By Michael McDonald
I remember the day Mikey was born incredibly clearly. As soon as I saw him, my world was immediately and forever different. From the corners of my eyes, immense love and incredible relief flowed in streams. Here he was—in the world, moving, and healthy. Mikey had arrived. It was overwhelming. All the worries for my wife, labor, every panic inducing article my wife slid across the table into my lap, their words of possible health problems and precautions we should take, all the fears melted away. Mikey was here and he was perfect.
I had been picturing him for nine months, but he didn’t look like I expected. He was purple, screaming, and slippery. I immediately fiercely loved him. As he made those first high-pitched baby wails, his body took air into his lungs for the first time and his skin warmed. The doctor held his umbilical cord like some plastic alien straw and handed me a pair of scissors. In a daze, I cut it. The blue tones in his skin faded, and, as he was wiped clean, a smooth, clean and pink baby was in my wife’s arms.
A nurse quickly scooped him up to put him on the scales, but she seemed rough and it felt like she was stealing him away. I had to fight back the urge to protect my new baby son. Once she was at the table, I could see Mikey was big! Nine pounds fifteen ounces and twenty-six inches long. The nurse smiled and handed him back and I felt silly for being worried about her. (Clearly this paternal instinct thing is going to take some getting used to.)
They covered up my wife with a blanket and put Mikey in her arms again. My dad stepped out from behind a curtain and shot me this deep knowing look. I’ll never forget it. He didn’t say a word, but his eyes did. They said, “Now you know how much we love you.” He was right. I never knew anyone could love so fiercely until right then. My perspective vastly and instantly broadened, I immediately thought of all the wrong I’d done to my parents, and I hugged my dad. I think he forgave me.
Four happy years of never-quite-enough-sleep went by. My job was stressful, I was forty pounds heavier, and I had even less hair. I had officially been cast in “dad mode”.
Mikey’s fourth birthday was coming and he’d had a fever for about a week. Several trips to the doctor had been a waste of time. The fever wouldn’t break and they said they couldn’t find any reason for it.
“Children get fevers you know,” they said. The weekend came and my wife decided to take Mikey to urgent care. They drew Mikey’s blood this time and sent him home. An hour later our house phone rang. My wife picked up the receiver, ready to say “hi” to her mom or to tell a telemarketer to please take us off their list, but it wasn’t her mom and it wasn’t a telemarketer.
“Pack a bag and go to pediatrics emergency right now,” the doctor on the phone said. “Plan to stay overnight. We can’t be certain, but judging by the red and white cell count, it could be Leukemia.” I was in the kitchen and couldn’t hear what the doctor was saying, but I didn’t need to. My wife trembled in quiet sobs and tears poured down her face—she’s not one to cry about anything. I knew it was bad. When she hung up the phone, she walked to Mikey and hugged him while she discreetly shook.
I ran across the room. “What happened?” I asked. “What did they say?”
Every horrible possibility, every damning thing the doctor could have said, ran through my mind. The world began to spin as my heart pounded. He can’t be sick. No no NO! Not my baby, my mind screamed, over and over. Mikey just gazed at us and smiled. In his fevered state and blissful youth, he didn’t know what was going on.
“Pack a bag for us,” my wife whispered. “The doctor said it looks like Leukemia.”
I ran up the stairs in shock. I waited for the steps to fall away, to fall spinning into darkness, hoping I would wake up and it would all be a dream. The house, the job, the whole world, nothing meant anything. Nothing mattered—except my son. In that moment, I would have sold my soul, a hundred thousand souls to know my son would be okay. No one appeared, no sinister specter with a contract to sign—in blood. There was no deal to be made, just a bag to pack. So, that’s what I did.
When the suitcase was stuffed with our clothes, I went to the bathroom to try and pull myself together. I looked in the mirror and my face was ghost pale, streaked, and flushed. Crying, I chanted, “This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening.” Things began to fade to grey. As much as I wanted to pass out, as much as I wanted to escape from the world right then, I had to get my boy to the hospital. I forced my breath to go slower. When I could see again, the same painful world, the same reality was there to face. I couldn’t escape it.
I sat in the passenger’s seat during the ride, stretched across the middle console to hold Mikey’s hand. My wife navigated the weekend traffic to Sacramento. We found a parking garage and the first open spot was on the fourth floor. It was a trek across several wide one-way streets before we could wander into an emergency room full of people.
Holding Mikey’s little hand, walking through the hospital, it was suddenly like he was new again. He wasn’t my tough little guy anymore. He seemed as fragile as an infant again, a vulnerable thing and I was an animal, ready to pounce on any danger that threatened him. But I feared, with my whole being, that I might not be able to protect him—realizing there were some things I couldn’t fix.
I found the front desk and tried to speak without showing the storm that raged inside me. “They sent us here and said it was an emergency. They said it looks like Leukemia,” I said. My voice quavered and the nurse saw right through me.
“Oh, no,” she said calmly. She had real concern in her tired, kind eyes. “One moment.” She said.
They took us to a room with jungle wallpaper. Mikey sat happily on the bed with a sucker. It was just another trip to the doctor for him. My wife sat with him, her warm smile, a mask over the hurricane that wailed inside her. My mask was much thinner, less convincing, mostly nonexistent.
Another very kind nurse pulled me out of the room when she saw the look I wore. I have no idea what she said now, but she gave me the strength I needed right then.
It took three nurses to hold my four-year-old son down to draw his blood again. As he screamed to my wife and I for help, looking desperate and wild, my heart, the little that was left of it that day, broke. Finally, they were able to draw more blood from his little arm. His iron was so low, they said he needed a blood transfusion, but they couldn’t get an IV in his arm. They dosed him with iron and moved on.
His blood test results prompted several discussions with multiple doctors, each with possibilities for what could be wrong—Leukemia, being one. We were prescribed an iron supplement that read, overdoses of this medicine can be fatal, and we left without any certain answers.
Months went by and we were left to wonder. Every night my wife and I fell asleep with Mikey between us. Our hands grasped his little ones. Mikey snoozed and my wife and I quietly cried and prayed. I couldn’t help but notice the circles under Mikey’s eyes and how his skin seemed to look paler than I remembered. He looked sick.
We administered the iron supplement, and, monthly, we took him to traumatizing appointments for his blood to be drawn.
Mikey developed night terrors and he would scream, half-awake in the night about needles. But, after months of soul-crushing worry and wrestling with the unknown, a bit of light began to shine through the thick and dark clouds that seemed to rest over our home.
Mikey’s test results showed improvement.
We were sent to a pediatric blood cancer specialist—the best in the area—they said. A small, kind-looking man opened the door and smiled at us when we arrived.
“Hi Mikey. How are you doing today?” he asked. My son’s skin was warmer and pinker than it had looked a few months before. Looking to my wife and I, the doctor said, “I’m happy to say that the concerning counts in his white and red cells, was due to anemia, or low iron. His red cells are no longer mutated and white counts are looking good. You won’t need to come see me again. Finish out your iron supplements and make sure he eats plenty of meat. Continue to get his blood work every six months, just in case. But, he doesn’t have Leukemia. I wish you a good day.” He gave me a nod, closed the door, and walked out of the office.
Just like that, all our prayers were answered. The sun didn’t just peek through, it burned the clouds away entirely. The streets of Sacramento had a pure and brilliant shine that day.
Since then, Mikey has turned five. He is strong and smart and most importantly, healthy. In the movies and in stories, they don’t show you the daily grind, the moments that aren’t life-and-death or filled with well-scripted conversations. In real life, with an excitable five-year-old boy, there’s play, arguments, frustration, and happiness.
Sometimes, on the tough days when work is long and Mikey is going a thousand miles-an-hour, I think about what happened—I think about the pain of not knowing how much time I might have with him. I remind myself just how lucky I am and since he is healthy, there is no problem that we can’t fix as a family.
Mikey can drive my wife and I to the brink of madness, but he makes us feel incredible pride, and more often than not, overwhelming love. In being his dad, I will earn the deep knowing look, just as my father did with me, the look my dad still wears on special occasions.
Years from now, when I walk into the delivery room and Mikey’s wife is holding their child, my son will look at me. In that moment, when his child is born, he will see the knowing look in my eyes. Then, he will understand how fiercely someone can love and understand how much I meant it, every time I told him I loved him.
Michael lives in Auburn with his wife and three wonderful children and was inspired to share his family’s story.