For the Southerland family of Miami, cancer is no longer an unspoken terror. The father and all three of the children have had the disease; one son died of it 12 years ago. In responding to their tragedy, they have demonstrated the grace of heroes. Their story, in the end, is one of personal triumph.
RAY SOUTHERLAND was stopped recently by an acquaintance and asked, in the sober, quiet tone that indicates the question is more than just small talk, "How are you doing?" He responded with an odd joke: "Not so bad," he said, smiling, shrugging his shoulders in an exaggerated fashion. "Not bad at all, considering that the whole family has cancer."
Of all the Southerlands, he seems most troubled by what has happened to his family. It is evident in his joking, which grows more frantic and more frequent the worse he feels. "I have to joke. It's the only way I know to ward off the friction."
A month or so earlier, on the afternoon of Mar. 19, the pilot of Delta flight 227, due to arrive in Miami at 5:32, took to the intercom and in routine pilot's voice delivered this message: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special guest aboard the plane this afternoon, Mike Southerland. Mike's headed home to Miami after a cancer operation at a hospital in Cincinnati. It is Mike's kind of courage that gives us all courage."
Michael Southerland, 14, was stretched out flat over two first-class seats, staring at the clouds.He wore a body cast, brightly painted to resemble a tuxedo. Its sturdy gaiety was in touching contrast to its mission: The sealing in place of a new vertebra, replacing a cancerous one. The new bone had been invented from steel rods and from the two floating ribs in the teenager's back, in a surgical procedure the doctors called "pioneering."
Mike Southerland was a little worried about how he looked, and just before the plane landed he put on a cap to hide his hair, which has temporarily lost some of its shine and thickness because of chemotherapy. He knew the television cameras would be there to document his homecoming; they had been there for his father Ray and his brother Steve after their operations.
"How does this hat look?" Michael asked his mother Jane who, gathering the baggage, did not hear. "Mom," said the boy, this time more insistently, "Does this hat look OK?" "It looks fine, Mike," said his mother, in her soft Midwestern accent.
As the plane landed, the Miami evening newscasts were interrupted to announce the boy's homecoming. Mike's older brother Steve would later tease him about how he must be something special:
"They interrupted the news to say you were home just like it was the president landing at Camp David or in the Mideast."
The boy was lifted off the plane on a stretcher by two muscled rescue workers. He was set down on the floor and, facing the glare of camera lights, talking into a cluster of microphones, he answered their questions.
How do you feel?
"I'm glad to be home."
What's the first thing you're going to do?
"Say hello to my dog."
Are you looking forward to any special foods, Mike?
"In the morning I want my Mom's homemade pancakes for breakfast."
They call themselves the cancer family. They have made medical history because of their unusual genetic susceptibility to the disease. All three of the Southerland children have had cancer, and the cancers have been of obscure, statistically rare varieties. (Jane Southerland: "Statistics don't mean a thing when you're the percentage that gets it.") Jeff Southerland died in 1967 at age 4 1/2 of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Steve, 19 next week, is finishing up his freshman year at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In 1974, his left leg was amputated: osteogenic sarcoma. Mike had a rare cancer of the nerve lining near his spine 10 years ago: bilaterial malignant neurilemoma. He was in remission for a decade before he was diagnosed this January as suffering from a bone cancer of the vertebra, which doctors think may have resulted from the extensive radiation treatments he had as a child. In 1976, Ray Southerland had a brain tumor removed.
It is a catalogue of horrors, the quintessential 20th-century nightmare. The Southerlands are an extraordinary family, and not only because of their uniquely brutal medical history. They have also known a unique resilience, a Job-like refusal to be broken by what many of us regard as the ultimate malevolence: the body betraying itself, a slow treason of bad cells attacking good.
They are, on one level, a stereotypical American family: nice-looking, sports-minded, hard-working; two parents, two children, two cars, a house in the suburbs, father a policeman. It is as if the Waltons had cancer. "We are not larger than life," says Jane Southerland. "We are just like everybody else." Yet if fear of cancer is the secret, unspoken, obscene fear that binds us all, then the Southerlands are different because familiarity has replaced fear. "You don't have to pussyfoot about cancer in this house," says Ray Southerland. "We done been there and back." To the Southerland family, the horrible has become routine, the frightening, ordinary. They have, in a way, domesticated the monster: they are a family that refuses to die.
"Most people can imagine it happening only once," says Jane Southerland, 39 years old, a tall, striking woman. She is the only Southerland not to have suffered from the disease. "Cancer is pretty scary to all of us. The word is scary, but it is just a word. There are other illnesses just as bad, just as deadly. The thing about cancer is that it doesn't know any barriers: rich, poor, young, old. If it's inherited, then we all inherit it. Some of us have it more than others, that's all."
For each of the victims, invisibly, innocently, it began.
For Jeff, the boy who died, leukemia was first suspected during a routine doctor's visit when anemia was noted.
Mike's first tumor was discovered the day before Jeff died; his mother noticed a bump on his back.
Steve was outside, playing football. His leg hurt, and the family, thinking it was a pulled muscle, applied an Ace bandage.
Ray had several fainting spells.
Mike, last fall, felt an ache in his side. His normally perfect swimming form had undergone subtle changes.
"Boom," says Ray Southerland. "It hits."
"Cancer is a taboo. People are so fearful they don't want to hear about it, about its existing. They want to think it isn't here. It is the most feared thing there is. Yet the causation is everywhere. Sweet 'n Low. Hair dryers. Diet soda. Chemicals. The sun does it. So should we abolish the sun? If we did, we'd all get moon cancer, no doubt. It can come anywhere on you. You say, I've got a pain down here. It comes without warning. It sneaks in at night. Boom, it hits."
According to Steve, the family historian, the longest the family has gone without an interview in the past five years is four months. The parents remember refusing only one paper, the National Enquirer, and Ray Southerland remembers censoring one television crew. "They asked if they could shoot Steve's stump after the opartly because of the ignoble voyeuristic way in which many take a kind of cheap comfort in learning that others are worse off. "I don't want anybody's sympathy," says Steve Southerland, in a sentiment echoed by the rest of the family. "I want their respect."
There is something stunning about the way in which the family has responded to the tragedy. On television, they come across as incredibly appealing people, ordinary people who have demonstrated the grace of heroes, the courage of survivors. At the National Cancer Institute, scientists have studied tissue cultures and blood samples from the family, trying to crack the secret of what they have called "cancer gene susceptibility." The tendency to develop cancer has been traced to Ray Southerland's side of the family; doctors have not been able to clarify the mechanism by which this disposition is transmitted. The hope, of course, is that somehow this family will help in the search for a cure. What scientists have failed to study is the equally unusual psychological chemistry. For if the Southerlands have been hurt in a way that is unspeakable, they have healed in a way that is awesome.
"One of the remarkable things about this family is that they have been able to share their experience in a way that is positive, that shows their courage and that gives others the realization that if you have cancer you don't have to die," says Dr. William Blattner of the National Cancer Institute. Along with five other researchers, he wrote an article about the Southerlands that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical association in January of this year entitled "The Genealogy of Cancer in a Family."
This could break a family, says Dr. Beatrice Lampkin of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital, an oncology pediatrician who has worked with the family over the past 10 years. "And understandably, it is amazing that they have been able to maintain such an outgoing attitude."
"We are not morbid," says Jane Southerland. "We don't live expecting it to happen. There is not a single member of my family who wants to give up a single day to unhappiness."
The family presents a united front. But, lost in the airport news conferences and frequent newspaper headlines has been the personal impact of this tragedy on each member, how each has tried to cope, to protect one another, and as much as possible, to forgive the force that has filled their days with uncertainty and pain. The Southerlands have many stories to tell, but ultimately, perhaps even improbably, each has a story of individual triumph.
Michael Southerland is sometimes jokingly called the "Indian" by the rest of his family. He is the quiet one in a family of talkers. Once, when he was 8 or 9, his parents took him to Mailman's Children Center for an evaluation because he was so quiet.
"I told them I would rather think, that's all," says Michael, who remembers being evaluated in a room with a big mirror which he thinks now must have been a fake window. "There was probably somebody behind it observing me and I wish now I'd walked up and waved at the person and said 'Hi there,' with a big smile."
One day last fall, Michael, a member of the swim team at Arvida Junior High School, was practicing his backstroke. The coach noticed that instead of lying prone, Mike's legs seemed to be dragging. "Coach Tim said if I didn't straighten out, 'I'll get three boys bigger than you to hold you under water for a minute.' "
Mike quit the team that day, and arrived home in tears. His father, hearing the story, immediately stormed down to the school and told the coach, "Hey, you can't speak to my son that way. That kind of thing don't work on my son."
The swimming pool incident was the first hint that something might be physically wrong. And by December, the ache in Mike's side had grown to the extent that he had to sleep sitting up. The initial X-rays, done in Miami, showed nothing wrong.When the pain continued to grow, the family decided to take Mike to Cincinnati where he had been hospitalized 10 years ago and where Steve had also been treated, five years ago. Doctors there discovered a tumor of the bone in the same site where he had had cancer of the nerve linings previously. After the surgery in February, Michael was put in a body cast. The cast had a blue bow tie, a bright red carnation, a vest and a watch with a gold chain, permanently set at 3:30.There was something dapper and brave about the cast which was belied by the pale, narrow, serious face. Recently the body cast was removed and Michael was refitted with a smaller cast, extending from shoulders to waist. He can walk again. But he is now back in Cincinnati for chemotherapy and further checks.
Since the operation Michael thinks he has lost 20 pounds, and the doctors have told him he is an inch and a half shorter.
Until last December, Michael had the goals of many boys his age. He wanted to dance better than John Travolta, and he used to practice Travolta's moves from "Saturday Night Fever" endlessly. He was a fastidious dresser and he styled his thick dark hair to look exactly like the movie star. Athletics were of supreme importance to him, as they were to his older brother: the body behaving as perfectly tuned mechanism, capable of grace and efficiency. Both had chosen swimming as their sport, and Michael recently won a bronze medal in the county-wide junior Olympics. He wanted, above all, to be a champion: "Everybody's hoping on me to be in the Olympics." Eventually, his desire was to get into Georgia Tech and build dream houses. Some day, he wanted enough money to be able to purchase his favorite car, a 1957 Thunderbird. His immediate goals have changed.
He wants his hair to grow back right.
He would like to walk again.
Most of all, he wants to survive.
Michael says he tries not to remember bad things. His first battle with cancer is recalled by the trinkets his family always had waiting for him after each cobalt treatment.
"Our family went on trips, you know. For a while, we had a Winnebago. Once we went across country, and after we left each place, a natural disaster hit. There was snow in the Grand Canyon in June, hail in Iowa."
He calls himself a '50s fiend. "I like everything about the '50s: d.a.'s, sock hops, the way they drove around, roller skating. I didn't like the '60s, especially the Beatles. They were popular when Jeff died."
He says the hardest part about being sick is "just lying here, being plain bored. I can't do anything.
"I really look up to my brother Steve. He took all the pain and agony. It takes a lot out of a person. It takes a lot of person to do it. He can do it. I can do it. Before the operation, they had a news conference at the hospital and there were all these lights and cameras. I told them my brother was my idol, and I had a pun. I said, 'He's sort of my backbone.' Everybody laughed.
"My Mom is an incredible woman. She has never broken down. She takes the bad times, and she makes the bad times good. She stays with me in the hospital, she stayed with me both times. She went through Jeff. Most mothers would probably crack.
"My dad is pretty strong, too. He is our worker, our feet. Whenever anybody's sick, he runs around and gets things, such as my warm-up suit." Ray Southerland had purchased a cominghome outfit for Mike and sent it out to the hospital in Cincinnati. It is a Pierre Cardin warm-up suit with a light blue top and darker blue pants. Michael thought it was A-OK: "Dad had a pretty good eye." What if his father had shown less than perfect taste? Michael smiled. The answer was swift, firm and overwhelmingly normal. "I'd a killed him."
In the Southerland family, there is a great ethic of truth. Jane Southerland insists on discussing the chances for survival with the doctors in front of each patient, something she has noticed makes many doctors uncomfortable. Right before his recent surgery, Mike turned to his father and asked, flat out, "Am I going to die?"
"We'll fight it to the end," said his father.
Mike asked his mother to write this message on a piece of adhesive tape and stick it to his spine, a message to the surgeons to watch their step:
"Please don't forget I am a swimmer."
As he was being taken into the operating room the boy told his father:
"No matter how it goes, I want you to pin my bronze medal on me afterwards."
In 1974, the doctors gave Steve Southerland a 10 percent chance of survival. Today, he is a handsome, strong-looking college freshman who stands 6-foot-2. With his artificial leg, he walks almost perfectly and he is proud that strangers often mistake his limp for nothing more than a hip problem.
Steve was the third son to get cancer, and it was his battle with the disease that led doctors to study the family. Every time he hears about a breakthrough in the struggle to cure cancer, he hopes that the research on his family led to the discovery. "I hope we are responsible for a vaccine someday. I hope that what we have been through is not for naught."
Since 1974, he has kept a diary which he hopes will become a book. It is called "Nowhere to Run," after something his father once said, "We can't run from this. Where are you going to run to?" The diary is dedicated "to those teenagers and children who have died who I've been associated with and known: Tommy, Mary, Harold, Allen, Teresa and most of all for my brother Jeff."
"My first goal," says Steve, "was to be a football player, but then, with the loss of the leg, I more or less got down to academics. One-legged football players are not the kind of thing that's catching on." He is planning on becoming a lawyer.
He says that when his leg was removed his mother made him to learn to walk again. "We were in the hospital in Cincinnati and I kept crying like a baby and saying it hurt and I could not do it. My mother kept saying, 'You're not going home until you walk,' She made me keep trying. I consider my mother the strongest woman I have ever met. Without Mom, this whole family would fall apart."
For two seasons, Steve was a member of the Killian High School's championship swim team.
His former coach, Pat Toner, says: "There was no charity involved. Steve was treated just like everybody else. He got hollered at just as much. The other kids really admired him; he provided a lot of spirit. He beat a lot of kids and I am sure they felt bad about it. He was just another person, that's it. I am looking forward to having his younger brother on the team. They are good kids."
Steve's diary begins:
"I was born on May 18, 1960, in a small town in western Indiana called Terre Haute. My mom said I was a good little baby. (1) I didn't cry much and (2) I was healthy , . . I learned all those things which babies are supposed to learn: laughing, talking, walking. (I would do this again but that's another chapter.)"
He describes one of the family trips to Florida:
Jeff was now tiring out easier and was losing control of some of his body. At some times, for no apparent reason that I knew of at the time, Jeff would go into convulsions.
"Mom and Dad would try their hardest to shield this from me, but I knew what was going on.
Soon we knew that Jeff was going to die. The trip back was even worse, as Jeff's small, frail body couldn't handle the long stremuous journey.
'But one thing stays in my mind. It is something that will always stick in my mind as one of those happier moments with Jeff.
"As we were driving along a hot Georgia highway on our way back to Indiana, it was getting dark. Dad had to be back at work the next day so we were forced to drive all night. It was about 11:30, I guess, and Mike was almost asleep. I was sitting in the center and Jeff was at my left and Mike was at my right.
"Soon both Mike and Jeff slowly fell asleep and as I looked in amazement both were lying on my shoulders.
"Even though this didn't seem to mean much at the time, later I would really understand how wonderful that was.
"Friday, March 28, 1974:
"When I woke up this morning it was time for the usual routine. After breakfast which I didn't each much of, I left again for Rehab.
"'Well, Steve, ready to go all the way?' the nurse asked.
"'I can't, I replied.
"'Well let's just try,' she answered.
"To my surprise as I stood up I felt I could do it.
"She said for me to take my first step. I did it, and again, and again. I walked back and forth for almost 15 minutes on the parallel bars. Finally, I had temporarily tired myself out.
"After getting back in my wheelchair, I was rolled back to the elevator. When I got in the elevator, I decided I wanted to show my mom and dad my new accomplishment.
"When the door of the elevator opened, I stood up, and with the help of the walker, walked out into the hallway. "I told the nurses to go get mom and dad, but not to tell them why. As I walked along slowly in the hallway, everybody -- nurses, parents, and doctors -- praised me in my walking.
"As I looked further down the hallway, I saw mom and dad approaching.
"With almost buggy eyes, they stood in amazement, while I continued to walk.
"When I got to my room I laid down and rested the rest of the day.
"Excited, and feeling good I finally went to bed with a little satisfaction in my heart.
"February 8, 1979:
"As I looked upon Mike for the first time, I gagged at the sight before me. His chest was expanded and high, his body pale and blue, tubes running from his nose, his arms, his chest, his throat and his stomach. It was sickening for me, as supposedly strong as I am, to gaze upon the sight of what had happened to my brother. He was strong, energetic, powerful and good-looking. Why must I look at him so sick and so weak and most of all so out of control of his own body, partially reliant on machines to watch over it all?
"The night before he had a partially collapsed lung; overnight they had taken care of it. Tonight, Mike was breathing deeper. Mom then spoke to the semi-conscious, doped up Mike.
" 'Mike, we're here,' she said quietly.
He turned and nodded his head.
" 'Your brother's here too, Mike,' she continued.
"'How are you doing, baby brother,' I said, not realizing how stupid a question that really was.
" There was no tumor in your skull, only a blood vessel, and the doctors went ahead and took the ribs out and put them in place of the vertebra, Mom replied. 'We're going to make it, baby.' "
Every now and then, Ray Southerland suspects that someone is jealous of the publicity the family has received, the attention. He has a stock response: "I would trade you anything if I could go back to the days when all three of my boys were healthy."
Ray Southerland was born in Terre Haute, Ind., 41 years ago. He says his family "came from nothing. We were so poor that in the winter I used to get sent down to the railroad tracks to pick up coal."
His parents had two daughters and two sons. Ray's 3-year-old brother died when Ray was 5. "They told us it was spinal meningitis." Only in recent years did he learn his brother had had cancer.
Ray dropped out of high school one course short of graduation and joined the Marines. He met his wife when he was 21. Two months later, they were married.
Ray Southerland took whatever work he could get; he had jobs in a junkyard, a chemical factory, a potato chip factory. When he was 28 years old, and his middle son was dying of leukemia, he enrolled as a freshman at Indiana State University. He hoped to major in organic chemistry: "I was going to find a cure for cancer." While he was in school, he worked full-time for the sheriff's department in Vigo County and decided instead to major in criminology and minor in psychology. He remembers once, for an English composition class, writing an essay about the sounds and smells of hospitals. He got a "B."
He graduated in January 1972, and soon afterwards landed a job with the Dade County Public Safety department. The family had frequently vacationed in Clearwater, and it had always been his goal to move to Florida. Never again would he have to search for coal on the railroad tracks.
It was during one of the cross-country trips in the Winnabego that Ray Southerland suffered from a couple of fainting spells. When the family returned to Miami, the worst was confirmed: He had a brain tumor. Before his operation, Steve told his father: "Two of your sons came out of it. So can you." During the operation, he remembers warning the doctors and nurses to watch out: "When you open up my head, all the dirty thoughts and undressed ladies are going to come flying out." According to the headlines, he returned home to Miami to a "Hero's Welcome." Photos appeared of Ray Southerland scooping up 11-year-old Michael in a tight embrace, saying, "Made it, didn't I, Tiger?"
Back home, he underwent a personality change which he remembers as a blur of short-tempered, self-indulgent behavior. "I felt stigmatized because I had brain surgery. I felt my normal capacities had been taken from me. I wouldn't drive."
For the past five years, he has worked in the Crime Prevention Unit of the Dade Public Safety Department. His time is spent interviewing elderly victims of crime about the psychological effects of being a victim, and visiting the schools, lecturing the kids about the dangers of what happens if you deliberately poison your body, drug abuse.
He says that police work is "basically sociology; it's working with people." Steve once wrote about his father, "He was never the gung-ho type of officer seen on TV, but the officer who would rather talk something over than pull a .38."
He says he would never want anyone else "to go through what I've had to, or Jane has had to. Why it happened to us I'll never know. In my own mind, I keep thinking there is some kind of divine something behind all this. We're happy. We love each other. We are the type of family that fights things."
Does he have a breaking point? "No, I would not ever be at the point where I'd cease and desist from life. You just don't do that. You can't do that."
With all three of his sons, he had disturbing memories.
Jeff died on Dec. 12, 1967. The family was so hopeful that he would last until Christmas that they had already purchased his gifts. In his last months, the child's stomach had swelled tremendously and Ray Southerland remembers staying up nights, rubbing it so that the boy could sleep. On other nights, he and his wife could not sleep and they would wanger about the house, holding hands. The boy had lost a great deal of weight and his muscles had weakened horribly. On the day before he died, his father held the 4 1/2 year-old in his arms, cradling him like a baby. Jeff said to his father, "Don't hold me like an idiot."
As Steve was being taken to the operating room, both parents bent down and kissed his left foot. "We don't live expecting this to happen. Steve was pigeon-toed and he wore corrective shoes until he was 9 or 10. When they gave him the leg, he used to beg me to hold his belt while he practiced walking. 'Dad,' he would say. 'I am afraid I'm going to fall.' "
And then this year, Michael, before his operation, asked him to pin the bronze medal, no matter how it went. "He is your son, part of your life, part of your body. There are times," Ray Southerland admitted, "when it tears your guts right out. It rips you wide open, it's so devastating."
He says of his wife: "She's a strong, beautiful woman. She has had the willpower to withstand the tremendous pressure that's been put on her. It's as if everything is a broken puzzle and she puts it back right. She's what we revolve around."
Her oldest son once said about Jane Southerland that she is one of those women who gets even prettier as she grows older. At 5-foot-9 she is stately, but her eyes, not her height, dominate her appearance. The eyes are gentle, brown, unyielding. She says she never cries, but sometimes her eyes seem to move back in time, to focus on something, a faraway look that is the equivalent of tears. Her speaking voice is habitually soft, soothing.
Like her husband, she was born in Terre Haute. In many ways, she's a homespun person. She enjoys crafts, and her home is filled with her handiwork, macrame and needlepoint, stitched during many vigils beside sickbeds. During Michael's recent hospitalization, she worked on a five-foot-tall needlepoint: "It's hard to read. It requires too much concentration." For years she made her own clothes, but now that she has a full-time job selling "better dresses" at Burdines in Dadeland, she has indulged herself with a few store-bought clothes. At age 39, she recently bought her first silk blouse, a sign of hope or of the desire to hope. She says she is baffled by the public's continuing interest in her family: "We're like Watergate. We go on and on and on."
Her parents sent her to college, but she dropped out after the first year to get married. Were she and Ray madly in love? "Not really. We just knew we liked each other a lot and liked being with each other. We got married quickly, but it wasn't a have-to marriage. In those days, people didn't just go to bed with each other. We didn't know each other long enough for it to be a have-to marriage."
She says that whenever anybody in the family gets sick, she has two predictable responses:
"The first is inadequacy. I feel I can't do enough. Mike has taken this latest operation very well. It's hard in this family not to; you have to follow the act ahead of you. But one night he was in terrible pain. They had him on morphine, valium, and about three other drugs. Ray couldn't stand to be in the room. I stayed with Mike, and I remember saying, 'I wish it was me instead of you.' Mike said, 'Mama, I wouldn't want you to go through this.'
"The other thing that happens is you feel as if you are being punished. But I know that isn't true. Nobody could have done that much wrong."
Jane Southerland once said, "It's as if one great big accident fell on this family." Today, she says, "They say God doesn't give you any more than you can handle. I don't know if that's true. I'll let you know in a few years. I'm the heavy in the family. I keep everybody straight. I don't cry and I don't lie. It's pretty hard, sometimes, being in a houseful of patients. The hardest was Ray. He was pretty uneasy about himself, saying something was wrong with his head. His operation lasted six hours, and I told him it took the doctors five hours to find his brain. I told him cancer always goes to your weakest spot, and he said. 'In that case, I'll get it in my mouth.' I know that might sound sick, but sometimes that's the way we talk.
"Just because it keeps happening doesn't make it any easier. It's like walking across a precipice. You might have made it once, but that doesn't mean you'll make it again. You don't get any better at it. It's not like riding a bicycle.
"We started out with nothing . . . and we've managed to stay that way. Last Christmas, we took out a second mortgage on the house to make improvements. Ray and I realized we were getting older, and we're not going to get rich. I am wearing the family jewels. Our safe deposit box contains Jeff's death certificate, our insurance policy and Jeff's first haircut. It's kind of like spun gold."
A percentage of the Southerlands' medical expenses are covered by insurance. Incidentals, such as the $800 one-way air ticket it cost to fly Michael home from Cincinnati, are covered by a fund administered by Ron Sorenson, a police buddy of Ray Southerland. "The fund makes me edgy and I know it bothers Ray." says Jane Southerland. "We don't want someone else to take over our problem. But mostly, we don't want the problem. And it's not like taking money from the government where society has agreed to foot the bills for certain things. People give because they care, not because it's a responsibility. There are a lot of super-king people in this world. Things are unimportant when you have problems like these. Money is not important. It cannot buy the one thing you need: health."
She says that Michael's recent surgery, however innovative, gave the family the one thing it wanted: hope. "I don't think any parent sees the end with a child with cancer. All they see is the next step. The only thing a parent wants and needs is hope, and they cling to it even when it's not there. A child only knows what he sees. If you're happy, he's happy. It's kind of contagious. That was the lesson I learned with Jeff. If you're loving and you're smiling and you're kissing, that's his whole world. That's all he knows and all he needs to know."
She said that her children don't feel "disabled or handicapped, either emotionally or physically. Still, it's there.Steve is normal, but he is not normal as in having two legs. The boys could have cancer again. If they want to get married, they are going to have to discuss this with their wives. They are going to have to discuss it if they want children. Because of the drugs, they may not be able to. Or, they may have children with cancer. On the other hand, their children might be fine. It's a gamble, really."
Jane Southerland says she does not consider herself a jealous person. But there is one thing she envies:
I envy people who have healthy children. Not that I want theirs. I want them myself. When I see a big family full of healthy people," she paused, as if confiding something shameful, "I am envious."
On the Saturday before Easter, the three Southerland men were at home while Jane Southerland was at Burdine's, selling better dresses, refusing to lie, even to the customers: "That dress looks nice, but I think red is a better color for you. Here, try this on."
Steve, home from college, was going through some scrapbooks, searching for a certain photograph. In the process, he reeled off some of the more lurid headlines.
Michael was smiling, and it seemed as if the mere presence of his brother had restored some measure of color to his face.
Michael: "I hated, 'Michael Wiggles his Toes in Victory.' "
Steve: "Yeah, well what about 'Iron Courage at 13 Faces Surgeon's Steel'? Yecch. How about these: "Tragedy Haunts Family Anew.' 'Steve Excited by His New Leg.' Here's a great one: 'Three Young sons -- Three Cancer Victims.' That sounds like the movie, 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.' "
Mike: "Boy, they could build a body out of all the parts they took from us."
Steve: "Did I tell you that I lectured a sociology class at my school about the family? Somebody asked if all families get closer, the way ours has. I said that if you're close to begin with, you get closer, but that if you're falling apart, something like this makes you fall further apart."
"I don't think we deserve an Academy Award or a gold medal or nothing," said Michael. He paused.
He paused again.
It was a month earlier that Michael Southerland, on March 19, had flown home to meet the press. After Michael had informed the media he would like pancakes for breakfast, the photographers asked the entire family to gather around the stricken child for a group portrait. Automatically, the family broke into smiles and showed the cameraderie that is their television trademark.
"Hey, Mike," said Ray. "We were going to have spare ribs for dinner tonight."
"You're ribbing me," said the 14-year-old.
Then, to his brother, "Hey, Steve, do you like my cast?"
"Looks smooth, real smooth."
"Yeah, well I always wanted a three-piece suit. Can you see what time my watch says?"
Steve: "Three thirty."
Mike: "That's for school's out."
Jane: "I told him to set it at noon."
Jane: "Twelve o'clock, for out-to-lunch."
Steve, who had flown in from Gainesville to meet his brother, recognized a photographer who had been at other airport news conferences: "Don't you think I've grown a lot?"
"Yes," said the photographer, clicking.
"Yeah, well I haven't grown a foot."
"That's awful," said several members of the press.
"Hey, Mike, how much does that cast weigh?" asked Ray.
"A ton," said the boy who doesn't mince words.
"There's enough plaster there to redo a living room," said another of the photographers.
Click. Smile. Click. Smile.
The lights faded, the tripods were dismantled, the cameras started to leave. The family was there, alone, facing the future. For an instant, they all had a faraway, distant look. A tear or two glistened in Jane Southerland's eyes. Home. Home makes her cry.
The next day, the headline in The Miami Herald read:
"Michael Comes Home to Hugs,"