At home, evenings playing cards at the game shop are a Friday night ritual. My son Eli is one of the regulars, known, comfortable in the stuffy room alive with competition, laughter and the funk of young male bodies. Often he wins, and returns home beaming, his wallet a bit thicker than when he left.
But we aren’t home anymore, but in Chicago for two months of daily radiation treatments. It’s the latest upheaval in Eli’s three-month-old tangle with cancer. Staying at the Ronald McDonald House means being removed from every semblance of his normal life: home, school, friends, family, and his beloved card game.
Life at the Ronald McDonald House has the regimentation of prison life: Wake up, shower, swallow cereal in the communal dining room, study for three hours, down a quick lunch, drive to the Proton Center. Avoid eye contact with the other patients awaiting their punishment. Lie completely still for an impossible 30 minutes as the technicians zap his midsection with painful rays. Not a sneeze. Not a twitch. Stock. Still.
Back to the Ronald McDonald House. Collapse into a nap. Wake up groggy. Try to find a quiet corner of the busy dining room at dinner to avoid the constant prattle about medical procedures, side effects and setbacks.
Desperate for a break from the joyless routine, for a chance to feel like his 15-year-old self, Eli scopes out game nights in the area, finds one 40 minutes away. “But you won’t know anyone.” I caution. “And you’ll have to wear your surgical mask.”
“I know,” he says. “Let’s go.” He loads his backpack with boxes of cards and we set off. Eli is quiet in the car. Three highways and a tollbooth later, we pull into a parking lot with a cluster of cars near the door of a glass-fronted game shop, the only lights in the otherwise empty shopping center.
Eli pulls his knit Cubs hat over his bald head and dons his yellow mask. “Call me,” I say as he gets out of the car. “Yeah,” he mutters, and hoists his backpack onto his bony shoulder.
My stomach tightens as I watch him stride determinedly across the dark parking lot, alone. He walks in, stops to speak with the plaid-shirted guy behind the counter. Is it my imagination, or are people looking up at the gangly teen in the stocking cap? Eli scans the room full of strangers, eyes an available player in the corner and approaches him. The young man peers through his long hair at my pale, skinny son, nods. Eli sits down, pulls out his cards and begins to play.