By Nick Hudson
I am writing this blog while helping my one-and-a-half year old son eat his dinner. (“eat” is a loose term, since over fifty percent of his vegetables and baby-size chicken nuggets land on the floor rather than in his mouth. So is the word, “helping,” because I spend most of the time fighting laughter through an otherwise poor attempt at a stern expression). My son has blonde hair and big brown eyes and a hugely-contagious laugh. I feel lucky every time I look at him. Even during the happiest times with him, though, I think of Cameron.
Cameron’s parents were high school sweethearts. They worked at the same company, got married, bought a house, then set about starting their family. They were overjoyed when he was born. Their first child. A son with big brown eyes and blonde hair. They called him “Super Cam.”
He was only two years old when his family received the news that Cam had acute leukemia. Eventually, Cam’s doctors sat his parents down and told them news they were hoping not to hear: their son would not survive without a bone marrow transplant. He was then four years old.
I had never heard of the bone marrow registry before. It is not exactly something that comes up in everyday conversation. I was only 21 and standing outside my college cafeteria. There was a nice classmate at a table and he explained what the registry was and how I possibly could help someone one day. And, there were cookies. I signed up and gladly accepted the Oreos that came with the deal. Then I graduated and life continued.
A little over a year later, I received a phone call. The voice on the other end of the line told me that she had important news. She was calling from a bone marrow registry named Gift of Life. Good name, I thought. She said I was a perfect match for a four-year-old boy who had leukemia.
In the weeks that followed I traveled to the hospital where the transplant was to take place. The people there explained that I would have to undergo anesthesia and they put me through a series of tests to make sure that was all right. It is still surprising to me now how many people thought all of this was very strange. I stopped telling people why I was going to the hospital; half, to make sure I didn’t jinx the transplant and half, to avoid the inevitable but unspoken exchange when they thought I was crazy for doing it. I thought they were crazy for thinking that way.
A year after the transplant, I received another phone call. The voice on the other end again told me that she had important news. The bone marrow recipient was alive. Did I want to exchange information?
A year after his transplant, Cameron was back home. His blonde hair grew back in, slowly. His brown eyes and big laugh never left. He would be starting school soon and recently went to a baseball game of his favorite team. His parents received a similar call to mine. They, too, wanted to meet.
At first, we emailed. It was like online dating. His parents told me that in preparing for the transplant, they told Cam that he was healthy because somewhere out there, he had a “blood brother.” Not having an actual brother yet, Cam thought this was great. The name stuck. I was now, in all email sign offs, “Blood Brother.” I shared pictures of me and some friends “just to let you know I’m a normal person.” They shared pictures and stories of Cam and their family through the years: how he spent so much of his young life in a hospital; how they tried as hard as they could to make it comfortable for him, not knowing if he’d ever return home.
A few weeks later we met and went to the hospital where Cam was treated. His parents walked just behind us in the same hallway where they wondered if their son would live to see kindergarten; in the same building where they spent so many nights being challenged as parents in an unimaginable way. Even then, I remembered the strength that must have taken. Cam, his parents, and I have been close ever since that moment. Life continued, and so did our friendship. We stayed in touch. I visited their house and we watched cartoons. They visited me and we went to the zoo. He became a “big brother.” Cameron was at my wedding. I can depend on a totally-unnecessary-but-always-appreciated thoughtful thank you text from him on every birthday, holiday, and transplant anniversary (and Patriots Super Bowl win – he is an avid fan). We are family.
I’m picking up smushed broccoli and chicken off the floor. A flying nugget hits me in the head and laughter erupts from the highchair. As a parent to a little boy who is about Cam’s age at the time of his diagnosis, looking back on my bone marrow donation brings even more meaning now. That experience has been completely life-altering.
I volunteer and worked with the bone marrow registry for years. I work with Stupid Cancer, an organization that serves as an advocate for the often-overlooked adolescent and young adult cancer patient community. Through this work, I have met patients who are not as fortunate as Cameron, both in outcome and the loving support system that never left his corner.
I constantly think about how that taught me what it takes to be a parent. I cannot separate my reality of raising a child who depends on his parents for everything, from being so close to one whose life depended on a total stranger. Every contagious laugh, every well- up of tears in his eyes, every stroke of my son’s hair when he falls asleep all make me feel more connected to this parenting reality. More and more, I am lucky to know two healthy, growing little men who look alike, who laugh alike, and who each makes me prouder with each passing day.