Nathan on the field*

St. John’s Preparatory School/The Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey

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By Julie Rattey


Nathan was running, the dirt-stained football in his grip, when he felt the force of his brother’s weight thrown on him in a tackle. Nathan fell to the ground, laughing. His brother Brian might be 12, but he was quick. Nathan, 15, opened his mouth to speak, but was overtaken by a cough. Another followed.

“Hold on, bro,” he managed.

The game paused as the two brothers sat on the grass, their breath making little white clouds in the chill November air. Football season must really have worn me out, Nathan thought. He gazed past the sturdy oak tree in the front lawn of their farm outside Cold Springs to the fields where, that summer, row upon row of golden corn had stood tall in the sunlight. Nathan tugged at his Minnesota Twins sweatshirt. He suddenly felt so tired.

“C’mon, boys,” called their dad from the front door. “That’s enough football for today. Nathan, we’re taking you to the doctor’s. I can hear you coughing from inside. I don’t want you getting pneumonia.”

***

The ICU room was quiet after the doctors left. Nathan’s parents, like grieving sentinels, sat clutching his hands on either side of the hospital bed. Nathan stared at the opposite wall, his mind struggling to catch up with reality. Only a few days ago he had been playing football with his brother.Now he was lying in a hospital bed after biopsy surgery, trying to grasp what he had just been told. His hand slid to his chest. Beneath his palm, growing insidiously inside him, was a cancerous tumor the size of a cantaloupe. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He would need two years of chemotherapy to fight it.

I have cancer, Nathan thought slowly, as though breaking the news to himself. He saw everything from his old life — school, band, all the sports he played — slipping away.

When the family eventually drove home, Nathan stared out the window at a world that seemed sinister and strange. Buildings stood cold and indifferent against a bleak, gray sky. People hurried forward against a brisk November wind, their faces shrouded in scarves and mufflers. It seemed to Nathan as though it were he, and not the coldness of the wind, that the passersby were trying to avoid. As they pulled up to the house, Nathan stared across at the cornfields. Th e stalks were brittle stumps, the ground frosty and cold.

God, he prayed, are you there? What’s going to happen to me?

***

April afternoon sunshine streamed through the living room window and onto the futon where Nathan had dozed while doing homework. He awoke to find Riley, his new terrier, licking his face. Nathan was feeling awful that day, but the sight of Riley’s small, fuzzy white face made him laugh.

“Getting that dog was a good idea, I guess,” his mother said, grinning.

Nathan ruffled Riley’s white coat. “He’s so funny,” he said. “He’s this foot-tall terrier, but he thinks he’s a Doberman.”

“He’s got a fighting spirit,” his mom said. “Like someone else I know.”

Nathan rolled his eyes, but smiled. “Touché, Mom.”

Nathan rearranged himself on the futon and settled back to work. He missed the basement bedroom he shared with Brian, but he was too weak to go up and down the stairs. For now, Nathan told himself firmly.

For encouragement, he looked to his homework, which was topped with a note of support from Kathy Doom, the academic dean at St. John’s Preparatory School. Nathan smiled as he thought of how supportive his school had been: Friends had called and visited, teachers had offered to tutor, Ms. Doom had made sure he got all his assignments, and students and school administrators alike had helped coordinate a benefit that raised money for new equipment at the children’s hospital. With the support of his school, and Nathan’s own determination, he was keeping up a 3.5 GPA. It was like pulling teeth to motivate himself to work when he felt ill. Still, he didn’t want to fall behind.

“When you’re feeling a little better,” his mother said, sitting beside him, “I thought we’d go to one of the baseball games at St. John’s.”

Of all the sports Nathan played, baseball was his favorite. He loved the smell of a leather glove and fresh-cut grass on the field. He loved the sound of the ball snapping in the catcher’s mitt and the satisfying crack of the bat when it connected with a ball. Nathan wondered, though, how he’d feel about watching from the sidelines. He’d gone to a school basketball game the previous fall. At first he’d felt exhilarated, surrounded by the familiar smell of sweat and sneakers, and by the hellos and how-are-yous of friends and teachers. But watching his classmates bound along the court, their limbs lithe and healthy, had been harder than he’d thought. He’d ached to be out there, too, sweating and scoring points. He wanted to remember what it felt like to not have to think about his body, unless it was to complain about muscles sore from too much play. Nathan had promised himself that as soon as he was able, he would work hard to play sports again.

“Hon?” Pam looked anxiously at her silent son. “Are you OK?”

“I’m fine, Mom,” Nathan grinned. “Nothing to worry about!”

His mother’s eyes watered. “I’m sorry you’ve had to miss out on so much.”

Nathan hated to see his mom upset. “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this, Mom,” he said. “I think in a way, this is much harder on you and Dad than it is on me.”

Nathan felt his mother’s warm tears against his face as she reached over and hugged him tightly. “You are so brave,” she whispered.

 

***

 

Nathan felt his legs tremble as he stepped onto the baseball field — not from illness or nervousness, but from excitement. It was his first baseball game in two years, and the weather couldn’t have been better. The June sunshine spread over everything — the bleachers, the field, the players. He tipped his head up to feel the warmth on his face, taking in the smell of the grass and the sounds of the field — shoes scuffing the dirt, the leathery smack of fists being thrust into mitts, and the cheers of friends, family, and teachers on the sidelines.

It had been a rough road to recovery, and it wasn’t over yet. Nathan still wasn’t able to play basketball or football, and easing into baseball hadn’t been a piece of cake. It wasn’t clear what would happen in the years to come. But right now, today, it felt so good to be on the field again. CD

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.