Ben Will Be Two

Ben Will Be Two

By Abbe Walter

Art BenBen will be 2 in two weeks. He is walking around the house with a book that sings the nursery rhyme “Rock-a-bye baby” when you open it. A different line sung for each page turned. He never keeps it open past the first page. Open, shut, open shut, open, shut. Rock-a-bye-baby! Rock-a-bye-baby! Rock-a-bye-baby! My 3-month-old Jake is napping in his crib and the August sun is pouring in thick like butter through the living room windows. At 9:00 a.m. sharp the phone rings. My stomach drops. My husband Brian looks at me from the next room. I take a deep breath and say hello, meeting Brian’s eyes. Brian immediately picks up the other extension in time to hear Dr. Khan ask me if someone is there with me, and me saying yes.  “OK, good,” Dr. Khan says. “I’m so sorry but the blood tests we did yesterday, well, it looks like Ben has cancer, most likely leukemia.

Brian drops the phone and collapses against the living room wall onto the floor crying, instantly, gasping for breath. I can hear him in stereo, through the phone and through the house. Dr. Khan says I can hear you are not alone, that is good. (Brian later tells me his first thought was that Ben was going to die. For some reason, death did not enter my mind at that moment though it certainly haunted me so many times in the years that followed.) I have no thoughts or feelings and I do not shed a tear. I am aware that I am not crying, but I don’t know why, and I quickly think that I should be crying. But I am not. I am numb, floating above myself, watching from somewhere else, hearing Dr. Khan speak, not understanding, not absorbing. Yet I realize that I am asking questions about how to proceed. Where do we go? What do we do?

I am staring at Ben, who is walking around with his book. Rock-a-bye baby! Rock-a-bye-baby! Rock-a-bye-baby!

One of us calls our parents, I don’t recall whom. Brian’s parents will come to our house to watch Jake and my dad will meet us at the hospital. Brian’s parents arrive; everyone is hugging each other except for me. They are hugging me. I am not hugging. They are all crying. I am not crying. I am staring at Ben. I am imploding.

By 10:30 a.m. Ben is admitted to New York University Medical Center. Ben needs to have an IV put in. I don’t understand why he needs an IV and I’m afraid it will hurt him.  They take us into a small room. No windows. Ben is sitting on my lap and I am holding him and kissing the top of his head. Brian is standing next to us, his hand on my shoulder, a hand on Ben.  A doctor attempts to access a vein. Ben screams. Tears spring from Ben’s eyes, from my eyes. The doctor shakes her head and says, it didn’t work, let’s try again. She tries again, shakes her head again and says shoot. I ask what’s wrong. She explains how his veins are so tiny and so fragile. The veins often collapse. It can be tricky, she says. I ask if there’s anyone else who can try.

At 11:30 a.m. there have been so many pokes and so many collapses, so much screaming and so much crying, that I am certain Ben, Brian and I have all been permanently punctured. Now there is a small army of doctors and nurses in the small room and I am incredibly hot. Sweating. By now, the room is totally dark except for Ben’s beautiful little arm, glowing translucent red with tiny blue veins, magically illuminated by a special light they brought in, and the fluorescent glow of the fish tank against the wall, meant to be calming, soothing, relaxing, distracting.

I want to smash my head right through that tank and scream. I want to crawl out of my skin. I want this to stop. Rewind. I want them to leave my baby alone. I ask again if the IV is really necessary right now, and everyone looks at me, some sadly smiling. By now it’s all been explained to us more than a few times by more than a few doctors. Your son has leukemia. He needs to start chemo today. First step is the IV. We need to get started. There is no choice.

I recoil at the thought. I don’t want them to put that poison inside my beautiful, perfect, innocent baby boy. I am sick with worry about the effects the chemo will have on his young body and his developing brain, the effect this experience will have on his life. What had been his life. What his life is supposed to be.  What his life was supposed to have been. I am struck with the realization that life is forever changing right now. Now. That they are stealing my son from me in order to save him and he will never be the same and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. There is no choice.

Ben is once again struggling against the looming IV needle and a team of nurses, doctors and techs are holding him down. My jaw is clenched and my blood is racing, heart deflating. Another poke. Another scream. Another collapse.

“No more, mama,” Ben says.

I need this to stop. I am yelling at the doctors and nurses to just get someone, an expert, someone who can successfully access my baby’s veins and just get this done.

I need this to stop. Can’t somebody just do this?

I have lost track of time in that small, dark room. Ben has stopped struggling. He is limp, damp, staring deeply into my eyes with his big baby blues. His strawberry blond hair clings to his forehead. I cling to his small, chubby hand. My mouth is so dry. I want to say I am sorry to him but I cannot speak.  My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. I am desiccated.

A short while later the doctors and nurses finally get the IV in, and they cheer, happy and triumphant, smiling at us, as if we feel the exact same way.

Author note: Ben will be twelve. He is almost as tall as me, is sweet as sugar, laughs the loudest laugh and still has the most beautiful blue eyes in the world. Ben was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia over 9 years ago. He was treated for 3 years and 2 months, and is considered cured. I know that childhood cancer is one of those dark fears nobody really wants to think about. I understand you. This essay was written as an invitation to take just a peek. Maybe understand those of us who have gone through it. And those who still are fighting the fight.

About the Author:  Abbe Walter lives with her husband and four children in Connecticut, where she also works and writes. She is a practicing clinical psychologist who has been published in various scientific journals. This essay is her first non-academic publication.  

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Something Borrowed

Something Borrowed

By Melissa Scholes Young

Art Something Borrowed v2I once stood on my neighbor’s doorstep in the pouring rain asking to borrow a rectal thermometer.  We shared a graveled alley between our bricked bungalows in the historic district of Ohio University’s backyard.  Most mornings I sat on our cement back stoop sipping hot coffee and reading our college newspaper. My neighbor stood in her kitchen window washing dishes, packing school lunches, kissing kids good-bye. I wanted her life, but I wanted it before I was ready. Her mundane seemed so manageable from my safe distance.

“I don’t know,” I said through the screened door. I’d interrupted their Saturday evening dinner. My shirt was soaked from rain and spotted with breast milk. “I’m afraid the baby has a fever.  She seems so hot to me.” My baby was two weeks old. I drank coffee cold now and hadn’t read the paper since her birth. I couldn’t sleep, even when the baby did.  I made my husband set alarms and we rested in shifts so one of us was always awake vigilantly monitoring breathing patterns.  I didn’t know then that a rectal thermometer, like a picture perfect life, isn’t something you borrow.  It’s really yours or it’s mine; it’s never ours.  You don’t give it back.

My neighbor called later to ask about the baby.  She was ten years older with three kids of her own. She made it look so easy. “Something’s just not right,” I told her. “I’m just scared something’s wrong.” She went down a list of symptoms.  My answers were vague.  I didn’t actually know how to use the rectal thermometer.  I suspected but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t know the difference between Olympic sleep deprivation and mothering instincts.  I didn’t know that becoming a parent was something you had to grow into. Everything merited a panic attack.  The baby coughed in the middle of the night, I Googled croup.  She fell asleep nursing, I read up on failure to thrive. I kept minute-by-minute logs of her feedings and charts of bowel movements. I thought that’s what a mother did; I thought my overreaction was vigilant love. I was a mess.  “I’ll send Michael over after dinner,” my neighbor said.  Oh, to be married to a pediatrician, I thought, then I could sleep at night.  I’d have all the answers.

Michael crossed the back alley and arrived at our door with his doctor’s bag, as if Saturday evening house calls were just neighborly courtesy.  We walked to the couch together, me holding my sleeping newborn.  “May I?” he asked, indicating the baby.  I cradled her head carefully as Michael lifted the baby from my arms.  He put his knees together as a makeshift examining table and began unraveling her layers. “In April they don’t quite need this many blankets,” he said in a whisper. “That may be why she felt so hot to you.” He leaned over and pressed his lips to her forehead. “She doesn’t feel feverish.  Your lips will know.  Also, you can always feel the back of the neck and the thigh.  If she has a fever, you’ll know without a thermometer.”  Michael undressed my baby, examining her every inch, re-swaddling inspected parts along the way so that her whole body was never exposed.  He massaged her with his hands, rubbing his thumbs on her smooth skin, applying pressure to her belly, turning her neck back and forth.  Blood rushed to the baby parts he touched; white dotted skin became pink.  My baby slept through it all.  Michael asked questions about her feedings, her diapers, and my own lack of sleep.  He palmed her fontanel, looked in her ears and up her nose. He moved in slow motion, as if the exam were one well-practiced routine with order and efficiency.  Finally, he put on a fresh diaper, swaddled her masterfully in a light summer blanket with sharp creases and tucked corners, and handed her back to me.  “She’s perfect,” he said.  He packed up his doctor bag, put back on his ball cap, and walked to the door.  “The next time she cries, nurse her and than take her for a drive. You could both use the air.”  My eyes welled up.  I had actually believed I was keeping it all together. “Parenting is hard,” Michael added. “You’ll get on the other side of this.  You’ll know.”  He touched my shoulder briefly, turned his back, and walked out the door.  I watched him from the back stoop and waved a thank you to his wife who was waiting in her kitchen window. She couldn’t see my cheeks burning with embarrassment or hear the sobs I smothered in the baby’s blanket, but she probably already knew that you’re never really ready to become a mother. One day you just say ‘yes’ and the rest is on the job training.  Yes, the baby was perfect but I didn’t have to be.

And so we followed the doctor’s orders.  The next time our baby fussed, we drove her to the Zaleski State Forest, 25 miles west of Athens.  I sat in the passenger seat weeping at what I felt was my incompetence as a mother, my worries, my worrying about worrying, my impossible standards, my raging hormones, all that I didn’t know.  When we pulled up to the iron gates of the state park, my husband asked, “It’s closed.  What now?”  We both turned to look at our sleeping baby in the back seat.  Her hands were clenched in balled fists by her ears.  Spider veins throbbed through the translucent skin of her sealed eyelids. He turned the car around on Highway 50 and started back home. I rested my head on the passenger seat window, exhausted and spent, and closed my eyes for the ride.

About the Author: Melissa Scholes Young was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s beloved hometown, and she teaches writing at American University in Washington, D.C. She is a recovering high school English teacher and spent a few years teaching in Brazil. She holds an MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University, and her work has been published in Tampa Review, Word Riot, New Madrid, Yalobusha Review, and other literary journals. Melissa is currently at work on her first novel. Read more of Melissa’s work at or laugh at the antics of her children at