Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

“And then we’ll go the gift shop and see that dog you wanted, and find out how much it costs,” Elizabeth continued talking to Jacob in the back seat.

Rather than risk waking her entire family up so early, David and I offered to give Elizabeth and Jacob a ride to Iowa City for his in-patient cancer treatment. Ben would stay home with the younger children. The plan was that we would get the pair settled in at the hospital, then be off for a breakfast alone together and some fun shopping.

“What dog?” I wondered aloud, immediately intent on finding it online for a cheaper price and giving it to Jacob.

“The Melissa & Doug Pomeranian,” she answered, and my heart sank a bit. Those life-like stuffed animals could be pricey. Still, I was determined to at least check the prices once I got home.

“So, you want a Pomeranian,” I turned around in my seat to look at Jacob, and was blessed with his shy smile.

“For Becca,” he answered, and I felt a stab of sadness. This little boy who was facing four days of chemotherapy in the hospital was not thinking of himself. He wanted to buy a stuffed toy for his sister. Elizabeth later told me he’d brought money from his piggy bank to buy his little brother candy at the gift shop.

When we reached the hospital parking ramp we had to dig far into the trunk to retrieve their tote bags. David pulled out a white sack he’d stashed behind the totes. “I brought you some food,” he said, then pulled out a box of the South Beach protein bars I always purchased for him.

“Would you like some of these?” he leaned down to ask his grandson, and was rewarded with a vigorous nod.

“How about an orange?”  Jacob nodded again. The bars and an orange were added to their tote bag.

“Bananas?” The bananas he pulled from the bag were too dark, and looked a bit smushed.

Jacob hesitated, then nodded slightly, but Elizabeth laughed and commented on how dark they were. David returned them to the bag, then pulled something from his pocket.  “How about some gum?” he asked, and the little boy’s face brightened. Another nod yes, and David added the gum to their tote.

Elizabeth and Jacob headed into the hospital slightly ahead of us; a young woman and a little boy with a stocking cap on his head. Elizabeth knew exactly where to go, striding confidently through the halls until we got to the pediatric ward and waited in a long line to check in. David and I sat down. Waiting is part of the game at the University of Iowa hospitals. I jumped up to wash the screen of the toy computerized game before Jacob could touch it, but Elizabeth was way ahead of me, whipping a sanitized wipe out of the container next to her and scrubbing the surface before allowing Jacob to play. It wasn’t long before all four of us sat in an exam room and Jacob pulled off his hat for the first time that day. The unforgiving glare of the overhead lights reflected off the plane of his small head. Only a few tufts of hair remained; a soft downy fur. I tried not to stare. This was the first time I’d seen Jacob’s bald head, and like last October when I initially saw my mother without her hair, it was a bit of a shock. I could see David’s eyes soften with unshed tears, and I had to gulp back a few of my own. Jacob was oblivious to our plight; he sat on the edge of the exam table and played a rather aggressive form of “footsie” with his mother, banging his foot against hers and waiting for her to playfully kick back. They were used to this waiting, and had found ways to entertain themselves.

When a nurse came in to inform us that it might be quite a wait before Jacob would be admitted, Elizabeth told us we could go, that they would be fine. We hesitated briefly before hugging both of them good-bye. I could tell David was hungry. He always seemed to get off-balance and dizzy if he didn’t eat.  We slowly and silently walked out to the hallway, and then stood there for a moment.

I looked at my husband, who seemed in no more of a hurry to eat than I did.

 “I feel guilty.”

“Me, too,” he murmured, and without further discussion, we headed back to the exam room where our daughter and grandson waited. Elizabeth snorted in derision when I told her we’d felt guilty leaving her.

“We’re used to it. We’ll be okay.”

“So, are you hungry?” David asked Jacob, and when he nodded again, David pulled out one of the protein bars, ripped back the wrapper and watched in delight as Jacob eagerly bit into it.

It wasn’t long before a nurse came in and started questioning Elizabeth.

What medications was Jacob on? When was the last time she’d given him a shot to boost his white-blood cell count? What was the date of his last chemotherapy? 

Elizabeth didn’t even hesitate. She fired back answers as fast as the questions came. I was impressed. I thought back to 2006 and the notebook I’d brought with me to every appointment for David. I kept track of all his medications and pertinent information in it, afraid I’d forget something crucial to tell the doctors or nurses. Some of them had even stopped looking at their laptop screens for answers, asking me for the information instead.  More than once I’d had to point out an inconsistency regarding protocol for the study David was enrolled in.

My daughter had become a crucial part of the medical team treating her son. The daughter who had asked me to come with her to one of the early appointments because of my familiarity with the cancer jargon, was now using words and terms unfamiliar to me. I was never so proud of her as I was that moment, and grateful that David and I had returned to the exam room to see her like this.

Jacob obediently lay down on the table for the nurse, giggling when her hands touched his abdomen to check his scarring and to feel his kidneys. We all had to laugh as he wriggled in gleeful anticipation each time she lifted her hands and brought them closer to check again.

“Someone is ticklish,” the nurse commented, and Jacob giggled again. After her exam, she told us there was a room being cleaned upstairs for Jacob and we could leave the exam area for a while if we wanted. Already tired, Jacob asked for a wheelchair to navigate the halls, but he leaned ahead in the chair eagerly to push the buttons of the elevator. We accompanied them to the hospital library and watched Jacob choose a Scooby-Doo movie and a Pink Panther cartoon to view in his room later. By the time we got back to the exam room, the machine that would be used for Jacob’s chemotherapy had arrived. I saw David’s face go gray when he spotted it. He’d recognized the silent partner he’d spent so many days with during his own treatment. 

“This is just like Grandpa’s machine when he had chemotherapy,” I said to Jacob, wanting him to see the obvious connection; that Grandpa had the treatment he was going through and stood there in that very same room, alive. The only other person that Jacob had been aware of having cancer, my mother, was now dead. David was strangely silent next to me, and when he took my hand in his, I could feel a slight shaking, whether from hunger or emotion, I wasn’t sure. I just knew it was time to leave.

“I’d better go feed Grandpa. He’s getting hungry,” I said before leaning over and kissing the top of Jacob’s fuzzy head. 

“He’s so small,” was all that David said as we headed to the elevators.

As much as I wanted to leave that hospital and get David away from those memories of cancer treatment that still haunted him, it was difficult to leave my daughter there. I could go and eat a delicious breakfast with my husband and do some power shopping, stop at Walgreens and look for good deals, and even find a Toy Story phone on clearance and buy it for Jacob. I could stop at a thrift store and buy several 25-cents items. Then I could go home and set up my purchases for a photo. I could spend a fun morning with my husband, come home, and then invite my grand-daughter down to play.

I could escape cancer.

Elizabeth can’t. 

I’ve set up a Facebook Page to keep people updated of Jacob’s progress through treatment. You can search Facebook for the page, “Jacob’s Ladder.”

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