"When I went to see the doctor on Aug. 2, they all were getting together to decide which treatment to put me on now. The choices: chemotherapy with vincristine and Cytoxan, radiation, a bone marrow transplant. The latter... consists of a few very heavy doses of vincristine and Cytoxan and total body irradiation to knock out all my bone marrow completely. Then I would get some bone marrow from my brother. And then I would be free of disease and live happily ever after. If the transplant would take. If not -- poor, poor me."
Thus writes Scott Ipswitch in this account of his five-year battle with Hodgkin's disease and his death at the age of 15.
Written by Scott's mother and relying heavily on the notebooks Scott kept throughout his illness, "Scott Was Here" is, perhaps inevitably, a book about Monster Medicine: the long waits in clinics crowded with terminally ill children, the hospital bureaucracy that always seems mindless in extremis , the horrible argot of cancer and its treatment where "bone scans" and "biopsies" fill the background like a Greek chorus.
"We have classified Scott's disease at Stage Four B [the worst of all possible classifications]," one of the doctors tells the Ipswitches after Scott's first, "staging" operation. "Scott's case will be presented at the next Tumor Board."
Inevitably, too, "Scott Was Here" is a book about how cancer twists not a single life but a whole system, a book about the subsidiary victims of catastrophic, long-term illness: Scott's identical twin, who wakes time and again in the middle of the night to see if his brother is all right: Scott's mother, who talks with the other clinic mothers "about Wihn's tumor and Ewing's tumor and histiocytosis and neuroblastoma the way other women talk about specials at the supermarket"; Scott's father, who must decide whether to sustain his son on a heart machine after everything else is lost.
"Scott Was Here" also is a book about hope and illusion -- about grasping at straws in the wind, the mirages that haunt the families of ferminally ill patients, at times cruelly comic as when Scott and his mother visit the faith healer, Kathryn Kuhlman:
"At one point, Kathryn Kuhlman, who was up on a stage in front of us, said 'Someone here today is being healed of cancer right this very moment.' My hopes quickened and I leaned over to Scott. 'Are your nodes going down?' I asked. He was fingering them. 'Not yet,' he said."
And it is a book about the particulars of the institutional beast, the wonderfully caring doctors and nurses who treat Scott at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.
Finally, though, this is a book about remarkable courage.
"He had an uncanny feeling for the bravery of men under stress," an older friend says of Scott Ipswitch; and that illuminates this book -- in Scott's nearly uncompromising refusal to pity himself, in the easy, dark humor of his journals, in the plain tough-mindedness of the third of his life Scott lived with Hodgkin's disease.
"I'm tired," Scott writes. "I hurt. I have double pneumonia, bronchitis, mononucleosis, two elusive antibodies, a head cold. My Mom is in the hospital [to have a malignant breast tumor removed] and I just got out of the hospital. If things keep up like this, I just might get discouraged."
One comes to a book like "Scott Was Here" almost expecting to be embarrassed -- things too personal and too tender will be told; too much will be revealed unintentionally -- and some of that happens here Elaine Ipswitch is a mother, not a writer. She is informed by a faith simple enough to grant, in the end, God's design in the destruction of her child; and she is in many other ways more given to accepting than questioning. But she is also an honest woman; and it is that honesty, taken with Scott's courage, which makes this book more than the other minings of private disaster that fill the shelves these days, more even than the sum of its parts.
"This story is not complete." Scott writes in his notebook. "I could never write a complete story. There is too much pain, too many things I can remember. So many things. I could never write them all down." His mother has made a good try at finishing for him.