At breakfast on a spring morning, Gordy Drapp asked his mother, "Am I dying?"
All the times she'd heard that kind of question in a theatrical setting didn't prepare Jule Trapp for real life. Her 13-year-old son, sitting beside her, was wearing a stocking cap to cover the places his red hair was falling out. He had gained 30 pounds in one week and his face had an added puffiness from cortisone treatments.
"Yes, Gordy, you are," was all she could tell him.
Gordy Trapp and his parents, Gordon and Jule, had been through a long medical history together.
As it often had been and would be, Gordy was the one who was ready with an apt summary of his situation on that spring morning in 1974.
I'm a Christian. I guess death is not supposed to be so bad for us," he said.
That was Gordy's way. He didn't wallow in self pity and he didn't waste questions. For that reason the times he talked about his suffering have cut deeply into his parents' memories.
Gordy was in second grade when his worried parents began frequent visits to doctors about symptoms that had been dismissed earlier by pediatricians. He did not run or exercise easily, he had numbness on the right side of his face, he had light coffee-colored marks on his skin, and he vomited often.
Some doctors suggested his problems were all in his head, stress and anxiety he would outgrow. The skin marks were dismissed as freckles. One psychiatrist tested Gordy and opined he was all right but the problem could be his parents.
"We went through five years of agony from second grade on, knowing something was wrong but getting no confirmation from doctors," Jule Trapp said. "Then, in 1974, when we found out what it was, we felt no relief."
Within a half-hour after a specialist in glandular and nervous system disorders examined Gordy at Loyola University Medical Center, Recklinghauser's disease, a tumor or tumors at one or more nerve endings, was diagnosed.
He was unable to sleep and was vomiting and losing weight so rapidly, dropping from 85 pounds to 70 in January that the Trapps brought him back to Loyola for a complete examination in February 1974.
Doctors Alberts Hayek, who made the initial correct diagnosis, and Luis Yarzagaray, a neurosurgeon, told them Gordy had a lemon-sized tumor at the base of his brain. Such a tumor could cause loss of heart beat or respiration, they said, and it was causing Gordy's loss of sleep and vomiting.
The parents were told that although the tumor was benign in itself, it was harmful because it was pressing against the brain. They were also told it was inoperabe. Using cobalt to burn away the tumor was the only possible treatment, the doctors said. Even if it works, they said, the tumor grows back in 98 percent of the cases.
"What about the 2 percent?" July Trapp asked. There is documented proof of success, she was told.
Finally, Gordon and Jule were driven to the question they didn't want to ask: "How long does he have?"
Two years at the most, the doctors said. Realistically, less than six months, they warned.
When Jule Trapp went into her son's room, he didn't waste any questions. "What's the matter with me?" he asked. She told him it was a brain tumor, then was stunned by his response. "He actually chuckled," she recalled. "Well, they were right about one thing," he told me, remembering what the psychiatrists had said, 'It's in my head.'"
It was between hospital visits for cobalt and cortisone treatments that Gordy asked if he was dying.
When his condition deteriorated, and he began an ordeal of 100 hours of nausea and vomiting, he was rushed back to the hospital.
One night in the hospital, Gordon Trapp said, "Gordy told me from his bed, 'You know, dad, if I had a little boy and I couldn't help him live, I'd let him die.' It was like I'd been hit with an ax. He said he was only talking and didn't mean to upset me."
The next night, Jule Trapp stood beside her son's bed and touched him, then prayed, "Lord, you better take him. I can't stand it this way." Two mornings later, real life shattered the melodrama.
The medications began to alleviate the vomiting. Gordy was released from the hospital on May 18, 1974. There was also a release for his parents.
"We realized how strong he'd been, how little he'd complained, and he inspired us to rejuvenate our lives," Gordon said. The father entered law school in 1975 at age 40, and after 3 1/2 years at Lewis University College of Law in Glen Ellyn, Ill., passed the (Illinois) bar exam last year. He switched jobs, and is now a personnel manager for Central Telephone Co. Jule returned to school, was graduated from Wheaton (Ill.) College in 1977 and began teaching.
Gordon Matthew Trapp, age 18, shorter and younger-looking than his classmates who've had life a bit easier, plans to study computer science this fall at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill.
Doctors don't know if the brain tumor is gone for good. That means the Trapps don't know. But now they know something else. Having been so close to losing him, they aren't afraid to tell their son what he means to them.
Jule Trapp once wrote this for Gordy, and can recite it: "If God should choose to take you from my care, I would grieve because I love you. But you would leave a mother who is a far better person because you were her son."