One year ago today, it had been two days since Rebecca’s birthday party, held jointly with her best friend Ruthie, who not only shared her initials but was also four days older than her. We had celebrated them both with a donut van and a balloon maker and the Rocket Car, which Rebecca rode at least four times. It was completely over the top, but she was still with us, after ten months of treatments, even with the new tumor in her head, and that was worth celebrating. Kat and I also decided to go all-out because we didn’t believe she’d ever have another birthday party. A CT scan a few weeks before had indicated that the tumor had stopped growing, but each day she was getting more and more tired.
Except for her great big birthday party. She was in better spirits than she had been for weeks, just for that day. People commented on how much better she seemed, and when they confidently asserted that of course she would beat this, we smiled and didn’t say what we really thought. Kat and I would occasionally share a glance, as people poured their optimism over us: Do they not understand what’s happening here? Sharing our secret language of fear and pain, the way other couples share a secret language of love.
The day after the party, Rebecca was more tired than ever, barely speaking for hours at a time and increasingly distant. So now we sat in a waiting room in the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, our study site, waiting with two of our best friends for the results from her latest MRI, wondering if we were being paranoid or prescient, not wanting to know.
The lead doctor came into the examination room alone, clutching a folder to his chest like it was a life vest, and we knew. He started to speak, but we interrupted, asking if Rebecca could go play with the Child Life counselor, because we knew. Of course she could, and she did, heading off with the counselor to the play room, leaving our side for the last time.
“I don’t have good news,” the doctor said, wincing a little, apology in his voice.
I remember only a few fragments of what he said. “Significantly larger” and “many flare sites”. I remember thinking that they hadn’t even bothered to count them, there were so many. Tumors coming, everywhere, all throughout her brain, the brain that was already being slowly squeezed by the enormous tumor we thought had been stopped. All our dreams of extended time with her, of trying to find a way to roll back the runaway growth, shattered.
And then: “A few weeks at the most.”
Our little girl, dying. The end of hope.
“I’m so sorry, you guys.”
As we drove away from the hospital, each of us sunken deep into our horror and despair, a torrential burst of rain hammered the roof of the van, overpowering the wipers even on high, all the while bathed in direct sunlight. All the components for an incredible double or even triple rainbow — except the sun was too high in the sky.
Rebecca sat silent and still in the back seat, staring straight ahead, glowing in the rain-muted sunlight, never stirring even to ask where the rainbow was, let alone look around for it.
She had four days left to live.