This story is by Jennifer Martinek and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Bucket List
“Good morning, James.” The doctor greeted the young man as he entered the room. He clutched a thick, manila folder under his left arm.
“Good morning, Dr. Williamson.” James replied.
After exchanging a hand shake, the doctor sat down at his desk and opened the folder.
“I’ve reviewed your test results, James. I’m not going to sugar coat it. The diagnosis is not good, I’m afraid.” The doctor informed him.
James sat patiently waiting as the doctor flipped through his chart. A few weeks prior, he started noticing several lumps popping up on his neck, chest, and back accompanied by extreme pain in his lower abdomen. Dr. Williamson ordered a series of tests including a biopsy extracted from the lump on his back.
“The tests revealed a total of five tumors. Besides the obvious ones, there is one in your stomach, and the other in your lower abdomen. That would explain the pain you have been experiencing.” Dr. Williamson told him.
“But you found out what was causing this, right? There’s medication or treatments that can get rid of them?” James muttered.
“James, I’m sorry,” the doctor began. “I’m afraid you have stage four cancer. It’s a rare form called Anaplastic T-cell Lymphoma.”
“What exactly is Anaplas…” His voice trailed off.
“Anaplastic T-cell Lymphoma.” Dr. Williamson repeated. “It’s a type of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma that originates in the white blood cells called lymphocytes. Typically, your lymph nodes will become swollen, and usually in the later stages, the cancer will spread to organs outside of the lymphatic system. In your case… the stomach.”
James felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. The feeling of extreme anxiety washed over him as he found it hard to breathe. Sweat glistened on his forehead as he began to panic.
“So, so what do we do now? Chemo? Steroids?”
“Well, yes, we can start you on Chemo treatments. Currently, however, there are no known medications available for this particular type of cancer.” Dr. Williamson explained. “Our only hope is that the radiation treatments will put it into remission long enough to perform a bone marrow transplant.”
The doctor slouched back in his chair, and looked empathetically at the young man. “Well, considering the type of cancer, James, a year or so. If we are able to perform the bone marrow transplant that might extend it a few more months.”
Dr. Williamson stood up, “I’ll schedule the appointments for your chemo treatments, and have my assistant call you with the information.”
As the doctor headed for the door, he turned towards James one last time. “I truly am sorry. We’ll do whatever we can.” With that, he left the room.
James’s chemo treatments began in January. Every other week until June, he and his wife drove up to the Cleveland Clinic. During that time he became very weak, lost over 30 lbs. and started wearing a baseball cap to cover up the hair loss. But, he was determined to make the most of the time he had left with his family.
One night, when everyone was asleep, he crafted a bucket list of all the things he wanted to accomplish. The next morning, before the kids got up, James and his wife sat down at the kitchen table.
“Jill, I know these past few months have been hard on you and the kids. I’ve made a decision,” he announced. “I’m tired of feeling sorry for myself, and blaming myself for something I have no control over. I want to make the most of the time we still have
together.” He removed a folded piece of paper out of his pants pocket, and laid it in front of her. “I want to embrace my life, and be able to do the things I’ve been putting off.”
James anxiously waited as Jill unfolded the paper and began reading it. A smile slowly spread across her face as she raised her head and stared lovingly at her husband.
“You really want to do all of these?”
“Yes, I do.” James acknowledged.
She sat quietly for a minute, and then responded, “So, when do we start?”
After the kids ate breakfast, he turned to his son and asked, “How would you like to start learning to ride your bike?”
Blayne jumped off the chair, and raced out of the room. A few minutes later he returned wearing a dinosaur T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. “I’m ready!” he announced with a huge smile on his face.
“What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”
Over the next few days, he and Blayne spent several hours outside after breakfast. Back and forth down the sidewalk. James lost track of how many times his son lost his balance, and fell into the grass. But on the third day, as he let go of the bike, Blayne took off like a rocket.
A few days later, James burst through the front door with a new 3D TV. The kids loved to watch Jurassic Park and what better way then with surround sound! Of course, movie night would not be complete without a Big Boy burger and fries!
During the next two months, James crossed several items from his bucket list including: playing guitar in his friend’s band, parasailing, and a special surprise his wife arranged for him to meet the team members from the Cleveland Indians.
James saved the best for last. It had always been a dream of his to travel abroad. Specifically to Ireland for the sights, and to tour the Guinness brewery. Then on to Okinawa, Japan to bury his feet in the sands of the famous ‘white beaches’ . But he decided to start with something slightly closer to home.
So, on a beautiful September morning the family packed up the van, and headed for the Smokey Mountains for a week of hiking and exploring. They rented a cabin that overlooked the lake. Every morning right after breakfast the family would go for a swim, and then explore the trails during the afternoon. In the evening, they would all sit around the campfire watching the sunset while enjoying smores and hobo pies.
Their next adventure took them to North Pole, Alaska (yes there IS such a place) . James had always been fascinated by the Northern Lights, and what better place to see them. Every night, when Blayne and Livi went to sleep, they would cuddle on the porch and enjoy the spectacular light show.
Two days after they returned home from Alaska, James’s health took a turn for the worse. Jill immediately rushed him to the emergency room where Dr. Williamson was waiting for them. After the six months of chemo and the various medications that James had been taking, the cancer had gone into remission. But after undergoing numerous tests, found that it had returned and was spreading rapidly.
But James was not ready to give up. Over the next week, he stayed in the hospital, and was put on two new medications. Dr. Williamson also performed a spinal block to try and slow down the cancer from traveling up into his brain.
One the way home, James told his wife, “tomorrow we are making arrangements to take the kids to Disney World.”
“Jim, you’re in no shape. . .” but he cut her off.
“Honey, I have to do this! I’ll be fine. I promise.” He gently laid his hand on Jill’s knee, and threw her a quick reassuring smile. She nodded in agreement as a single tear formed in the corner of her eye.
They spent two weeks visiting: Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, and Animal Kingdom. Even in James’s weakened state, he gathered all the strength he could to ride on rides, indulge in eating cotton candy, but more importantly, enjoy their time together as a family!
On the last night before heading home, Jill noticed that James was not acting himself. He spoke as if in slow motion and he could barely walk. She immediately contacted Dr. Williamson and described what was happening. He said he was going to fly down and meet them at the hospital.
“What is happening to him, doctor?” Jill asked frantically.
“Mrs. Koon, I’m afraid the spinal block didn’t work. The cancer has spread to his brain. It’s only a matter of time now. I’m so sorry.”
Jill and the kids spent the next two days at the hospital in Orlando by James’s side. He was in excruciating pain, and was in and out of consciousness. Finally, Dr. Williamson made the tough decision to transfer James to hospice. That was the last day he would lay eyes on his precious family.
On the last night, as Jill laid her head upon her husband’s chest, she felt a surge of energy run down the length of his arm, and out through his fingers. As she collapsed onto the floor, she knew his spirit had left this earth, and was now soaring with the angels.