Theresa followed the stretcher out to the helicopter with wet eyes and a heavy heart, listening to the sounds of the night and hoping for a better tomorrow. She heard nothing at all, just the irritating sounds of the crickets. It was as if they were a band playing sorrowful music to match the feelings in her heart, and they sure could do it well.
The helicopter roared to life, and Ryan watched the nearby trees sway violently from the force. It was just enough to keep him entertained. All he wanted was to steer his mind away from the thought of Cody's inevitable diagnosis, but every so often, it crept into his brain to haunt him. Every time the thought crossed his mind, his heart galloped with fear, and he knew that there was no turning back. There was no such thing as time travel, therefore he could not go back and fix everything to make it okay. What had once been a nightmare had now become a reality. There was no preventing it from happening, and now that the monster itself had shown up to ruin everything, there was no way he was leaving. He was here to stay.
What was even worse was that Cody would have to live knowing that the thing inside his body called cancer could kill him. Ryan had scarcely known anything related to cancer, as it had never really happened in his family before, but now he would see just how severe it was, Cody being his proof. Ryan had imagined what it would feel like to die before, because everyone dies sometime, but he could never imagine it ending so soon. He could never visualize himself fighting for his life with all he had left in him, but Cody had been left with no other choice. There was so much to learn about cancer that Ryan had never known before, and he knew already before treatment started that it would be one hell of a ride. Much worse than the rollercoaster life he'd already been living.
It had taken some convincing, but all four children were now able to enter the helicopter, as only one person was allowed to go in. There was no way Theresa could get Lynn to drive her children three hours away from home in the middle of the night. They'd been left with no other choice but to allow the entire family to enter the helicopter, and it was a great relief brought to Theresa. Her heart would have stopped beating altogether if she had to leave the rest of her family behind. As she climbed inside behind her children, she couldn't help but wonder what life would be like once this was all over, or if it would be over. How would their lives differ from their past? Would Cody still be alive? Would he pull through with ease? Would the family continue to live their everyday lives without worry for what was to come of the future?
There wasn't much room inside the helicopter, just a couple chairs of cushion and a little bed for patients to lie on. With a family the size of the Wheldon's, it would be quite cramped on the inside, and Shirley would have to sit on Theresa's lap the whole way there. They'd never flown before, and part of Ryan wanted to break the tiny window and crawl out once the door was shut. It was dark outside, and anything could happen, like head-on collisions with other helicopters and the possibility of vanishing without a trace. "How lovely," said Ryan as he nervously lowered himself into one of the seats.
"Are you okay?" Theresa asked, setting Shirley down on her lap.
Ryan glanced over at his mother, an expression of worry crossing his face. "Yeah, I guess," he said, shrugging. "It's just the helicopter."
"Oh, well I don't think there's anything to worry about. It's just doing its job."
Theresa watched as Cody began to roll over, positioning his body in a way that would provide him with a feeling of comfort as he tried to drift off into slumber. He had no clue as to why he was even in the helicopter, and he didn't care; his sleep was almost more important to him. She could only wonder what he would think once he found out about his unpreventable diagnosis. Maybe he didn't know much about cancer, or maybe he did. Her mind was constantly focused on Cody, wondering if he would ever be the same again after beating cancer. She tried to keep her mind on the positive side, focusing on positive outcomes rather than negative. Although she learned that staying positive wasn't going to turn everything around and make it better, she decided it would be best to keep her mind away from thoughts of death and pain. If she thought that way, it would happen.
A few minutes later, the helicopter lifted off, and Ryan gazed out the window, silent. He watched the ground become further and further from his reach causing an instant panic on the inside. He'd never been so high up before, and his fear of heights didn't make it any better. Already, he was feeling homesick, and he knew that it would be a while before they were able to go home. Three hours was a little too far to be driving every day to receive treatment. Ryan watched as the hospital slowly came out of sight, and all he could see was the glowing lights of the city below, his mind wandering all over the place with thoughts. Was Cody going to be okay? Was the cancer going to get the best of him and kill him? Was he going to be too weak to fight? As the thoughts planted themselves deeply into his brain, he couldn't help but glance over at Cody, who had fallen asleep already. He was still pale in the face, little purple splotches still in their positions, but he looked much more peaceful now than he would within about a month or so.
Ryan shifted around uncomfortably in his seat, his brown eyes darting in every direction, searching for comfort of any kind. If he could, he'd run to his mother, but she was cradling Shirley in her arms and watching Cody sleep. He was alone. He wanted to call someone, anyone, and talk to them forever to prevent suffering from a panic attack. A lot of kids didn't survive cancer, which was his reasoning for the negative thoughts that suddenly flowed through his brain. What if he just fell asleep one night and never woke up? How would the family feel to lose another member after Justin had already gone?
A woman from the front of the helicopter derailed his train of thoughts as she came to the back to see them, a smile displaying itself on her pretty face. She had something to say, Ryan could tell, and her focus was mainly on his sisters. Shirley was fascinated by her presence, and gave a small wave, smiling. "Hello," the woman said politely, waving back at Shirley. "How are you all doing?"
She seemed much more happy than the family did, but at least she was attempting to be polite. "It's a smooth ride," said Theresa. "If only the reason behind it weren't so bad."
"Yeah, I'm sorry to hear about that." The woman frowned, but replaced it once more with another smile as she turned her attention to the girls once more. "So, does anyone want to learn how to fly a helicopter?"
Jodi squealed, her hand shooting up into the air as she rose to her feet. Shirley turned around to meet Theresa's eyes, as if waiting for permission to go. It seemed quite interesting, although she would never remember how to do it. "Do you wanna go?" Theresa asked her, pointing over to where Jodi stood joyfully next to the lady.
Shirley nodded, a smile crossing her face as she hopped off her mother's lap and joined Jodi standing next to the woman. "Ryan, you want to go?" Theresa asked him, but he shook his head, clearly not in the mood.
He didn't say anything, just shook his head. He watched as the girls disappeared to the front, wishing he could be in a better place. If they'd gone for a helicopter ride just for fun, he would have said yes, but he was in a terrible mood. He wouldn't have even paid attention to any of the controls; he'd be too focused on his brother's condition. He'd be too afraid to touch anything, in fear of messing up and crashing the helicopter and killing everyone aboard. He just couldn't do it tonight. He wasn't going to waste any time thinking about anything else but his brother.
It was silent for a few moments, and the only sounds that could be heard were the excited squeals of Jodi and Shirley learning about the controls. It must have been a nice view in the front, although it was dark outside. All Ryan could do was sit in his chair and watch Cody sleep, just like his mother was doing. The thoughts were beginning to consume him. There was no hope for happiness anymore. Just depression, pain, and death.
The silence was becoming deafening, and Ryan needed to say something. "Mom," he said quietly, as to not wake Cody.
In the seat next to him, Theresa glanced over. "Yes?"
"Is Cody gonna be okay?" he asked, and he meant it one hundred percent. He longed to hear the words "he'll be okay," but he knew he wouldn't hear them.
"Well, we're gonna have to hope for the best," said Theresa, slinging her arm around his shoulder. "I think he's strong enough to win. If he can win, he'll be okay."
"Is he gonna die?"
Theresa paused. How would she answer that? In all honesty, she really didn't know if Cody would die or not, but she couldn't just tell Ryan that. It would scare him. "I think the survival rate of leukemia is high," she said finally. "I'm sure he'll be fine. It takes an immense amount of strength to survive something like that, and I believe that Cody has that, and can defeat what life has thrown at him."
"But Mom... remember Eric?" said Ryan, and from the mention of that name, his face crumpled and he leaned on Theresa's shoulder as he began to cry.
Theresa's mind wandered back to the time when Ryan was Shirley's age, only four years old, and he had a best friend named Eric. The two were inseperable, and the family only lived three doors down. The family was friendly, Eric being the only child, and they were supportive of their friends and family. Ryan and Eric had met at the park across the street, and when they began school, they were in the same kindergarten class. Eric became Ryan's only friend.
Eric was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia shortly after kindergarten began, and he rarely attended school anymore. Ryan boarded the bus alone most mornings after the diagnosis, Theresa being the only one out there with him. They went to the same Children's Hospital as the Wheldon family was headed to, and they'd only been home once. Apparently, Eric had been diagnosed too late, and he passed away a month later. The whole town ached for the loss, especially Ryan. Although he didn't quite understand death yet, he knew he'd never see Eric again, and he would refuse to get on the bus in the morning. Now that another diagnosis had arrived to doom his family for good, Ryan was more heartbroken than he'd ever been.
Theresa glaned at Ryan and wrapped her arms around his small frame. "Of course I do," she said soothingly. "Who couldn't forget?"
"But he died from it," Ryan sobbed into her sweater. "He died. Remember how I reacted when I found out? He was just my friend, I don't know what I'd do if I lost my brother."
"All we can do is hope for the best," said Theresa. "He's a tough little guy. I think he'll be able to fight it."
"But he's only eight."
"That shouldn't make a difference. Kids much younger than him have survived it." She certainly hoped she wasn't scaring him with her choice of words. She was telling the truth though; she'd witnessed it with her own eyes before. Kids as young as two had been diagnosed and survived. In elementary school, her best friend's little brother had been diagnosed with the same cancer, and he was only eighteen months old. And he was still alive, now seventeen and cancer free. She hoped she would see the same outcome in Cody's situation.
Ryan pulled free from Theresa's arms, his sad brown eyes meeting with hers. "Then why did Eric die?" he asked, wiping his eyes.
"Because he was diagnosed too late," said Theresa, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Eric's cancer had already spread far beyond reach, and chemo was useless. Cody only started showing symptoms recently, whereas Eric was taken to a doctor too late."
She hoped she didn't sound broken. Inside, she was falling apart, like an earthquake had hit and everything was crumbling to pieces. But she couldn't show that on her exterior. She had to be strong for her kids, as to not scare them into thinking everything was crashing and burning. She did an excellent job at hiding the tears and faking the smile in her eyes, but if she was given the opportunity to be alone, she'd cry for hours. Getting all emotional wasn't the best thing to be doing while in the helicopter with her crying son who seeked comfort of any kind; she'd already learned her lesson back inside the waiting room. Her panic and discomfort led her children to think that something was wrong, and of course, something wrong had happened just to mess everything up. They'd picked up on her emotions, but now Ryan had his own emotions, ones that he wasn't sure his mother was having. Thank goodness for being great at acting.
Ryan could hear the familiar sound of movements against the bedding, like the sound he was used to hearing when Cody woke up after him in the mornings. It continued, but he never bothered to look up to see what was causing the noise. It was almost comforting in a way; he could picture himself lying in his own bed and sleeping instead of dealing with his not-so-fantastic life problems. He knew that Cody should feel worse about it than anyone else in the family, but he couldn't help but wonder what life would be like after he was gone. It would never be the same. He'd only become the next puzzle piece to disappear from the family, just like their father. His absence was the worst, and to have to endure another possible loss would be too much to bear. It hurt to even think about it.
Ryan decided to look up at last, searching for the source of the sound. Through his blurred eyes, he could just barely see Cody's figure squirming lightly on the bed, his eyes forming little slits for him to see. He was about to discover the worst news imaginable, and Ryan estimated that his reaction to it wouldn't be a calm one. He could see that Cody was trying to sit up, and the expression on his face was easy to read. He was confused. Confused because everybody looked so sad. Confused because they were in a helicopter. Confused because he could see they were all concerned.
"Rise and shine," said Theresa, blinking back tears as he smiled back at her.
He shot her his famous what-the-heck-is-going-on glare, and Theresa's heart melted. Was she ready to break the heartbreaking news to him? She gulped in attempt to swallow the lump that was rising in her throat, knowing that things were not going to go down well. She sucked in a shaky breath and cleared her throat before she began "the talk" that would change Cody's perspective of life altogether.
Rising into a sitting position, Cody could see that Ryan was crying. He could see the pain and heartache he was experiencing. He could see that there was something wrong. He instantly knew that he was the one who was causing all the tears that leaked from Ryan's sad eyes, but he wasn't sure what he'd done to cause it. On the right, he could see the beads of sweat forming on Theresa's forehead, matching her glassy eyes that held back a river of emotions. His heart began to quickly speed up as he realized that something wasn't quite right with this picture. Whatever had happened to him was that serious.
"Mommy," he said innocently. "What's wrong?"
The rhythm of his heart was uneven as it began to rapidly thump against his chest in a painful pattern. Thump thump thump thump thump thump. It arrived at a point where the beating was so hard it hurt his chest, and an attempt to calm himself down led it to be much worse. The moment of silence that followed his question was enough to cause his head to spin, worsening the nervousness that sparked deep in the pit of his stomach. All he wanted was an answer, and honest answer, but there was only silence.
Maybe they were thinking of what to say next. Maybe it was really bad and they had no words for him. But either situation was sickening, and would lead him deep down a path of destruction, his family trailing way behind him. He began to reach out in desperation, swallowing the painful lump in his throat and sighing deeply before repeating the question once more. "What's wrong?"
A loud sigh followed his, and he was able to put the pieces together and realize it belonged to Theresa. "Cody..." she began. "I know... I know that this is probably going to be difficult for you, but it would be better if you could understand what I'm saying here. What's going on is something that should never happen to kids, and... and it's not something you will enjoy. Believe me, I've seen it before... you've probably seen it on TV... but this is reality. It's so damn hard to believe that something like this could happen to you, or to anyone. But I want you to realize that you must remain a fighter. Don't let yourself be defeated."
By now, she was jumbling all the words together in a quick and confusing sentence, and Cody raised his brow with confusion as the words slithered from her mouth. Why was she even discussing things that involved fighting? As far as he was concerned, getting into a fight with someone was bad, but why was she encouraging him to stay undefeated?
Theresa sighed yet again, allowing herself to complete her depressing speech. "What you have is something serious. We won't be going home for a long time, but you'll get the proper care you need to survive something like this. You have... you have leukemia. I don't know if you know what that is, but -"
"I have cancer?" he said, and his eyes immediately filled to the brim with tears, spilling onto his blue pajamas. Although he didn't know much about it, all he knew was that people died from it. He knew about Ryan's friend Eric, although he was only two when Eric had died, and he knew that it was a long experience for the family. He suddenly realized exactly how short his life had been so far, which only caused him to cry harder. He couldn't die yet; he still had so much to live for. He would never get the chance to become a firefighter like he'd dreamed of, and he would never grow up and start a family of his own. And it was all thanks to the almighty cancer.
Rising to her feet, Theresa tip-toed in his direction and threw her comforting arms around his small frame. His tears soaked through her sweater, but she didn't mind at all. She understood just how hard it was on him, to have to deal with the thought of death haunting him forever. He would have to struggle through each day with the knowledge that his days were numbered, and any day could be his last. But she promised herself that she would stick around through it all and fight by his side, in attempt to make death impossible in his situation. Despite the rough road to recovery, she would guide him through it and create a smooth path for him. She wasn't planning on leaving him in the dust.
"I'm gonna die!" he shrieked, the shock of the news hitting him much harder than he'd expected it to.
"No, you won't," Theresa said soothingly. "Not everyone loses their battle. You have to make sure to fight hard, okay?" She began to choke a little on her words, but she still would not allow the tears to fall. He would see, and he would get scared. And getting scared was not a good thing to do in a moment like this.
"Then... then why did Eric die?"
The mention of the name made Ryan cry harder. This time, however, he was alone. Theresa had gone off to comfort Cody, and he was all alone with no one to lean on. His body was heaving, and his shoulders shaking. The feeling it brought him was the same feeling he'd felt the morning his father had passed away. He was sure Cody would die. But unlike his father's death, Cody's would be slow and painful rather than quick and easy. He would feel everything before he passed on. He would feel it for days, weeks, and even months. He would suffer only to end up losing the battle in the end.
He listened to Theresa's repetition of why Eric had died, and it only took a matter of seconds before he found himself covering his ears to block out her voice altogether. He didn't want to hear it any more. He didn't want to relive the day he'd found out that his best friend was gone. It was too devastating. But of course, whenever something entered his mind, it refused to leave for a long time, and his mind time-travelled back to the day that changed his life in many different ways.
He could remember it as if it had occurred only yesterday. He'd stepped off the big yellow school bus and into the arms of Theresa, like he'd done every day. He'd been bundled up in all of his snow gear and was looking forward to playing outside on the "Big Hill" in his backyard, but as he headed for the snow hill, Theresa had gripped onto his backpack and ushered him inside the house without a word spoken. He could remember that her face had not been too happy; she'd appeared rather sad and depressed about something. But at four years old, Ryan couldn't understand what depression was and how it could affect someone. He also couldn't understand that death meant a permanent absence from someone's life. But he was about to find out.
Theresa had set him down on the couch, and Ryan could still remember her exact words and how she'd broken the devastating news to him. She'd started out with, "Ryan, do you know where Eric is?"
He'd, of course, nodded. "Yeah, at the doctor's."
Theresa had shaken her head. Of course, that was where Eric had died, but she wasn't done with her story. "Honey, Eric left the hospital today, but he isn't coming home. He went up to a place called Heaven, where he will be happier and make lots of new friends. He won't be sick anymore, and he will get to see God. Way up there." She'd pointed up to the sky, and his gaze had followed her finger.
"Do I get to see him?"
Theresa's heart had melted at that point as she shook her head. Justin had entered the room at that moment, and he could see the grief that had displayed itself in Theresa's eyes. He'd walked away, back into the kitchen, and Theresa kept talking. "Heaven is separated from us. We won't go there for a long, long time."
Looking back at all of this, Ryan felt a strong wave of grief wash over him, attempting to pull him under and drown him. There was the possibility that he would have to go through the same talk for the third time, but he was going to do everything he could to prevent that from happening again. If he could convince Cody that his life really was worth fighting for, maybe he'd survive the cancer. Maybe he wouldn't end up like Eric. Maybe if Ryan was capable, he could make Cody determined to prove the doctors wrong and get rid of the cancer as if it were just a cold. It didn't hurt to try.
"If it isn't so bad, then why is Ryan so sad?" he could hear Cody ask.
"He's just upset," Theresa responded. "It's a little hard for him to handle, that's all."
Adjusting his posture, Ryan sat up a little, wiping the tears from his cheeks and attempting to look at least half decent. He was sure he looked like a total wreck, his sleeves soaked from the tears and his hair wild from continuously sliding his shaky hands through it. He sighed, gazing around the area with a strong feeling of worry and doubt for everything that had occurred so far. Now the possibility of the helicopter crashing didn't bother him as much as it did before, and he could care less if all he saw was an endless black sky with countless shining stars in the atmosphere through the window. All that mattered to him now was his brother's condition. As his eyes landed on his weak brother, he could see that he was capable of being a fighter. He was ready to destroy everything that came to ruin his life. He was ready to prove that not all cnacer patients die.
Jodi and Shirley soon returned to the back, and the woman followed them, announcing that they would soon be arriving at the hospital. The girls bolted toward Theresa in a frenzy, and a smile finally returned to her face as she noticed their shared happiness. "I can fly a helicopter!" said Jodi, throwing herself into Theresa's arms.
"So I heard," said Theresa. "Did you have fun?"
"Yeah! But it's dark outside and I couldn't see."
"That's awesome." Theresa couldn't fight the grin that spread across her face, as she was glad to have taken her mind off the news of the diagnosis for just a quick minute and step into the mind of her daughters. "How about you Shirley? Did you like flying the helicopter?"
"Yeah," Shirley shrugged, not seeming as excited as her sister. "Can we get one so I can fly it in the yard?"
Ryan finally smiled, and Theresa laughed. "That would cost a bloody fortune. And you would have to go to a special school for that."
"I'm going soon, though."
Theresa laughed again. "It's a school much different than that," she said.
Ryan hadn't realized it until now, but being gone for a long time meant it would cut into their new school year in September. Where would they go? Would Cody complete his treatment by the time school started, or would they have to start fresh in a new school with new faces? "Mom, what about September?" he asked.
She sighed. "There's no way he'll be done treatment by that time. You'll probably have to go to school there with your cousins. I mean, it's not like I can pay for a helicopter to fly you to school three hours away every day."
Ryan was frustrated. "But I won't know anybody," he complained. "And Cody won't even get to come with me. He won't even get to go outside in the summer."
"What?" Cody couldn't believe that one bit. What was a summer without playing outside? "But that's what summer's for!"
"I know, honey," said Theresa. "But you are very weak. You have to do what's best for you and your health. You'll get much worse."
Cody nodded sadly. "Okay. But how long until we get there?"
"I'm not sure about that. I think it'll be soon, though."
Ryan rubbed his eyes, which had become red from crying. "I just wanna go home," he whined. "I wish this wasn't happening."
Theresa shook her head. "Neither of us wish this was happening. But if we really help Cody to fight what he's been given, we can go home sooner. And better than that, Cody will be better sooner."