Home from school. Out the door. On his bike, pumping down Algonquin Avenue on Jacksonville's west side. No pausing for homework, for telling Mom about his day, for filling his empty stomach, for even a whiff of despair. David would grab a soda and a frankfurter at the white brick concession stand overlooking the 18th green at Timuquana, then grab his clubs. His father, the club pro, would pick up the tab for 35 or 40 hot dogs a month. All this was routine now for the 11-year-old boy, routine installed two years earlier when the old one was smashed. Every afternoon after school, every weekend and summer day, morning until dark, until his dad was ready to go home—and his dad, well, he wasn't exactly going home anymore. He would drop David off and pull away.
That was so much easier than walking into the house, as David did, and nor looking at the big framed picture of Brent that his mother refused to put away. Brent smiling, radiating health—that bucket of tadpoles and fishing pole must've been just outside the frame. A sweet-natured boy, the one to whose bed their little sister, Deirdre, always ran when she had nightmares, the one who always had mud on his pants and a snake or a turtle or a beetle in his palms and said, "Isn't this creature beautiful?" Darker-featured, like Dad; outgoing, like Dad. Already showing promise in Dad's sport in the father-and-son tournaments the two played at Timuquana as the pale and quiet middle child, David, stood by his mother, Diane, and his little blonde sister, ingesting it all through the prism of those thick glasses.
Bottle of iron pills, that's all 12-year-old Brent needed, Diane figured when he began asking out of town-league basketball games early. Looked a little pale, and then ungodly pale when the hematologist told Diane and Bobby, right in front of Brent, that his bone marrow, out of nowhere, had stopped producing white blood cells, that he had a disease called aplastic anemia, and three choices: Do nothing and die within three months, and not a pretty death; experiment with drugs about which virtually nothing was known; or attempt a bone-marrow transplant at one of five hospitals in the country that would perform it—perhaps, with a good match from a sibling, a 50-50 shot. Option three? One small warning: Before the transplant could be attempted, Brent would have to undergo weeks of chemotherapy and total-body radiation treatments. All of his bone-marrow cells would have to be slaughtered for the new marrow to have a chance.
The sibling? That was David. It was his bone marrow, not Deirdre's, that was a 90% match with Brent's. He was his brother's only chance to live.
My God. The transplant worked. Brent, left pale, gaunt and bald by the disease and weeks of chemotherapy, began to regain color and strength. The Duvals rejoiced, made plans for Brent to return home from the hospital in Cleveland. To celebrate they got permission to take him out for dinner with his favorite nurse, Molly Murphy.
At dinner Brent vomited. Just nerves probably, from being out in public again, doctors reassured his parents. David went back home to Jacksonville. Swiftly came the diarrhea, the teeth-clacking fever and the truth: Brent had graft-versus-host disease. David's bone marrow was attacking his brother's body; bacterial infection was hopping like a grease fire; organ after organ was shutting down.
One last time, it was decided, David should see his brother before he died. Escorted by Diane's father, Harry Poole, David flew back to Cleveland. He froze at the door of the ICU. That sunken bundle of bloodless flesh and bones connected to a tangle of tubes, inside that strange plastic bubble...that was the big brother he had flown kites with, played catch with, the one who had pulled David out of the St. Johns River just a few years before when he tumbled off the dock and thought sure he would drown?
"That's not my brother!" David screamed. He turned and raced down the corridor, past nurses and orderlies, around corners and down stairs and through doors, out into the air, onto the street, over curbs and between cars and across intersections. He heard his name called from behind, heard footsteps pounding closer, but he just kept running, gulping and running, three blocks, four blocks; the moment he stopped, it would all be true.