The final instalment, I hope you enjoy it. I tried hard to be medically accurate but any mistakes were my own. Please let me know what you think! Thanks.
I climbed into bed, closing my eyes momentarily, resting my aching eyes. God, I'm so sick and tired of always being sick and tired. Today had been long and emotionally gruelling, my heart felt battered and I felt weak. I hated it but didn't know quite what to do about it.
Just as I was about to begin a full-blown pity party, I felt the sheets tug slightly and I opened my eyes to see a topless Ranger slide into my bed. Without a word he wrapped me in his arms, and held me against his chest.
It was like a shot of serotonin to my system – instant happy.
'You're a great hugger.' I said, rambling on. 'You could sell your hugs.'
His hands skimmed up and down my arms. 'They're just for you Babe.'
I smiled at him, 'Mmm and I get them free, aren't I the lucky one?'
He kissed me lightly on my hair, then frowned, 'I miss the rats nest.' He confessed softly.
His arms tightened around me, and then he started to whisper to me in Spanish. He spoke too rapidly for me to follow, but I caught a few words, like 'live' 'love' and 'life'. I fell asleep to the melodic rise and fall of his voice. My last conscious thought was that despite his voice being sexy enough for radio, it would be a crime to deprive people of the visual – I think I murmured something about TV before sleep claimed me.
The next morning Ranger had to help me shower. I felt a bolt of worry as I realised that he'd stood next to me in the shower and I hadn't even thought of sex. It wasn't a good sign for me, not at all. He washed me with a tenderness I wouldn't really have expected from him. A ruthless military efficiency, yes, tenderness, no.
He made me eat an apple, and his worry lines deepened when I could barely manage half. I stumbled as I walked down my corridor, and summarily found myself swept up into his arms. He carried me to the car again, and glared at me when I apologised. 'It's no trouble.' He said firmly. I smiled wanly and nodded my thanks, mortified when I felt tears welling up in gratitude. Jeez, my emotions were all over the place. I blinked the persistent tears away and railed at myself mentally; come on Steph, buck up, you can do this.
I walked into the hospital on Rangers arm, any other time and place and I would have enjoyed it much more, but knowing he was partly holding me up made it lose some of its appeal. Still, I wanted to be there for my families blood tests, especially as they were going through it for me.
When I was shown into the appropriate room, I stopped dead. 'What's going on?' I demanded.
Angie was hopped up on the bed, arm extended.
'I thought we agreed that Angie and Mary Alice wouldn't be tested unless you all came back negative?'
'Stephanie.' Valerie said softly, 'they want to help you, and this way we save valuable time.' She started to tear up, 'the sooner you get the transplant the better your chances…' She angrily wiped at a tear, visibly trying to pull herself together.
I couldn't deal with someone else's crying, and I felt the first licks of panic as another tear escaped.
'Ok,' I said hastily, 'have them tested now, just stop crying, ok?'
Valerie smiled, and for a moment I could have sworn there was a glint of satisfaction in her eye, but no, it couldn't be. No one with a Meg Ryan mop could be manipulative; I think it has something to do with the dye.
Angie and Mary Alice were both very brave, though Mary Alice made a face when the needle penetrated her skin. Still, within minutes and two sugar cubes, she was soon galloping around the confined room as per usual. It made me smile.
The test results were being rushed, but even then it would be at least a day before we knew, and then it would probably be a week after that that the operation would take place… if I had a donor. And even then, my body had to accept the new marrow. There was a possibility, as with every transplant, that my body would react badly to the cells not of my own making. Still, the doctor said that I had a 10 mortality rate after the bone marrow transplant, I would prefer no mortality but 10 wasn't that bad, I had a 90 chance of living. That was a good thing.
Still, I wanted to tie things up, just in case. So Ranger and I went to Mary Lou's and spent three tear-filled hours with her. She burst into tears all over again when she offered me a donut and I said my stomach probably couldn't handle it. Then, sniffling, she made me a small salad that I managed to eat and keep down. Every time I even tried to mention the words 'death', 'dying' or 'mortality rate' she clapped her hands over her ears and hummed.
'Dammit Steph, you're going to make it. Don't even think for a second otherwise.' She said fiercely. It was what I needed to hear. I flashed her a wide smile and nodded. 'I sure am.' I agreed.
Next up was the office. Lula and Connie didn't cry, but they were clearly at a loss with what to say. Finally Lula said, 'If your skinny white ass dies, I'm going to haunt you.'
I thought about pointing out the inconsistencies there, but decided to ignore it this once. 'Who said I was going to die?' I demanded. 'I'll bust a cap up their ass for lying.' I said. And Lula lost it. I held onto her while she bawled and Connie deftly wiped her own streaming eyes. I never thought the day would come when us three open-emotion-aphobes had a group hug, but there it was, another thing to tick off.
Ranger took me home and made a small salad for dinner, frowning when I barely managed half. He cajoled me into a few more bites but finally I pleaded that another bite would make me barf so he let it lie. That night I lay in his arms and giggled whilst I tried to practise my pigeon Spanish. Ranger replied in kind, smiling, speaking slowly and clearly so I could understand.
'Tu es…' I couldn't think of the Spanish word for "sexy", 'um…sexy.'
Ranger laughed, 'Tu es sexy, hmm? Gracias querida, tu es sexy tambien.' Then his eyes took on that look that I've come to learn and love, it's heat and fire, and warmth and affection, it's stability and trust. It was everything.
'I love you.' I blurted out, I was slightly embarrassed but I didn't regret it, I didn't have time for regrets. Besides, he had to know now; I wouldn't want him to wonder after I'm gone how I felt.
He smiled a brilliant dazzling smile that was pure happiness, and then he leaned down and kissed me, slow, long and deep. It was breathtaking and shocking, and it rocked right down to the very core of my being. It was love.
When he finally pulled back from his silent declaration my heart was beating double time and, despite everything, I had never felt better.
'I love you.' He whispered to me. By that point I finally realised that I didn't really need the words, he'd been telling me that same thing over and over again with his actions for years. Still, the words were the icing on a figurative cake that I hadn't realised I'd been eating all this time.
We talked on and on for a few hours, Ranger carefully talking of future plans, and me, carefully avoiding it.
Whatever may come, Ranger loves me, and I love him. I wasn't scared of dying now, I was scared of leaving him, scared that he would find it too hard without me, scared that he wouldn't move on. Death is hardest on the living.
When we slipped into bed that night, I struggled to stay awake until Rangers breathing levelled off, signifying his deep sleep. Then I sneakily grabbed his cell phone from the bedside and called Tank.
It rang once before it was answered with a gruff 'Boss?'
'Not quite.' I answered, speaking lowly to make sure I didn't wake Ranger up.
'Stephanie?' he asked.
'Yeah. You're friends with Ranger, right? I mean, colleagues and stuff, but friends?'
'Yeah.' Tank said slowly, wondering where this was going.
'You know I'm dying right?'
Tank cleared his throat awkwardly, 'Ranger said you had cancer, but that you'd pull through.'
'I might,' I conceded, though not to myself, I couldn't let myself hope, not yet. 'I might not. I need you to help him through this if I die. I need you to promise you'll make sure he moves on, that he takes care of himself. You'll do that, won't you Tank?'
'I will.' He said solemly.
That was all I needed to hear. 'Goodbye Tank.'
We hung up, and I wondered if his goodbye had felt as final as mine had.
I replaced Ranger's cell back onto the side, calmer now I knew everything would be ok. Ranger loved me. I slipped into sleep easily that night, full of a sense of peace I'd never felt before.
I awoke feeling exhausted and disorientated. I wasn't home. Where was I? And damn, I needed to turn my alarm off - it wouldn't stop beeping. Wait, that wasn't my alarm. I blinked some more and tried to kick my brain into gear.
I looked around some more, and barely stopped myself from groaning. Dammit. I was in hospital. I hate hospitals. Which wiseass invented them? Ok, so in principle they were a good idea, but the reality of being in one was never fun and games.
Ranger was in a chair by my bed, his head was lolling on his chest and he looked decidedly uncomfortable.
'Ranger.' I croaked, and his head snapped up.
'Babe.' He said with obvious relief. 'How do you feel?'
'Confused.' I confessed. 'What? Why?'
'You didn't wake up Babe,' he said, his voice tight. 'You hadn't been getting enough nutrients; they've put you on an IV now. This is your second day in hospital.'
I thought about all the implications of that, and I felt my heart stop. 'The results?' I asked. I didn't need to clarify; there was only one set of results that we were all thinking about right now.
'Angie's the best match.' He said softly.
'No.' I said instantly, firmly. 'No way. She's nine. No.'
'Babe,' he paused, 'just think about it ok? Your sister is your next match, but that's only a 65 match and they don't normally transplant below 70. Angie is a 92 match Babe, that's amazing, that's a really good match.'
'And what about Angie?' I said, 'She's so young; any operation for a kid is dangerous. So what if I live, what if she dies? I could NEVER forgive myself for that. Never.'
'I don't want to talk about it Ranger.' I turned away from him and closed my eyes. Moments later I felt his hand reach out and gently stroke my hair back, I let him sooth my troubled heart and mind until I tumbled into sleep.
This time when I woke I knew exactly where I was, and a gentle resignation had settled over me. It was my time. Soon I would be released from my weary body and I could go on to whatever may come.
I smiled peacefully to myself.
I dragged open my eyes and smiled at my niece, 'hello Angie, how are you?'
'Not good.' She said.
'What's the matter?' I asked, concerned.
'I'm upset that you don't love me.' She whispered, eyes welling up.
I struggled to sit up, 'Now who said that?' I demanded, 'of course I love you!'
Angie slowly shook her head, 'No you don't, you can't. Or else why would you do this to me?'
'Do what sweetie?'
'I could save you Aunt Stephie, I could save you and you won't let me.' Angie started to cry and panic welled up in me, my calm long gone, 'And now you'll die and I'll blame myself forever. And secretly, so will Grandma and Grandpa and Mom. Everyone will hate me. I will hate me.' She paused mid sob, 'why do you hate me so much that you would do that to me?'
I was speechless.
'Angie…' I paused, searching for the right words, 'No one will hate you, or blame you. And I certainly don't hate you. I love you, it's because I love you that I won't let you donate your marrow; it's too dangerous. You could die.'
'I could die if we do this, but you will definitely die if we don't. The chances of me dying are really little, really really little. But if you don't let me help then you're definitely going to die. Why would you do that to me? I'd never forgive myself. Never. I know you love Mary Alice more than me cos she's a crazy horse like you - I bet you would let Mary Alice give her marrow.' She burst into full-blown tears, covered her face with her hands and sobbed her little hear out. I panicked. I point blank panicked.
'Ok ok, we can do the transplant!'
As soon as the words left my mouth the door banged open and the room began filling with people, doctors, nurses, and Valerie, and my Mom and Dad, and Ranger was somewhere - I couldn't really see through all the paper work being shoved in front of me. I signed on all the dotted lines and then the whirlwind disappeared, leaving me a little disorientated.
'Was I just hustled?' I asked my Mom.
She smiled at me, 'you were being unreasonable dear.'
I gaped. I looked at the junior mini Meg Ryan, and Angie smiled brightly at me. 'I'm glad you love me Aunt Stephie.' Apparently the Meg Ryan mop doesn't prevent manipulation, who knew?
Ranger cleared the room in small order, leaving me glaring at him accusingly. 'You had something to do with that didn't you?'
'Who? Me?' He said, blandly, 'never.'
He moved closer to me, sitting on the edge of my bed. 'The doctors are going to start prepping you both, they'll operate on you in five days.'
'Why so soon?'
His eyes tightened, but all he said was 'why wait?'
'There's still a chance,' I said softly. 'There's no guarantee that the treatment will work - I could still die Ranger.'
'You'll fight,' Ranger simply said. 'Fight for us.'
'Yes,' I nodded, 'I'll fight.'
Angie and I were both put in isolation rooms that night. Me, because in a day or two they were going to blast my system with as much radiotherapy as they could, and although this would make my chances higher in the long run, in the immediate term it was dangerous. The radiotherapy conditioning would destroy the cancerous cells, but it would also destroy my remaining immune system. If I contracted even a common cold from someone at this point I would probably die. And that would just be annoying.
As for Angie, they certainly couldn't have her getting ill or they'd just be replacing my rubbish bone marrow with her ill bone marrow. Luckily neither of us had anything wrong at the moment – well, apart from the small matter of my cancer.
Two days later and I was bored of the isolation and I just wanted to get on with it.
That morning they put a catheter in my chest before they gave me the radiotherapy conditioning, apparently it was so they could give me all the drugs painlessly, but I think it's because they wanted to make me look like one of the people in the pods in the Matrix. But that's just my theory.
Those two days after the conditioning were the longest and most hellish of my life. I could only see my family for a little while each day, and each time they came to visit they had to go through a whole cleansing process and put on robes and gloves and masks to see me. Ranger stayed with me pretty much all the time, whether it was dressed up, robes and all, or whether it was through the glass, he stayed with me. I needed him so much, my energy levels were at an all time low, and I was irritable and nauseous as hell. The doctors told me this was normal, I told them to take a long walk off a short pier. Ok, so I wasn't gracious in my time of suffering, but to be fair, it was no picnic for me either.
Finally the morning of the transplant had arrived and I was ready to barf from sheer nerves, r it could just be the radiotherapy continuing its delightful work. More than anything though, I just wanted it to be over. This whole ordeal had been…well, an ordeal. I had cried nearly every day, thrown up more than I care to think of, and I had despaired and wanted to give up and end it all on too many occasions. And yet, I had struggled through by myself and found I was stronger than I ever imagined, I had leaned on my family and friends and realised this didn't make me weak, and I had found love and realised I had had it all along. It had literally been the best of times and the very worst of times. Turns out Charles Dickens knew his shit.
I just hope I'm going to make it though this, though I'm beginning to think - to believe - that I will.
The doctors ran a battery of tests on me early that morning, checking things like my heart and kidney function so that they had a baseline to compare with post-op. They were all experienced doctors and had performed many BMTs before; at least that's what they assured me. They told me my chances were really good.
They went over the whole procedure with me for what felt like the hundredth time. Angie would be put under general anaesthetic, and then they would insert a needle into the cavity of her hipbone and extract the bone marrow with a needle and a syringe. The thought of it made me cringe, but then I've never been especially hot with needles. Worse, Angie would have to endure multiple punctures on each hip, but they assured me repeatedly that under general anaesthetic she would feel only a little discomfort. Because there would be no actual surgery performed on her, Angie would make a full and rapid recovery.
I was worried that taking Angie's bone marrow would affect her health but the doctors told me that they would only be taking a small fraction of her bone marrow, just 2, so she should be absolutely fine.
Then finally they would give me the bone marrow intravenously, and then for the next two to four weeks I would suffer the worst flu like symptoms ever – that's if I was lucky enough not to get graft-versus-host disease, in which case it's possible I would die a pretty painful death. Still, I only had a 10 chance of said horrific death so I was trying to be positive, even when I was secretly sick to my stomach with fear. I had been living with this fear for a while now though, and I had learned how to cope with it, or at least not to focus on it.
It wasn't the death I was scared of as such; it was leaving everyone, and the pain. Ranger promised me, jaw locked firmly, eyes glistening suspiciously, that he wouldn't let me suffer. He swore he would make sure that I had enough pain medication, if the worst came to the worst. It reassured me, Ranger would tear the world apart for me if necessary, I'm pretty sure he could ensure I would have enough morphine.
Angie came and waved to me through the glass before she went to have her marrow removed, she was smiling at me, but I could see she was nervous. I wanted to ask her not to do it, but I knew that it wasn't fair, she was determined - and me asking her to do otherwise wasn't going to help her any.
I touched my hand to the glass separating us and she did the same, her hand was so small compared to mine. She kissed the back of her hand and I did the same, it was all we could do. My heart swelled and I wanted to cry, she was being so brave, and despite the doctors reassurances I knew what they meant with 'discomfort' – it was going to be the same level of pain as drilling teeth, it hurt and you wanted to cry out but you could just manage to keep it in. This was not going to be fun for her, even with general anaesthetic.
An hour later and it was all done and my brand spanking new marrow was being inserted into my IV tube. It all seemed just a little too easy to save my life. It was another hour of agitation before my mom came to tell me that Angie had come round; she was groggy, sore, and completely ok. I drifted into sleep reassured that my niece was going to be all right.
Two weeks later and I had come to the complete and utter realisation that this life-saving business was far far from easy. It was hard, very hard. It was the spectrum opposite from easy. And I was struggling not to whine.
Angie had recovered completely, for which I was grateful, I however, was still completely sick. And although I had expected it, it still didn't make me less grumpy. I was so tired, even sitting up and watching TV was draining. And the isolation was getting to me big time. Ranger could come for a bit at a time, but even when he was holding my hand all I was holding was a horrible feeling plastic glove that did not hack it. I was craving human contact, real genuine human contact. I understood intellectually exactly why I couldn't have it, infections were B-A-D right now, I had to avoid them, I got that, really I did. But I'm sick of throwing up in a bedpan, and sick of holding fricking gloves!
I was also struggling with exactly how dependent I was on everyone else. I was relying on complete strangers to save my life, even if they were professionals. All I could do was lie back and wait, and it was frustrating and boring, and the sense of helplessness made me quick to anger. Several times I had to stop myself snarling at some poor nurse just because I was feeling like I had the worst case of PMS the world has ever seen. It was embarrassing as hell that someone had to help me to the little intergalactic princess' washroom. That's what I had taken to calling it, to the amusement of the nurses.
Everyday I had to have more tests done, more blood taken, so that they could compare and see how well my new marrow was settling in. They made it sound like my marrow was moving into a holiday home. But two weeks of constant tests and I was beginning to suspect that the doctors were a secret coven of vampires, or flock or whatever the hell it is you call a bunch of bloodsuckers. I try to blame my paranoia on my illness but I think I'm just going crazy in here.
They reassured me that I would be out of the hospital in a few days; I think they were fibbing to stop me from trying to escape. Some days I would wake up feeling so much better, feeling ready to face the world, convinced this was the day that they would let me out, and then the next day I would wake up feeling worse than ever. It was a disheartening experience, though Ranger and my family got me through it.
Three weeks after the initial transplant the marrow had finally engrafted, my blood count had returned to safe levels, and I could go HOME! It was, quite possibly, the happiest day of my life.
I woke up early; nearly buzzing with energy, and the doctors gave me the all clear. My family came in en masse and they brought the flowers that hadn't been allowed to contaminate my room, but the best bit of all was Ranger gave me a hug. A genuine skin-to-skin, I-can-smell-his-delicious-scent hug.
It was a struggle; I won't deny that. Even the first two months were a struggle. But I had hope. I was still tired, still getting sick sometimes, still irritable, but my regular checks all said that everything was progressing a-ok. 6 months they said, and you can even go back to work. I clung to that, fought for that. I wanted to have my life back, the day-to-day drudge and all.
Ranger was outstanding; he stayed with me most nights, rare exceptions due to work or business trips. It wasn't long until he was in my bed again the way I'd been hoping for since that night long ago. He was everything I remembered and more: fire and magic and love.
A month later and he suggested we move in together, though he suggested another location than my flat. BC, Before Cancer, I would have freaked out without question, now I could do something that I would have hesitated at because I knew life was short, may still be short for me. It's every cancer victims fear - a relapse. It's five years before the doctors will decisively say that I'm 'cured' and even then, there will always be a faint echo of apprehension that it's not over yet. Still, all that's serving to do is constantly remind me to live, really live. I've stopped doing all the extreme things I was trying before, though I would still like to swim with dolphins, now it's the small things I really appreciate.
My family are a presence in my life like never before, and I go religiously to my Mom's house for dinner at least once a week, and I drag Ranger with me. Though to be honest its not like he's dragging his heels – I suspect he still prefers my moms cooking to mine.
After another month Ranger and I found the perfect flat, and started to pack up our respective things, and that's when Joseph Morelli finally showed up. He'd been on assignment on and off, I knew that much, but that did not excuse his absence from my life for over 7 months. He got into my flat, probably using his old key, and posed against the doorframe.
'Hey Cupcake' He smirked, 'how's it going?'
I stared at him speechlessly; I really had no idea what to say. Luckily Ranger was there to save the day. He straightened from packing one of the boxes, walked right over to Joe, and decked him. We packed around an unconscious Morelli for the next hour. When Joe came round Ranger hauled him up by his shirt, and spoke to him in a low voice that I couldn't quite hear. I caught the words 'cancer' 'asshole' and 'fuck-wit'.
Joe sent me apology flowers every day for a month. Eventually I forgave him, life is too damn short.
It was 5 months after my transplant that I knew I was really going to be ok. I walked into the Tasty Pastry and for the first time in too long I wanted a fricking donut. I brought 6 Boston Creams, marched home to Ranger, and promptly ate them all, and I didn't throw up. Ranger and I celebrated with lots of wild sex, and the next day the doctors cleared me for going back to work.
Life went back to normal, it continued and marched on, and I loved it. I have crappy days, of course - everyone does - but with Ranger and my family beside me I can face anything.