By Mike Wise
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
The little boy knew the shot was coming. That's what made Joe Gibbs wince the most.
Taylor lay across his mother's torso, waiting for the doctor's needle to inject anesthesia into the small port surgically cut into his tiny, 2-year-old chest. The child seemed to make himself a bargain: If he could just withstand the pain he could get all better, go home and take a walk with grandpa.
Before another round of treatment to tame the leukemia in his body -- before the chemotherapy borrowed his blond locks and the steroids made the boy bloated and ornery -- Taylor Gibbs looked at his grandfather bravely as the medicine put him to sleep.
"He'd get the shot in his port and he'd go, 'Oh no,' " Gibbs said.
Gibbs grew quiet as he recalled his grandson's odyssey this past year. He stood and walked behind the desk of his Ashburn office to retrieve a photo of the youngster, which he put next to him on the sofa.
"It about broke your heart," he said. "He would just be layin' there, across Melissa's chest. He knew what he had to go through and just accepted it."
Gibbs had seen fortitude up close before, but it usually came from the professional football players he coached, special athletes who did not want their leader to see them as weak or feeble in the face of injury. So they played on, through incredible physical pain.
But Taylor was something else, this little child combating this awful disease that sent Gibbs's circle of family and friends reeling last January when the leukemia was diagnosed. Within a month after taking the feverish and pale child to a family physician, they found out that Taylor's strain of the disease, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, fell in the middle range of seriousness and that a great success rate for survival was possible.
But the protocol phase of recovery -- eight months of intense medical treatment -- followed. And sandwiched between came a major scare. Taylor's white blood cell count fell last spring, leading to a retest. "Twenty-four hours of not knowing," said J.D. Gibbs, Taylor's father and Joe Gibbs's eldest son. "It was a really bad sign. We all went through that."
The boy is 3 today and doing much better. His spiky blond crop has returned. He doesn't have to live in the family's basement in North Carolina, either, where Melissa Gibbs would often spend seven hours straight with her ailing son. He can now come up and play freely with his three older brothers.
On Sunday, he will be at FedEx Field to see if the Washington Redskins can beat the Dallas Cowboys and go to the playoffs. Actually, that's inaccurate. Taylor is coming to see his grandpa, the 67-year-old man whom a little boy taught more about hope and resilience than any player Joe Gibbs has ever coached.
"I just remember the courage he had," Gibbs said. "You think about courage and you think about adults and tough guys. Me being a tough guy, things like that. Here was a little guy that was 2, knowing when he got in the car to go to that hospital what was going to happen."
Now it is less than a month after Sean Taylor died from a gunshot wound in Miami, a death that emotionally rocked Gibbs and the Redskins. It is the day after Christmas. Nothing makes Gibbs feel more blessed -- or put him in touch with his own mortality -- than seeing his grandson alive and healthy.
"You go through life and your grandbabies are healthy and your kids are healthy and you have a tendency of thinking, 'This is the way life is,' " Gibbs said. "And then it gets interrupted. What happened with Sean had such a big impact around here. I mean here's a 24-year-old. The rest of his life was just snuffed out. It causes you stop and think, 'Where am I going to spend eternity?' "
Taylor is the youngest of J.D. and Melissa's four sons. His older brothers, Jackson, 9, Miller, 8, and Jason, 5, were essentially quarantined from seeing their brother during the protocol phase of the treatment. They lived upstairs and Taylor lived in the basement, and when the other boys went down they had to make sure they had on surgical masks to prevent Taylor from any possible germs that might cause infection.
Next to the needles puncturing him with so much medication so often those first eight months, next to the nausea and the hair loss, that was probably the easiest part of fighting cancer of the white blood cells.
Taylor recently moved into the maintenance phase of the disease, a two-year remission stage. He is now in the midst of a 12-week cycle that is much less grueling than the protocol phase. He will still have spinal taps to receive intrathecal chemotherapy and have a number of medications injected into the port in his chest. There will still be a five-day pulse of steroids, which can turn a normally rambunctious child into a little hellion.
But that's better than the last cycle. Taylor jumped from 27 to 37 pounds on the steroids during the first months of protocol treatment. "All they want to do is eat because they're miserable and ornery," J.D. said. "He was insane, up all the time. He was throwing stuff and screaming. It was like he was possessed. You look back now at some of the videos, now you kind of laugh."
One video in particular was shown when Joe Gibbs and his wife, Pat, visited in the fall for Taylor's birthday. It showed Taylor in various forms during his treatment, interspersing verses of biblical scripture and images of he and his brothers, overlaid with inspirational music.
"The video kind of got to me emotionally because it showed all the things he had done and been through, all the things I missed," Gibbs said. "It's one of those things, when you're closing in on the end of your life at some point, it's not going to be, 'I wish I spent more time coaching a football team,' it's going to be all the things you missed."
Gibbs said he had regrets about the time he spent with his own parents at the end of their lives. "I could have done so many more things for them that I didn't do," he said. "My dad, I could've flown him back here. I could have done a lot of things. His life was in California and I was back here. You roar through life with your own family and just get so caught up."
When Joe Gibbs can't see his grandson in person, he communicates with him via a Webcam in his office and corresponds regularly with his son and daughter-in-law. After a rough loss for the Redskins earlier this season, "J.D. wrote me a note, and he said, 'If it makes you feel any better, Taylor called them poopheads,' " Gibbs said, laughing. "So he's on our side."
Said J.D. Gibbs, "I really think for my dad and what the whole team has gone through this year -- Sean, the struggles with the season -- it's given him time to see what's true and important."
On a Web site detailing Taylor's experiences and monitoring his progress, family and friends write encouraging messages, many of which are read aloud to the little boy.
"I KNOW YOU ARE NOT OLD ENOUGH TO READ BUT MOMMY AND DADDY CAN HELP," one from January says. A recent post reads: "I LOVE your new hair!!"
Since the ordeal began last January, 3,100 messages have been left for Taylor. The most touching words, though, are penned by his mother.
"His threshold for frustration, pain, annoying siblings, etc. is quite small," Melissa writes to readers in a holiday greeting. "But I remember what it was like doing the long runs of steroids and I rejoice in such minor inconveniences."
She adds: "In a bizarre way, I miss the intensity of the early days after diagnosis, when I needed nothing but my Bible and my husband and family. Nothing crowded out prayer time and Bible study. There was no room for petty arguments. Every conversation dripped with significance. Watching a sitcom would have seemed ridiculous. For that brief season, the "fat" was trimmed out of our lives and what was left, was awesome."
Along the path of Taylor's recovery, the Gibbses met other families whose children were suffering from one form of cancer or another -- including the family of an 11-year-old boy named Nate, who passed away earlier this year.
"We're in there, and there were kids that don't make it," J.D. said. "Your faith keeps you going but it doesn't give you relief from the real world."
Gibbs, who had met Nate and many other ill children, said Taylor's ordeal made "Pat and I realize all the kids who don't get the care he did. It made us want to do something more about it. Every time I see Taylor, I think that."
Gibbs paused, adding, "It's hard to believe a little 3-year-old can be an inspiration, but he has been to us."
To those praying for her son, Melissa writes: "Enjoy your holiday and count your blessings. Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. I have seen death this year like never before and many grieving parents need our prayers. Most prayed just as fervently as we did for our son, and yet they have an empty chair at the table."
"Taylor is alive now, not because our prayers were better or because God loves him more, but because that was His unexplainable, mysterious, sovereign will."