Some people say that you’re given cousins because your parents couldn’t handle you as siblings. Well, that was definitely true for me and Everett. He was my best friend. We used to say BCFs, best cousins forever. Our moms were sisters, but there’s no way that they were ever as close as me and Everett were. We did everything together. For as long as I can remember, we were an inseparable duo. The dream team. I was 8 months older than him, but he was much taller than me. A lot of people thought he was my older brother, and I always wished that he was. Since he was a boy, he thought he was tougher than me too. We used to argue about that, but I guess it did end up being true. He was really tough.
“Ev is a fighter”, I used to hear my mom say whenever he seemed extra sick. “Don’t worry, Celeste. He’s a tough one, our Everett.” And he did fight.
I was in the 3rd grade when we found out he was sick. I remember because it was the year he was turning 8, but I was already 8. He was one grade behind me because his birthday was in November, but mine is in March. We went trick-or-treating, and that was the day that things stopped being normal — right before his birthday. I was some kind of fairy princess because that’s what I was every year, and Everett was Harry Potter. Whenever I think about him now, I almost always imagine him as Harry Potter first, you know with those round glasses and a lightning bolt on his forehead. Today, I couldn’t even tell you which Harry Potter movie came out that year, but I know Everett could.
I don’t have any brothers or sisters, Everett was all that I had. It’s just me and my mom mainly, and whenever I could get my aunt to agree, Everett too. He was a big brother though to Elliott and Emmett. His parents are crazy for all those E’s; I don’t know how they ever kept them straight, honestly. My mom can barely keep it together with just saying Celeste or Cece, and it’s just me. I wonder now if it makes them sad if they accidentally say Everett when trying to call one of the other E’s. But, I don’t really hear anyone talk about him that much anymore though, except me. I always do.
I don’t know when Everett started being tired or hurt all the time, or when the fevers started either. We were young so maybe I just wasn’t paying that much attention. He wasn’t really sick to me for a long time. His mom thought for a while that he was so tired and stuff because all he ever wanted to eat was PopTarts and never any “real food”. She was always telling him that he needed some kind of multivitamin or supplement. He didn’t mind any of that so long as he still got his PopTarts. Some of it might have been food related, but it turns out that it all wasn’t.
It was raining earlier that day on Halloween, and so the ground was slippery in a lot of places. Everett and I were running from house to house, and I remember our moms shouting at us to slow down and wait for them. Elliott and Emmett were a lot younger, and they couldn’t keep up. Ev and I were running away from this big, big house that gave out Snapple drinks. It was one of our favorite houses because after all that bouncing around from house to house for hours, who wouldn’t want a drink? I remember that we were running down the steps from the Snapple house and Everett slipped and smacked his back right on a stair. It really knocked the wind out of him, I remember my mom saying. He just laid there for a few minutes and all the other trick-or-treaters were just staring at us because he wouldn’t get up. He walked it off, but we didn’t run the rest of the night. And that was it, he was never the same old Everett again.
The fevers were definitely before that, but I can’t be certain for how long. His birthday was coming up not long after Halloween, and I overheard my mom talking on the phone to his mom about cancelling the party. I couldn’t believe it. This was his Mad Scientist party that we had been talking about forever. Who was he? Where did my best cousin forever go? Because the Everett I knew would never want to miss out on that, I remember thinking. I also remember that I made him a sympathy card and demanded that my mom take me to see him. We showed up at his house and he’s laying in bed playing a video game with a heating pad underneath him. I shoved the card in his direction all pouty like, and he paused the game to thank me. He looked like he hurt pretty bad, and I guess I understood then why he couldn’t play mad scientist and try to blow stuff up with me at his party. I know now that what Ev was going through then is what they call “lethargy”. I asked to see his back, and there was this gnarly bruise and a lump. His mom was taking him to see Dr. Broward, the pediatrician, the next day because he said that she said that it couldn’t be normal.
On the bus to school the next day when we passed Ev’s stop and he didn’t get on, I remembered his pediatrician appointment. Then I thought about all the times since school started that he didn’t ride the bus home. I remember asking my mom each afternoon when I’d get off the bus, and her saying “Oh, he got picked up early because he was running a fever” or “he hurt himself in gym today.” She always brushed it off. “You know, boys play rough. It’s growing pains, Cece.”
Or a bone infection. That’s what Dr. Broward told my aunt and uncle. Osteomyelitis. I remember asking my mom how to spell it a hundred times, and she didn’t know so then I had to figure it out. I spent all my time reading about it for the first few days, and I shouldn’t have because it scared me a lot as an eight-year-old. I remember it was really hard to find books about it, but I went to the library and found other sort of related books. There was one little, tiny part that mentioned bone infections inside some other, bigger medical book that I honestly didn’t even understand and I started to panic.
I asked my mom that night if he was going to get better, and she did the whole, “Oh! Of course, sweetie.” She really seemed like she believed it. I wanted to believe her, and so right then, I did.
Everett didn’t go to school with me for a long while after that. He was given medicine through an IV for weeks. He never really ran, and played like he used to even when he was on the pill medicine, and not the needle one. He just laid around and watched TV, and that wasn’t the Everett I knew. His parents kept taking him to doctors, and it didn’t seem like he was getting better. I decided that year in the third grade that I wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t really understand a lot of the stuff I heard my mom and aunt talk about it, but I would write it down in my notebook and look it up later. Most of the words I couldn’t even spell, but I became pretty obsessed with trying to figure out how to make Ev better. My mom kept telling me not to worry, and that they were going to find the right doctor who would know what was wrong with Everett and everything would be okay. The more time went on, the less I believed her, but the more that I wanted to.
Third grade me learned that your white blood cells are what fight infections, and that’s why Dr. Broward said he had a bone infection because his white blood cell count was really high. The antibiotics weren’t working because Everett was still in a lot of pain and his fever would spike every now and again. He was actually in more pain, and he couldn’t even walk anymore. Christmas came and went and nothing was the same. Before Everett got sick, my aunt and uncle always went on an amazing trip every year over Christmas break that my mom and I got to piggyback on, but not that year. That year they went out of town to a new doctor, and we stayed home with Elliott and Emmett.
A little bit after New Years I remember that Everett was in so much pain that everything was hard for him. He wasn’t even really letting people touch him anymore, and I couldn’t remember if I saw him get out of his bed since maybe a little bit past Thanksgiving. It was a really good thing that my aunt was a stay at home mom because it seemed like she lived at the doctor’s office with Everett ever since then. My mom said that an x-ray showed some kind of fluid buildup which was backing up the whole bone infection thing, but at that point everyone thought it was definitely something worse, but they just didn’t want to say it.
February would be the month where the bomb was dropped on us as a family. He was admitted into the hospital that month, but I don’t remember the exact day anymore. I learned over the months since Everett’s fall on Halloween that turned our lives upside down, that hospitals like to use letters for just about everything. An MRI and a CT scan were done and the radiologist, Dr. Norfolk, told my aunt and uncle the bad news. We spent a few days awaiting official bad news confirmation, but I didn’t know any of that at the time. It was Friday, February 12th. I remember that because we were having our Valentine’s party at school. Everett was going to miss his because he wasn’t really going to school anymore at this point, so I was going to take some Valentines to him instead. I remember I went down the hall to his teacher’s room to get all the ones that his classmates made for him and deliver them to him in the hospital. I was so excited because I had a made an extra mailbox for him to collect them, and I just knew he was going to be even more excited than I was because I made it to look like the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. I was so proud of it, and I knew that he would absolutely love it.
But when I got to the parking lot where my mom was supposed to pick me up, I saw her head in her hands in the carpool line. I just froze on the sidewalk. Officer Lincoln, the sometimes crossing guard, patted me on the back as if to say, “Hey Cece, there’s your mom. Go on now.” But I just stood there. When my mom lifted her head I saw her wipe tears off her face before she turned in my direction, and when she saw me, I cried. She tried to compose herself and act like she wasn’t just silently sobbing in the parking lot of my elementary school, but she was and then I was too. Officer Lincoln saw us and she walked me to the door and opened it.
I remember her words exactly, and when I think about them now I can hear her say them still. “Well hello there, how’s our little E doing? Tell him we all said Happy Valentines Day, will you please?” My mom half smiled. You know that one you do when you recognize someone in public, but not enough to talk to them, but you have to acknowledge that you know them/you saw them because if you didn’t it would be rude? Well, she did that and said, “sure thing”.
And I just cried.
I didn’t even know what happened yet, and I was bawling. My mom didn’t say anything to me as we drove to the hospital. She held my hand as we walked from our car to the building, and when the sliding glass doors opened at the front she squeezed it. I looked up at her and her eyes were full of tears, but she was smiling at me. She bent down so that our faces were almost at the same height and kissed me on the forehead.
She said, “Celeste. Cece. Baby. I love you and I love Everett and I know you love Everett and I’m just telling you that we are going to get some tough news in there today about him. I haven’t seen him yet. I don’t know how he is. I don’t know if he’s upset or if he’s sleeping or anything. You can absolutely be sad and you can be angry or scared or feel whatever it is that you want to feel about what’s happening to Everett, ok?”
When I think back to that day it’s like I had a sound recorder or something because I didn’t forget a single word. I hear everything she said in her own voice when it plays back to me. I play it back all the time.
“But we need to try your absolute hardest to be brave and be tough for Ev right now. So let’s dry our faces and walk in there ready. Ok?”
And we did. Down the long, bright hallway, into the big, quiet elevator, up to his floor, and then finally down another long, bright hall again.
Knock, knock, knock.
He was awake, but he looked like he was about to fall asleep at any moment. My mom hugged her sister who looked like all she did was cry that whole entire day, but really it was probably off on and crying since Thanksgiving to be completely honest. I walked over to Everett, and I handed him his Sorting Hat valentine box. He smiled at me and I smiled at him.
“You don’t need any of those though. You can just be my valentine.”
He smiled again, and in unison we said, “best cousins forever” before he drifted off to sleep.
My aunt sat beside me and she put her arm around me and squeezed. She said, “Well, Cece. I’ve got some really, really bad news.”
The scans from the other day showed that there was a large tumor in Everett’s spinal column, and it was compressing his spinal cord. The doctors suspected that he had cancer. This was the unofficial bad news. So a biopsy was ordered of the tumor to be certain what it was. A biopsy is when a doctor takes a small sample of whatever it is they’re curious about and examines it. The results came back that day, Friday, February 12th. This was the official bad news that everyone was crying about.
The oncologist, Dr. Ruston, said that Everett had cancer. Ewing’s Sarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer that people often mistake for a sports injury or for growing pains. I don’t remember anything else she said to me that day or even the car ride home except for one question. Everett had cancer. My Everett, my very best friend. My best cousin forever, the person who was more like my brother than my cousin, had cancer. The only other person I ever knew who had cancer before Ev was my Pap, my mom’s grandpa, and he died right after we found out he was sick. I was in kindergarten when that happened, and he was really old. I thought then that just old people got cancer and died. I remember my mom telling me that our hearts are like batteries and sometimes they just stop. I said, “like your iPod?” and that made her laugh for the first time in a while. She said, “Yep, Cece. Just like my iPod.” And just like that my Pap had stomach cancer and then he didn’t have it because he died. But then Everett had bone cancer.
The sentences I remember from the car ride were me asking my mom, “Can we charge his batteries?” and she looked at me like this was a completely foreign concept. “When Everett’s heart batteries stop, can we charge them?” She didn’t even answer me.
What you already know, and what I learned later is that no, you can’t charge someone’s heart batteries because hearts really aren’t that much like batteries after all. Sure, they power our bodies, but sometimes when they quit, they just quit.
There’s a reason I’m telling you this. It isn’t because Everett had a rare bone cancer that ended up being in an inoperable spot needing both chemotherapy and radiation. It isn’t because by the time the countless tests finally caught his cancer it had already spread, or as doctors said, it was metastatic. Those are both important facts, but this story doesn’t stop with Everett’s disease. That is where it starts.