reaction was just as likely on the last day as on the first, but we all gradually relaxed after the first week of shots produced no negative response.

The shots were given on a rotating basis – first Graham’s right arm, then his left; then his right leg, and then his left. He complained about having to have so many shots, but he never indicated any resentment toward the doctor or us. He seemed to accept as fact that we loved him, and that the shots, painful as they were, were for his health.

Hair loss is one of the effects of chemotherapy. It is the most benign effect.
Photo by Joe Rodriguez

Hair loss came rapidly. We took Graham to look for hats to cover his balding head, and he picked out a Boston baseball cap (it was the last one on the rack, or we would have New York). Initially he didn’t want to wear the cap. Now, he would sleep with it if we didn’t insist he take it off during the night.

Our schedule for Consolidation should have ended between Christmas and the New Year. But Graham, like other leukemia patients, sometimes has to delay his chemotherapy because of problems encountered as a result of his treatment.

We began a 12-week period using a drug called methotrexate just before Halloween. The drug is given in his spinal tap on Monday, then repeated through an IV on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the attempt to root out foreign matter.

For some unknown reason, cancer cells can fool the protective barrier and enter the CNS, growing in the brain and nerve cells and causing serious problems. Unfortunately, the barrier effectively screens out the chemicals that fight cancer cells, so other means of administration of chemotherapy cannot be counted upon to keep the CNS protected from leukemic cells.

Graham reacted to the methotrexate, developing severe mouth sores. The sores caused a temperature, and he was unable to eat or drink. He soon became dangerously dehydrated. His lips cracked and bled. This occurred within a period of 36 hours, with constant contact by phone to Duke. The end result was a five-day stay at the hospital, with IVs pumping fluids back into his body and gentle treatment of the mouth sores.


During his latest stay in the hospital, Graham asked Maggie, “Why do I get shots all the time that make me sick?” She explained that he had leukemia, and that the shorts were necessary to make him better.

“I don’t want my leukemia to go away,” he said sadly.

“Why?” Maggie asked softly.

“Because I will get lots of shots and will get sick.” What he meant was that the cure for the disease made him feel a lot worse than the disease ever had.

This is an experience for my whole family, but more for Graham than any of us. Some say he’ll forget about the rough treatment when he is older, but I doubt it. I think he’ll remember this for the rest of his life. It’s too difficult a process for anyone to forget.

One of the products of this process is Graham himself. He is one of the most courageous people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. He has rejected none of the doctors or nurses who have treated him. He hasn’t withdrawn at all, except when he is feeling sick. He doesn’t scream when we tell him we’re going to Duke, or to Cone Hospital (although he knows those visits will mean at least a shot, and sometimes more pain).

What is happening, I think, is that a tremendously strong character is being revealed through this very tough experience, a character that will prevail long after all the shots and bone marrows and spinals are over. And that, after all, is the real hope.

Graham’s Story, Part Four

27 Jul

While reading and editing what I wrote a little over 30 years ago, some memories come back quickly, while others are somewhat vague and removed. Knowing I can pick up my phone, or tap out an email, and be in contact with Graham is something I believe I have taken a bit for granted. I will try not to do that in the future. To remember this painful time is important.

— L. Stewart Marsden

Greensboro News & Record, vol.75 no.349, December 15, 1982

Skip and Maggie Marsden discovered a year ago that their 3-year-old son, Graham, has leukemia. The Marsdens were crushed by the news. Although they always hope for Graham’s improvement, the Marsdens have coped with his illness and learned to face a new way of life. Skip wrote Graham’s Story hoping others might also benefit from his family’s experience.

Graham's StoryPart 4:

Home From the Hospital:

The Relief is Short-Lived; A Week Later He’s Admitted Again

By Skip Marsden, Special to the News & Record

Graham sat in his hospital bed at Duke, chattering endlessly, his bed strewn with puzzles, books and a dozen other toys.

“Oh, the sun’ll come out tomorrow…,” he sang in a shrill voice, not at all the same sick little boy we had admitted four days earlier. His temperature and blood pressure were normal; his spleen, once twice its normal size, had returned to normal; and, most importantly, he was his old cheery self again.

Maggie and I expected a much longer stay at Duke, but nurses and interns alike were alluding to the possibility of checking out soon.

We were somewhat ambivalent at the prospects of returning home. Should anything happen, we no longer would be able to press a button, or step into the hallway and flag down someone medically trained to deal with the situation. At Duke we had learned much about leukemia and chemotherapy, and the staff had worked hard to allay our fears; but the confidence within hearing distance, was something that would have to grow from day to day.

From the response of friends and family, we knew there would be plenty of support at home. We were literally heaped with cards and flowers and gifts for Graham, not to mention the phone inquiries as more of our friends heard of our situation.

The decision to discharge Graham lay in the hands of the hematology/oncology team. Its director, Dr. John Falletta, came in for a visit with Graham, followed by an entourage of interns and students.

Dr. Falletta has a British air about him: supremely confident, gentle-mannered and quiet-voiced. He is balding, with a precision-trimmed mustache, and dresses very properly in white physician’s jacket, dark slacks, shoes and socks. He exudes professional integrity, and his trail of would-be doctors obviously are in awe of him.

“Hello, Graham.” Falletta spoke to our 2-year-old son as though talking to an adult, without cutesy inflections or infant babble.

“I’m Dr. Falletta, and I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s a great pleasure to meet you.”

Silence from Graham, who busied himself attaching a ratchet piece to a toy drill he had received as a gift.

Falletta approached the bedside and leaned toward Graham, their faces inches apart.

“I’m going to examine you, and I’d like you to tell me if it hurts when I touch you. Will you do that?”

Armed with the drill, Graham smiled slyly and positioned the ratchet end squarely on Falletta’s dignified nose, then squeezed the trigger of the drill.


The ratchet whizzed around Falletta’s nose. Maggie and I howled with laughter, Falletta’s idolators tried to contain their shock, and Graham giggled hysterically. The unmussable physician took the drill from Graham and began his examination. From that point, Graham and Dr. Falletta were fast friends.

Next morning, to everyone’s delight, Graham’s IV was removed. Going to the bathroom, changing clothes, completing almost any normal function had been a major chore while the IV tubes were still attached.

We busied ourselves packing and saying our goodbyes to the many nurses whom we had come to love over the past few days: Wendy, Karmen, Kathy Fish (she wasn’t really a fish), Elizabeth, and others. Dr. Clayton, the intern assigned to Graham, who also had performed a number of sticks and pricks, dropped by to give us final instructions and to say goodbye. As he turned to leave, he hesitated, and Maggie caught his eye.

“I just wanted to say…” he said uneasily, “that you have a great family. Graham’s going to be just fine.” A tear formed in his eye, and he hurried down the hallway.

The ride home was joyous. Graham continued to rattle on, talking about Duke Hospital, the nurses, and “no more sticks!” every few minutes.

Maggie and I discussed what was going to happen at home, the changes everyone would have to make so life could continue without unnecessary strain.

Graham would have to be isolated, at least for a while, until his white cell count increased.

We would set up a chart for the administration of drugs, keep a record of his bowel movements and urination, and track his liquid intake. Jessica, Graham’s older sister, would have to be educated about leukemia. She could tell her friends and the neighborhood children why it was necessary for them to stay away from our house if they had colds, or why Graham was going bald, or had to wear a surgical mask from time to time. Luckily, the hospital had provided us one book especially prepared for children, with illustrations and text explaining leukemia and its treatment.

Arrangements had to be made with Montessori School teachers, and with Sunday school teachers – a thousand new details to concern ourselves with.

Homecoming reminded me of bringing a new infant home: gifts of food, visitors, phone calls. We were kept busy explaining our stay at Duke and Graham’s prognosis. Most people we talked to were surprised by our positive attitude, I think. They knew very little about leukemia and were amazed at the relatively unknown advances made against the disease over the past few years.

Also, Maggie and I were experiencing a sort of high, an exhilaration produced by a combination of the intensely emotional week we had experienced and the joy of returning home with with our son and with new hope.

It was ironic that we spent much of our time consoling others and trying to educate them, so that they could cope with our situation.

Graham’s first few days at home were good ones. He was in good spirits, and relatively active. We still hovered about him nervously, watching for signs that might tell of deteriorating health.

Graham bumped his eye with a toy car – we debated calling Duke.

He complained of stomach aches – we debated calling Duke.

The following Monday was our first outpatient visit to Duke for chemotherapy. The day before, Graham had been constipated, and Sunday night he had tossed and turned with stomach cramps. We were sure he would be admitted again.

The constipation was a normal reaction to his chemotherapy, we were assured, and the stomach cramps were probably a result of the constipation. We were given a prescription for a stool softener. He should begin regular bowel movements within a day.

Doing what most do at inpatient clinic: wait.
Photo by Joe Rodriguez

You cannot walk into any outpatient clinic for cancer patients without noticing the sobering side effects of chemotherapy. Thinning hair on both males and females makes it difficult to tell young boys from young girls. Here and there the more drastic signs: amputees, struggling to survive cancer.

We met a 15-year-old boy from Goldsboro who had been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia the same week as Graham. Lamar told us how he felt physically – something Graham could not yet do. He tired easily. His bones and joints often ached. Other than that, he felt normal, and he was anxious to return to school, to play basketball, to be with his friends.

The visit affected me deeply. Seeing the other patients, hearing the stories from weary-eyed parents, the reality of day-to-day life with a heinous disease pulled me out of my crystal palace. It was going to be a long and tough haul.

Tuesday, Graham seemed normal again. No complaints of stomach aches – nothing to give us concern. He played outside, riding his miniwheel on the front porch and singing loudly.

Wednesday he developed a fever. That was not uncommon with chemotherapy, and I went on to work. Nine o’clock that night Maggie called me at work. The fever had not abated but had reached 101 degrees, the warning level, and she had called Duke for instructions. They would call back.

At 10 o’clock she called again. “We’re going to Duke. Call home.”

It had been only one week since we had checked out of Duke Hospital. Graham lay in his bed, the IV once again fastened to his arm, his mother in bed beside him stroking his forehead with a damp cloth. I took a deep breath and sighed heavily. Where will the strength come from?

Graham’s Story, Part Two

25 Jul

Graham at Montessori school, finds an opportunity to help a classmate. Photos by Joe Rodriguez.

Graham’s Story, Part Two
by L. Stewart Marsden
(Reprinted by permission)

This is Part Two of a six-part series of articles I wrote about my eldest son, Graham. That was thirty years ago. Today Graham lives with his wife, Sarah, and their two dogs in Reston, Virginia. Today is a thousand million miles away from that experience.

— L. Stewart Marsden

Greensboro News & Record, vol.75 no.347, December 13, 1982

Skip and Maggie Marsden discovered a year ago that their 3-year-old son, Graham, has leukemia. The Marsdens were crushed by the news. Although they always hope for Graham’s improvement, the Marsdens have coped with his illness and learned to face a new way of life. Skip wrote Graham’s Story hoping others might also benefit from his family’s experience.

Graham's StoryPart 2:

At the Hospital, A Search For Answers Begins

By Skip Marsden, Special to the News & Record

People ask Maggie and me how we managed to cope during those first few days of Graham’s hospitalization and testing. It’s a difficult question to answer. One thing for sure — had not the staff and facility at Durham been so open and warm to us, I don’t think I would be writing about the experience.

From the doctors and nurses to the very design of the building, everything seems to work for one common goal: the physical and emotional healing of those who come for help. And Maggie and I were in very great need of emotional treatment.

We arrived at the pediatrics ward sometime after 9 Friday night. The ward was sparsely populated with patients, and we were greeted by nearly every nurse on duty. Karmen, one of the nurses, showed us to our room. It was surprisingly spacious, with a crib, a wall bed, sink and private bathroom.

Maggie requested the steel-barred crib be exchanged for a regular hospital bed; Graham, 2 was accustomed to sleeping in a twin bed. The switch was made with no resistance. As time went on, we found that rules were bent, and sometimes ignored, when it came to providing comfort for Graham.

While we settled, a troop of variously ranked interns filed in to talk with us. They besieged us with a multitude of questions, glancing at Graham and nodding or grunting as we answered. We recounted everything we could remember about the events of the past week, and prior to that.

No, we never suspected anything but a common cold, or a bout with summer flu.

Heart problems on her side. Gall bladder complications on mine. Allergies on both sides.

No X-rays during Maggie’s pregnancy. No childhood X-rays. No problem with him either medically or emotionally before now.

The bowel movement.

Graham had been constipated for nearly two days. When we arrived in the room he had to make a bowel movement. Karmen had told us not to flush it.

“Bowel movement!” they all seemed to state in unison. Then five interns squeezed into our bathroom, closing the door behind them.

Maggie and I looked at each other quizzically in disbelief, then broke out in laughter! We composed ourselves by the time they exited the bathroom, each writing as energetically as before.

Each physician, or physician-to-be (it was difficult figuring out), gave Graham a cursory examination, noting bruises, glandular swelling and the abdominal discomfort.

“Here’s the situation,” one of the interns finally announced. “Our job tonight is to stabilize Graham’s condition. He’s running a temperature and his blood pressure and heart rate are extremely high. The temp could be caused by an infection somewhere. The blood pressure and heart rate are related to the low number of red blood cells in his system. Red blood cells carry oxygen and food throughout the body, and when the number is reduced, the heart has to pump harder to compensate.

“We’re going to put him on an IV with fluids, and then give him blood, but the transfusion must be given slowly. Too much blood too fast could strain his heart badly.”

The long day was going to stretch into a long, long night.

Graham’s abdominal pains were coming in waves of 20 minutes or so, doubling him up with the intensity.

“We’ll have to X-ray him to see what’s going on. It’s probably his spleen. We can give him some Tylenol for the pain.”

The insertion of the IV was difficult because of Graham’s small veins, and not accomplished without a great deal of pain. Once in position, with solution flowing, the doctors carefully taped Graham’s arm to a gauze-covered board.

Tears drying on his cheeks, Graham eyed the contraption with great curiosity before finally exclaiming in a tiny voice:

“It looks like a bird! I got a wing on my arm!”

Initially, Graham feared each new medical procedure he faced. It’s understandable. Except for his childhood shots, the only pain he had ever experienced at the hands of doctors or nurses was stitches once. Now, for no reason apparent to him, he was being stuck or pricked or prodded every other minute. He responded by stretching out his arms and pleading in a pathetic voice, “I want you! I want you! I want you!” to either Maggie or me. If one of us was with him during treatment, he invariably called out for the other.

After his X-rays, Graham finally was allowed to sleep. It was well past midnight, and we were all exhausted. Graham coaxed his mother into bed with him, and she held him close as he fell into a fitful sleep. I sat silently in the recliner and watched them, mother and child, cuddling each other while the minutes ticked us into a new future.

Every 15 minutes a nurse came into the room to check his vital signs. Every 40 minutes Graham would twist in pain and call, “I want you!” Maggie cooed to him gently, “It’s all right,” until he slipped back to sleep.

The outside world was so very far away from our hospital room universe; yesterday eons in the past.

Graham’s Story — an invitation

24 Jul

Graham examines his sister, Jessica.

To those of you who have read anything on my blog in the past, I invite you to read “Graham’s Story,” a six-part reprint of articles that appeared in The Greensboro News & Record in Greensboro, NC, thirty years ago.

It is the true-life account of how my then 2+ year old son, Graham, came to be diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, and how he and our family dealt with it.

To go to Part One of Graham’s Story, click here.

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.

Graham’s Story to post beginning July 24, 2012

23 Jul

Exactly thirty years tomorrow, on July 24, my then two-plus year old son, Graham Ross Marsden, was diagnosed with suspected cancer: acute lymphocytic leukemia, ALL, to be exact.

Today, Graham lives with his wife, Sarah, and their two dogs in Reston, Virginia. She is part of the Reston homeowners association team, and he is at a director level with Northern Virginia Family Service.

That focused period of the battle for Graham’s life, about five years, is long past. But, rereading the words I wrote for this series that appeared in The Greensboro News & Record, in Greensboro, North Carolina, brings it all back home very quickly.

I wrote the story because I had to. It was a cathartic exercise that enabled me to walk through that arduous event.  I also had the satisfaction of knowing that many other parents in similar situations, whose stories never got told, would benefit as well.

Duke Pediatric Oncology Department reprinted the stories and made them available to the parents of cancer patients.

Parts of it appeared in a remedial reader in its first edition, “The Proficient Reader,” edited by Ira Epstein and Ernest Niertatka and published in 1984 by Houghton-Mifflin. I don’t think you can get a copy of that edition anymore.

News & Record staff photographer Joe Rodriguez shot the photos for the series. His wife, Mary, presented them to me in a special book for that Christmas. I still have them. They are the shots I present with the articles.

I invite you to follow the next six blogs beginning tomorrow. One blog per Part. Each of the stories appeared on the front page of the paper over six consecutive days beginning December 12, 1982.

The response was overwhelming.

L. Stewart Marsden, July 23, 2012