“I need you to pull over,” Mark was saying through her cellphone.
Pacing around the ER at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, he had thought hard about how to say what he was about to say, understanding the need to be both direct and upbeat. But all he could picture was her all alone by the side of a road, with no one to comfort her.
And all she could hear was: “Leukemia.”
“You hear that word,” she said recently, “and it’s only natural that your first thought is: How much longer does my son have to live?”
“As soon as I told her, I knew she was crying,” he recalled. “I could hear it in her voice. You could feel it through the phone. The best I could do was to try to say the right words. But at some point I had to hang up – because I had to go back to Tyler.”
Unable to get a flight out that night, Brenda called every member of her tight-knit family back in Iowa – her parents and five siblings – with the news. She flipped open her laptop and read everything she could find about childhood leukemia. She remembers laying down at some point. She doesn’t remember sleeping.
Her flight was at 7 a.m. She had a window seat, and turned her face into the window to hide her crying.
“In hindsight,” she said, “I probably needed that night [alone], because if I had been in my husband’s shoes, I’m not sure I could have been the rock for my son that night. And on the flip side, it allowed me to have that pity party all the way through the night and on that flight.
“And then I told myself, as soon as my husband picked me up and we were at Hopkins, this was going to be [all about] positive energy for my son.”
The new reality that had been thrust upon the family arrived like an avalanche. There were revelations too big to get their minds around, such as the fact that Tyler’s leukemia — which was discovered after their pediatrician, during a fairly routine visit, became concerned about his pale color and ordered a blood test — might have killed him had it gone undiagnosed another few weeks.
There was the realization they had gotten lucky, relatively speaking, in that Tyler’s specific form of leukemia was the most common in children and carried a survival rate of up to 90 percent.
For the next four nights, Brenda never left the hospital, sleeping with Tyler as his little body filled with chemotherapy drugs. Meantime, Mark and his parents, Joe and Lorie Thomas, tag-teamed Markus — who was older by half an hour and had scarcely spent more time than that in his young life away from his brother.
Less than a week after he was admitted, Tyler was released, and the whole family headed home, entering through the front door and into a time warp, everything in the house just as they had left it — the very picture of domestic tranquility. Could things ever be so peaceful, so centered again?