My big sister, Erin, was weeding her garden in Coupeville, Washington, in early July 2010 when she got the phone call nobody ever sees coming. It was the perfect summer day — the sun was shining, the air was still and her big yellow dog, Max, was snoozing in some dust next to her.
That phone call was from me. I was in Nuremberg, Germany — somewhere I wasn’t even supposed to be — and I was calling her to tell her I had leukemia.
It found me in the deserts of West Africa, 9,000 miles away from home in a place where I spent late summer nights under the brightest night sky I’d ever seen listening to Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” on repeat and thinking about a girl I was pretty sure I was in love with.
I had been working on a research project for school in Senegal when I started feeling sick.
I had no reason then to know that the bruising, weight loss, paleness and fatigue had nothing to do with the 120-degree heat like I thought they did. They were instead the symptoms of my not-quite-21-year-old body turning against me — the sneak attack, the silent assassin, the infiltrator: leukemia.
It all started in a microscopic place in my bone marrow. That’s what the science says, but if you asked me, I’d say it started in the part of my back that I’ve have never really been able to scratch. We’ve always been at odds, that spot and me, and being the place in my body where my cancer began would be a hell of a power play.
You don’t feel it when you get cancer; it doesn’t tap you on the shoulder or put its hand out to for you to shake. And for as momentous of a thing as it is, it comes on with very little fanfare.
I’d never had a bruise before that told me I was going to die
Two weeks after arriving in Dakar, a long, purple and splotchy bruise stretching from my shoulder down to my elbow appeared. How strange, I thought, for extreme heat to cause something like that.
And then out in the desert, my skin turned stark and eggshell-white and I developed dark spots in my vision — leukemia cells had found their way even into my eyeballs and detached my retinas. I hemorrhaged weight and developed a high fever — my body’s confused, last-ditch effort to stop the rogue cells’ overwhelming, unchecked aggression. Unstoppable now.