Outside, night's gauzy curtain falls gently around the suburban home, lightly silhouetting the children scrambling from lawn to asphalt and back again.
Inside, a young boy kneels on his father's bed among the scattered presents and says: "I remember fishing with my daddy and how much fun it was even though we didn't catch any fish. Thank you, God, for my Daddy. Amen."
"Walter Baugh, the boy's father, has bone and lung cancer. A bloody lesion on his upper gum shows cancer has hit there, too. His left leg and hip have been amputated. He has undergone chemotherapy and radiation. In December, doctors opened his chest to remove the lung tumors, but closed him up, concluding there were too many, scattered like marbles, to leave any lung tissue after the nodules vere removed. And now Baugh, a former Rockville resident who now lives in Falls Church, has begun interferon injections, an experimental drug in its first stages of human testing by the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda.
The drug, his doctors say, is a last chance at survival.
But still the 34-year-old Baugh, down from 210 pounds to 150, props up his head and smiles fondly at the family clustered around the bed he seldom leaves -- at 6-year-old Phillip and 5-year-old Michael dressed in last year's Halloween costumes; at Martha, his wife of 16 years. Their baby, 15-month-old Sharon, is in her crib.
"I have not given up the hope of a possible cure or at least long-term remission of some sort, and yet, I realize that there is a far greater possibility that I will not live past the end of the year," Baugh says, his words barely audible as his lungs struggle to grasp the air.
"When we first heard I probably had a malignant tumor, Sharon was in a stroller in the doctor's office. She was about 3 months old. I remember thinking, 'How old will I see her get? Will I see her mature.'
"I don't know if I will see my own 35th birthday in December."
Baugh's doctors at the Bethesda-based institute say he probably will not live until his next birthday. A lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Baugh knows this. But these few months, potentially his last, have been more than a swan's dying dance.
In carefully choreographed arabesques, he has found a balance between his desire to affirm and share a celebrated life and the need to accept death. During the last couple of months Baugh has been admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, spoken to church groups about cancer and its effects, kept up on his EEOC reading and made a pilgrimage to the gravesite of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta.
"I guess I felt a little like Jermiah buying a piece of land before the Syrians invaded," Baugh says of the afternoon he was rolled into the nation's highest court. Earlier that morning, Baugh was running a high fever and his wife says they did not know whether they would be heading toward First Street NE or the hospital. "But I wanted to do it," says Baugh. "I guess it was an expression of faith in the future, an affirmation that I had not given up living, despite my illness.
"Of course, it has to cross your mind, but the prospect of dying doesn't really bother me that much. Although relatively young, I feel I have lived quite a full and happy life -- possibly a great deal wider than many people. I've studied in diverse areas, I've had the experience of marriage and parenthood.
"There's not much that I haven't done at all -- no major life phases that I haven't experienced.
"If I had my druthers, I'd certainly like to keep going. I feel like I'm finally getting in a position to do something about my perceived life's position: promoting social justice, trying to help others . . .
"But if this is what has to happen, I accept it. If you have learned not to fear life, why fear death?"
Baugh first discovered his cancer Aug. 15 after a routine check-up showed abnormalities in the blood. That afternoon, with his wife Martha at his side, Baugh checked into the National Cancer Institute where a biopsy soon revealed that he had osteogenic sarcoma of the hip -- a form of bone cancer usually found in young children and teen-agers. Since that first operation 10 months ago, Baugh has undergone virtually every form of cancer treatment available. But nothing, his doctors say, has worked to slow the virulent growth of cancer in the young man's body.
"I guess when they call you a patient, they really mean you have to be patient," Baugh jokes in one of many light moments.
Baugh teases about making it just in time to be one of the first in the experimental interferon program.
He laughingly compares Jean Paul Sartze's irreverent parody on Descartes -- I am nauseated therefore I exist" -- to chemotherapy.
He beams devilishly when he talks about his first date with his wife Martha when he couldn't get a cab and sprinted a couple of miles to meet her at the corner.
And, he adds as if presented with a bonus, the cancer has given him an opportunity to use the science training he left to one side five years ago when he switched from being a physicist with the Federal Drug Administration to being a lawyer.
Life, he says, after adding up all the positive and negatives, "is still good."
Between the jokes, Baugh talks frequently about his religious faith. A native of southern Virginia and a Methodist, Baugh says that he has always been a devout man. And now, it is this belief in "that which is greater than I" that he says sustains him through what might otherwise be a fear-wracked illness.
His is not a faith of heavens and souls living on after the body decomposes, however. He characterizes that type of belief as Grecian and belonging in a three-story world. Instead, he says, he has demy-thologized his Christian faith to a point of pure trust, nothing more.
"It would be much more reassuring if I could confirm with all sincerity a three-story universe and presume going to heaven and living an eternal life," says Baugh.
"But I have difficulty finding images that I can affirm now as part of my Christian faith . . . All I can affirm now is that whatever happens will be all right, because I know that whatever happens I am loved and sustained by that which is greater than I.
"I'm not saying my faith has completely overcome the terror of the unknown, but really that it is an affirmation in spite of it."
Baugh doesn't like to talk a lot about the pain that sometimes races like a razor-edged train through his body. So a visitor tries not to notice the contorted grimaces and moments of silence, interrupted by a rattling of the chest, when a breath seems not to be there.
Yes, there are nights when he grapples for the narcotics at his bedside, and yes, sometimes a "phantom pain" shoots through the area where once his leg rested. But he is grateful, he says. He thought it would be much worse.
"I certainly don't enjoy it, but there is no reason why I should be immune to human suffering. There are so many people who suffer so much more than I do. I could have been blown apart by the war.
"While I don't want to be a martyr and suffer any more than I have to, I had a sense right after my (amputation) surgery, when it looked like they had got it all that, somehow, it had been too easy and I had not gone through what 'difficult cancer patients' suffer. I felt funny calling myself a cancer patient.
"I guess there's some comfort in knowing that I have not gotten off too easily. I have a better understanding of what suffering is."
His one regret, Baugh says, is that he may not be able to continue his work as an advocate for the victims of injustice or employment discrimination. He began working for the EEOC three years ago.
"All my life I felt it was my mission in life to do something in the social justice or civil rights area. But now, I'm faced with the prospect that I may mever get to do anything like that.
"When I went to Martin Luther King's gravesite, I remembered how I had wanted to carry on his work and then wondering if I would now ever get much farther with it. But I hope that maybe in the time that I have had with the EEOC and the other opportunities I have had to express concern for social justice that somehow, womebody will be moved to carry on.
It is this legacy that he says he would like to leave the world.
"I would like to be remembered as one who tried to help others. One who really tried to see human need wherever it existed -- hunger, oppression, injustice -- and did whatever I could to alleviate it."