Painting of a cell

When It Happened

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What was Jim doing when it happened?

Was he sleeping? He ran every day…was it on a run? Playing guitar? He’d been sanding the ancient wood floors of our small Oak Park bungalow. Did it happen then? Was he on the Metra train headed to work in Chicago’s loop?

On the outside, life was normal. He was enjoying time alone while I was in Germany on a business trip with my boss, the queen of a good boondoggle. We were in that safety net of a young marriage – few responsibilities and only adoration for each other.

Chromosomes are too small to see, even with a microscope. They are described as looking like an uneven X, with longer legs than arms. Each chromosome comes as a set – 22 pairs plus the two that decide your sex, and this total of 46 make up a single cell.

There are trillions in your body.

What triggers one cell out of trillions to go rogue?

Inside Jim, deep inside, something broke.

Translocation is the swapping of material between chromosomes. Among the masses of chromosomes in Jim’s body – the body I loved – two swapped the wrong material. In an instant. Just like that.

A mutant cell was created, an immature blast, and this blast did what is simply in its nature…it multiplied. Imagine popcorn popping – that initial burst, followed by rapidly increasing “pops!” until the lid is lifted off its pan and white kernels spill out onto the stove top.

Jim’s abnormal cells spilled out from his bone marrow into his blood stream…and they took over. They crowded out the red blood cells and Jim became fatigued, lacking oxygen. They elbowed away the platelets and he developed clots in his legs. They pushed aside the neutrophils, and he came down with a fever. He was Jim on the outside but within, leukemia was swiftly taking over.

We spoke on the phone.

I was in the Marlene Dietrich Suite of the Hyatt hotel, my heels lay aside the white couch where I had kicked them off. I was cozied up in a corner, a crimson tasseled pillow cradled in my lap. He was dismissive about his state, “My knee swelled up. I must have strained it sanding.” It was simply a detail in his day.

I danced in a disco in Berlin. I kept requesting “Dancing Queen” but they never played it.

I sang The Supremes “Stop in the Name of Love” with my boss and co-workers on a karaoke stage at a random street fair.

I saw Lionel Richie in the lobby of the Hyatt and acted nonchalant.

Jim and I spoke again. His knee was still troubling him – he’d gone to the local hospital, picked up crutches and was told to take Advil. He was up to 12 a day.

The day before I flew home, I visited the Berlin Wall. I stood in the area known as “The Death Strip” reading about the over 5,000 people who tried to escape to the west by driving their vehicles straight into the wall, or by leaping over it from nearby buildings, or by digging tunnels under it.

More than one hundred people died while desperately trying to reach their families on the other side.

6 comments on “When It Happened”

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