Leukemia

When I was very young, I had a dear friend whose name was Frank.

He was a year or two older than me, but we were like brothers. We even did a blood brother ceremony during a sleepover when we were… 7? 8? It’s hard to remember.

Which is to say, we were as close as two friends can be at that age. He was the first person outside my family that I ever loved.

We were friends for about 4 years, until my parent moved to get away from the oppressive nature of suburban law and watchful neighbors. But for a year or so, Frank and I were in the same school. It was Tonquish elementary school on Warren road (now a church). We lived on a street called Blackfoot, in Westland, Michigan. All the houses were the same;  late 1960’s – early 1970’s ranch houses.

School was unremarkable, except for one odd thing. There was a girl who was in and out of school, whose name was… Beth? I don’t recall much about her except that one time when she was in school, someone pulled her hair, and it turned out it was a wig (I think they knew, which is why they pulled on it). She lived just four houses down from me, but I never saw her playing, so we were not friends.

When they pulled off her wig she was nearly bald, and I remember everyone laughing as they moved away from her. For my part, I recall being confused. In my memory, she clutched her books to her chest and looked down, humiliated, as a teacher waded in and broke up the spectacle.

Some time after that, perhaps after school was out for the year, my friend Frank came to me with a grim look on his face.

“You know that girl Beth, who we went to school with?”

I said yes, I remembered her.

“You remember? We laughed when someone pulled off her wig?”

Yes, I said. I remembered that.

“Well,” he said softly, looking down. “Well… my mom said she had… Lu-ke-mia?  And she was sick, which is why she lost her hair. But after school was out she went back to the hospital. And… she died.”

Frank looked at me with a burning stare. “We laughed at her.”

“Yeah.” I said. It was true.  We all laughed at the girl who lost her hair. I felt so ashamed.

Frank stood for a moment full of rage. “We should go tell her mom we’re sorry.”

“Yeah.” I said. “We should. I’ll go with you.” I recall being very scared.

So we walked down the street to the house where we knew she had lived, and Frank rang the bell. A woman answered the door, who looked to be about 30, but also looked like she had not slept in many years. Dark hair, no makeup, and the saddest eyes I have ever seen on a living person.

“Yes?” she said, slightly confused, as she held the screen door open a little.

Frank spoke haltingly – “Ma’am, uh… We just wanted to tell you that we teased your daughter when we were in school, but we didn’t know she was sick, and we’re really sorry.”

The woman burst from the door with a cry and wrapped her arms around Frank. I jumped back in an act of pure self-preservation, presuming that the end was near for both of us.

The woman, Beth’s mother, wept uncontrollably on Frank’s neck. “Oh my darlings,” she sobbed, “It’s OK. You didn’t know. I forgive you. Oh my god, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s all right, you didn’t know. I love you. Thank you for telling me this. Thank you. I forgive you.”

She broke down so hard. I don’t remember a lot of it because it was so emotional. I know we were all crying. She went back into her house eventually, and closed the door.

Frank and I walked out to the sidewalk, shaken, and very quiet.

One of us said, “I’m glad we did that.”  The other nodded. “Yeah.”

Frank looked angry again, and looked at me.

“Let’s make sure,” as he teared up, “that we never, ever make fun of someone like that again. Never Ever.

I was feeling Franks anger myself, just thinking about it.

“Yeah.” I said, “We should never do that to someone.”

“Ok, then. We swear, as blood brothers…” as he held out his hand.

I took it, and said with all the heart a 10 year old human has, “I swear. Never. Never ever.”

~ Joe K