Ten Steps Down

Chapter Sixteen

"Dinner is ready," Grandma said, not long after James and I had completed our chores the first day of Dad's treatment. "Would you find James and let him know?"

"Isn't he in his room?" I ask, as I put my chemistry book down.

"I looked already and he isn't in there," Grandma said.

"I'll see if I can find him," I said.

I searched the entire house and couldn't find James anywhere. I put my coat on and went to the barns to see if he had gone there, as he sometimes likes to spend time with the animals. After searching each barn, he was nowhere to be found. I was becoming worried since this wasn't like James at all.

"I've looked everywhere for James," I said, almost in a panic when I returned to the house.

"Has he disappeared like this before?" Grandma asked.

"No, this isn't like him," I said. "I know he's worried about Dad. He was unusually quiet on the way home from school and when we were doing our chores."

"Let me get my coat and we'll go look for him," Grandma said.

"Maybe it would be better if you stayed here," I reasoned. "If he returns you can call me on my cell phone."

I grabbed my keys and headed out the door. In the almost total darkness I saw James sitting on the steps with his arm around Jake.

"James, we've been looking for you," I said, with a tone of relief that he was safe.

"He can't die," James said, as he wiped tears from his eyes. "I've already lost one dad that I didn't even get to know. I just can't lose another dad."

"It is way too early to think about that," I said, trying to convince myself as well as James. "Grandma has dinner ready. Come on in and eat."

"I'm not hungry," James declared.

"Grandma is already worried about you," I said. "You don't want to worry her more, do you?"

"I guess not," James answered.

When Grandma saw James with me, she gave him a big grandmotherly hug. "James, we were worried about you."

"I'm sorry Grandma," James said. "I was thinking about Dad."

"That's understandable," Grandma said. "But, we worried when we didn't know where you were. Now, come and eat before dinner gets cold."

Although James agreed to eat only to avoid causing Grandma more worry, he ate more than I expected. Grandma's fried chicken dinner was difficult to resist. Dinner conversation involved assumptions about Dad's treatment.

"I wonder how Dad is doing," James said.

"Libby said she would call each day," Grandma said. "We'll find out soon. Boys, I went by my apartment today to check my mail, and I mentioned to Trudie why I was away for a while. Trudie is a retired radiation therapist, and she said that the survival rate for Hodgkin's Lymphoma patients is more than 90 percent. She also said that since Don's was in an early stage the prognosis is very good."

"Then why do I have an awful feeling about this?" James asked, echoing my thoughts.

"I think it is because for the first time in your life you feel a sense of love and belonging," Grandma said. "I'm sure it's the same for you too, Craig. Now that you're in a loving family, you don't want to lose that."

"Wow, I think you're right," I said.

Grandma's wise words must have hit home with James, too, he helped himself to an extra large slice of her German chocolate cake.

As it came close to James and my bedtime, Mom still hadn't called. I was about to give up and call her when the phone finally rang. "Hello Mom," I said, after putting the phone on speaker so we could all talk to her. "How is Dad doing?"

"He's really tired," Mom said. "The chemo caused some nausea, but the nurse said that was a usual occurrence. That's the reason I'm late calling you."

"Tell Dad that we love him," James said.

"I will," Mom said. "He's gone to bed already, so I'll have to tell him in the morning. How is everything there? I'm sure you boys are helpful to Margaret."

"Libby, you don't need to worry about these two," Grandma said, as she gave James and me a warm smile. "They are wonderful caring boys."

"I know they are," Mom said. "For now, I'll say goodnight. I'm exhausted myself, after the long day we've had. I'll call you tomorrow. I love you all."

"We love you too," we all said. "Goodnight."

We managed to get through the first week of Dad's treatment. We were looking forward to seeing Mom and Dad when we arrived home from school on Friday. James and I gave Mom a big hug when we saw her in the kitchen with Grandma.

"Where's Dad?" James asked before I could.

"He's in the den," Mom said. "Go in and say hello to him. If he's sleeping don't wake him."

"Come on in, I'm awake," Dad said, when James and I peeked into the den.

I'm not sure what I expected, but Dad looked better than expected. He appeared as happy to see James and me as we were him.

"How did it go while I was away?" Dad asked.

"We managed just fine," I said. "But we missed having you around."

"Yeah, Craig is too bossy," James joked.

"Like you listen anyway," I shot back.

"Well, I'm just pleased that you boys are taking care of things," Dad said.

"Dad, we have a group of hogs that are ready for market," I said. "If we keep them any longer it will cost us more in feed."

 "I'll call Cal Melton and see if he will take them to the market in Sioux City for me," Dad said.

"James and I could do it," I offered.

"Yeah, we can," James eagerly agreed.

"No Craig, I don't want you boys to miss school," Dad said. "Besides, I need to teach you how to pull the stock trailer first. I'll give you boys a bonus from the money when the hogs are sold. I'm proud of both of you."

"Just get well," James said. "That's enough of a bonus for us."

"I plan to," Dad said. "I'm finished with the chemo and now it is just the radiation. The doctor said that everything is looking good so far. Before you know it, I'll be back on the farm bossing you around."

"It would be better than Craig bossing me around," James said with a grin.

"Then if I'm the boss we'd better get busy with our chores," I said.

"See what I mean," James said.

"Then I suppose I should go and supervise," Dad said.

"No Dad, Craig and I can do it," James protested.

"I need to get out of the house for a while," Dad said. "I'll find a place to sit and watch."

"Let me find that wheelchair that James used when he broke his leg, and we'll push you out there," I suggested.

"I know where it is," James said as he rushed from the room.

"I can make it out to the barns," Dad objected.

"I'm sure you can," I agreed. "But there really isn't a place for you to sit. Besides, you might get tired before we got you back to the house. Further, Mom would give us hell if we didn't push you out there in a wheelchair."

"Yeah, I guess I forgot about the real boss of this operation," Dad chuckled.

"I'll be your chauffeur," James said as he locked the brakes on the wheelchair.

"Where are you going?" Mom asked, as James pushed the wheelchair past the kitchen.

"I'm going to watch the boys work," Dad said. "They wouldn't agree to let me go unless I agreed to ride in this contraption."

"It appears to me that the boys have more sense than their dad," Mom teased. "If he tries to get out of that chair, get a rope and tie him in."

"There is no danger of that," Dad promised. "I'll behave."

Going to the barns seemed to be a tonic for Dad as he watched James and me work. He seemed pleased with the way James and I had managed while he was away.

"Craig, you're right, this group of hogs is ready for market," Dad said, when we came to the barn where they were located.

"I guess you taught us well," I said.

By the time we returned to the house Dad was beginning to get tired, but he was in good spirits. James and I enjoyed his company.

"Dinner is ready," Mom said when we entered the house. "Margaret cooked enough food for an army, so I called Dan and invited him and Nicole over. They should be here any minute."

"Dad, why don't you wash up here at the kitchen sink and you won't have to walk all the way back to the bathroom," James suggested.

"I believe I will," Dad readily agreed.

"That must be Dan and Nicole now," Mom said when the doorbell rang.

Dinner was much like many of our family gatherings. Everything seemed normal, except in the back of our minds we all knew that Dad was in a battle for his life. His attitude was upbeat though, and this seemed to help James and me cope.

"James, your grandma Debra called," Mom said during dinner. "She wants you to come for a few days during spring break."

"Cool," James said. "Oh, I can't go. I need to help Craig here on the farm."

"You should go," I suggested. "We won't be in school, so I can manage just fine."

"We can always hire someone if we need to," Dad said.

"Are you sure?" James asked.

"We're sure," Dad said. "However, they will have to pick you up and then bring you back home. I'm sure they won't mind."

"I can always come over and help," Dan offered.

"Thanks Dan," I said. "But I can manage just fine. Dad did it by himself before James and I came here to live."

"Honey, we'll miss you, but you need to get to know your other family and spend time with them," Mom agreed.

"Okay, I'll call as soon as I help Craig load the dishwasher," James said.

"You boys have worked hard," Grandma said. "I'll do it right after we have a piece of cherry pie."

"I can help," Nicole said. "I load the dishwasher at home."

"Thank you, Nicole," Grandma said. "You're becoming a grownup young lady."

"Uncle Justin will be here Friday evening to pick me up," James said, after he had called his grandma. "I told Grandma that he should spend the night and then we would leave Saturday. Is that okay?"

"Of course it is," Mom said. "In fact, that was wise of you to suggest that."

"I still feel bad about leaving all of this work for Craig," James said.

"It's not a big deal," I said. "Since there is no school I'll have plenty of time to get it all done."

"I'll bet I could help," Nicole said.

"I'm sure you could," I smiled. "But some of those sows can be mean when they have babies. We'll let you help sometimes when James or I can supervise you."

"What can I do to help?" Nicole asked.

"I'll be out here taking some of the housework load off of Libby when she takes Don to Topeka," Grandma said. "Why don't you come and help me?"

"Could I, Daddy?" Nicole asked.

"It is alright with me," Dan said. "Margaret, are you sure you don't mind?"

"Of course I don't mind," Grandma said. "Nicole is good company."

"Nicole, I've been so busy that I don't think I've asked you how you like school," Mom said.

"You were right, Aunt Libby," Nicole said. "Everybody is really nice. My best friend Holly lives on my street, and I have a lot of other friends from school too."

"She actually looks forward to going to school each day," Dan said.

It was a rather pleasant weekend. Grandma had done all of the laundry and housework, leaving little for Mom to do. This gave her the opportunity to get some much needed rest. Dad still easily tired, but was in good spirits.

Grandma had moved into Nicole's room so that she could help with the housework so that Mom could rest before going back to Topeka. However, it was a battle for Grandma to get Mom out of her own kitchen. They finally compromised and agreed to work together.

"Your dad and I will stay with your uncles on Tuesdays and Thursdays while Don is getting treatments," Mom said, as we ate breakfast Monday morning. "We'll be home Mondays, Wednesdays, and of course Fridays. We'll change our plans to come home those days and stay in Topeka and come home weekends if it is too tiring for Don.

"I called Cal and he will be by tomorrow morning to haul the hogs to market," Dad said.

"I'll miss my morning classes and help load them," I said.

"No Son," Dad said. "Cal said that his son-in-law would help him. He will be by this evening for you to show him which ones are ready for market."

James and I had to leave for school before Mom and Dad left for Topeka since his appointment was late morning, and it was just over an hour's drive.

"I think Dad is going to be alright," James said, as we drove to school.

"I feel that way too," I agreed.

"I'll be glad when it's finished," James said. "I don't know why they can't just give him one big dose of radiation and kill the cancer."

"I looked that up on the Internet, and that would kill more of the healthy cells," I explained. "When they give the treatments in smaller doses it doesn't do as much harm to the healthy ones. Cancer cells divide rapidly and rapidly dividing cells are more easily killed by the radiation."

"Kill the sons-of-bitches," James said.

"I agree with you," I said with a laugh. "But don't let Mom hear you say that."

"Oh hell no," James said, bringing on another laugh.

"We have company," James said when we got home from school.

"That's probably Cal Melton," I said. "Remember we're supposed to show him which hogs to take?"

Cal Melton was much as Dad had described him, a rough exterior, but good man to have as a friend. "You're Craig and James, I assume," Cal said as he extended his hand for a firm handshake.

"Yes, I'm Craig and this is my brother, James," I said, as I shook Cal's hand.

"From what Don said, you're both fine boys," Cal said, while shaking James' hand. "He was devastated when Patrick was killed. You boys gave him a reason to live, and now he has to fight this cancer thing."

"He'll beat it," James declared.

"You bet he will," Cal said. "Your old man is a fighter. Now, where are those hogs that need to go to market?"

The week seemed to go by quickly, and as the weekend came near I could tell that James had mixed feelings about going to his grandparents. "Are you sure you can managed here without me?" He asked for about the twentieth time. "I can always go this summer when Dad is well."

"James, if you don't want to go, then you don't have to go," I said. "But, if you want to go, you should go. I can manage here. I can always get Seth or Jon to help if I need help."

"I wish you could go with me too," James said.

"James, they're your grandparents, not mine," I reminded him.

"You're my brother, so that makes them yours too," James argued.

"They may not see it that way," I said. "They asked you to come. I'm sure they want to get to know you better. Anyway, one of us has to stay here or the animals will go hungry."

By Thursday James was eagerly looking forward to his week with his other family. Grandma helped him decide what to pack, after she discovered that he had packed enough clothes for a month. By the time Grandma had helped him decide on what to take, James decided on a smaller bag.

"Thank you for helping him with his packing," Mom said. "It seems that I have little time to take care of my family since Don started his treatment. Margaret, I don't know what we would do without you. I hope the boys will like my food after the wonderful meals you've prepared for them."

"Libby, I don't think you ever have to worry about these boys not eating your food," Grandma said. "You know that I'm happy to be able to help out. I remember how this family took care of me when I had my knee surgery."

"This family includes you too, Grandma," I said. "You took care of me when I was little and now you're still taking care of me and the rest of this family."

"Oh Honey, It was my pleasure to take care of you," Grandma said, as she wiped tears from her eyes. "This wonderful family gives me a sense of belonging."

"Margaret, we love having you in our family," Mom said. "I don't know what I would have done lately without you. But I do feel like I'm taking advantage of you."

"You don't know how much I love being able to help," Grandma said.

James was genuinely happy to see his Uncle Justin when he came to pick him up. It seemed that Justin was just as happy to see James. They had already developed a bond. James insisted that he carry Justin's bag in. Since Grandma was in Nicole's room, James put him in a basement bedroom.

Our dinner again involved a lot of conversation as we ate. Dad seemed upbeat and confident that his radiation treatment was going to work. "When you feel up to it, Don, we want you to bring everyone to Pratt for another visit. That includes James' grandma Margaret. And Craig, we want you to come and spend some time this summer with us when James comes."

"Thank you for the invite, Justin," I said. I wasn't sure if the invite was from Justin or from James' grandparents.

"Actually the invite came from Mom," Justin said, answering my thoughts. "She said you were welcome to come now, but thought you probably wouldn't since Don is undergoing treatment."

"Tell your parents that we will be happy to visit as soon as I'm up to it," Dad said. "Craig, if you want to go now I can hire someone to feed the animals."

"Thanks Dad, but it would be better if I didn't go yet," I said. "I'd love to go for a few days later though."

James insisted that he help with the chores the next morning before he and Justin departed. Justin offered to help, but he was of little help. James and I had a routine that worked like an assembly line.

"Promise you won't forget to feed Jake and give him fresh water," James said, as we walked back to the house. "Remember, he gets a treat before I go to school and one when I get home."

"It's spring break," I said.

"Jake doesn't know that," James said. "He still gets a treat."

"Nicole will be here every day during spring break," I said. "I'll bet that is a task she would enjoy. Why don't you call her and say goodbye, then you can ask her."

"Good idea," James agreed.

"Here is $100 for spending money," Mom said, after giving James several goodbye hugs.

"We plan to pay for everything," Justin said. "He won't need that much money."

"He may want to buy souvenirs," Mom said.

"Yeah, Uncle Justin, mind your own business," James joked.

"Watch it young man," Justin smiled. "I may just put you out somewhere between here and Pratt."

"Then you'd have to explain to Grandma what happened to me," James shot back.

"Damn, I guess you're right," Justin said, as he grabbed James and gave him a mock noogie and mussed his hair.

"You're lucky that I respect my elders, Uncle Justin," James joked, as he rushed to the bathroom to comb his hair. "I didn't use my self-defense training."

"Has he really had self-defense training?" Justin asked.

"Oh yeah," I said. "A couple of jocks were picking on him and his friend. James had them both on the ground before they knew what happened."

"Gentle James did that?" Justin asked.

"He could have really hurt them, but he didn't," I explained. "Now nobody messes with him."

I was sad to see James leave with Justin. It was the first time we had been separated since we met, except for the time he was in the hospital. Still, I was happy that he had met his other family and was getting to know them. Family meant everything to James.

Please send your comments or suggestions to Owen Hudson