I cringe, realizing what I said and how it must have sounded. “Sorry. It’s just…”
“You’ve never known someone like me and you don’t have the language for it yet. I get that.” His tone is filled with patience. “I’ve had half my life to learn about epilepsy and seizures, medication, and support groups. I don’t expect you to know anything about the condition. I thought you should know I have it.”
I’m quiet for a long time. “Do you have a lot of seizures?”
“I used to have them every day. I developed posttraumatic epilepsy following a head injury as a teenager. It took years to get my seizures under control. There are a lot of medications and finding the one that works best for your brain can be hard. Last week, I had my first one in three years.”
“Will you have another one again?”
“I hope not. Every time I have a seizure, I have to give up driving for about a year.”
That has to be so frustrating. Driving gives me a feeling of freedom and independence. I can’t imagine having it stripped from me. “Any time Ollie needs nighttime drives, I’m here. Anything you need too. But you might have to tell me what to do.”
He murmurs his thanks, and we fall into a comfortable silence. I’m still processing everything he’s told me tonight when Hale asks, “What made you want to be a pediatrician?”
I hesitate. I haven’t really told anyone my story other than Gabby. Sometimes people treat you differently once they know about your past. But Hale trusted me with his story, and I want to do the same. “I had cancer as a kid. Leukemia.”
Hale swears under his breath and somehow, even in the darkened car, his hand finds mine. He threads our fingers together, offering me his comfort and warmth. He doesn’t say anything or offer any words and this is what I like about Hale.
For some reason, his silence helps me tell more of my story than I’ve ever told before. “I was a foster kid. My parents died when I was too young to remember them. I bounced around from place to place. But after the diagnosis, I had trouble getting adopted. No one wants the sick kids.”
I understand why. When most prospective parents imagine growing their family through adoption, they think of all the fun times they can have with their new child. Family picnics, vacations, new school photos, and those cute kindergarten graduation ceremonies.
They don’t envision spending hours in the hospitals, learning to navigate the medical system, and doing endless research on which treatments are right for their child. It’s a lot even for a biological parent.
If my parents had been alive, would they have been there with me in the hospital? Would they have been by my side through all the treatments?
I’ll never have the chance to know thanks to the explosion that took them from me. I was away on a playdate the night the gas leak happened.
“Are you…?” Now it’s his turn to hesitate and it strikes me that we’re a pair. Two people who are trying to learn to navigate each other’s illnesses together.
“Terminally ill? No, I’m in remission. I have been for years. I mean, the treatments…they take a toll.” I stop there, quiet for a moment. There are things he needs to know. “I mean, there’s a possibility I could develop a secondary cancer. Survival rates for kids with cancer are getting higher with every passing year, so there’s a lot of research to be done on what life after cancer looks like for us.”
He swears again. The fact that lives can be saved through chemo and radiation is amazing, but it means potential health problems down the road. There are a lot of unanswered questions for survivors, and so many uncertainties.
I continue, answering his original question, “If I go to school and become a pediatrician, then maybe the system will let me take in a few of the sick ones. Maybe I can give them what I never had.” My voice trembles on the words. “A home.”
“I’ll be your home,” Hale says.
I swallow against the lump in my throat, and maybe it’s the late night and the moonlight, but suddenly, I want that more than anything. I want Hale and Ollie to be mine forever. I want the three of us to make a little family together.
“Sorry about this,”Hale apologizes again for what must be the thirteenth time since I’ve come to the back deck.
I shake my head and give him a small smile. “This is perfect, better than any restaurant.”
Ollie has been running a fever today. Other than a case of the sniffles, he’s fine. Hale insisted on rushing him to Doctor Cash, who reassured both of us that it was nothing more than a cold. He encouraged us to monitor his temperature and let his little body fight it off.
I could tell Hale wanted to argue with that. But I put a hand on his shoulder, and he instantly stilled. It was at that moment I realized how much my touch calms him. Just like his touch calms me. After never having anyone my whole life, it’s strange to meet someone who feels like the port in my storm.
Hale offered to reschedule the date tonight. But I told him that we’d waited long enough for our first date. So we decided to have dinner on his back deck, underneath the stars.
He lit candles and got food from a restaurant in Asheville. He’s even wearing a blue suit, that looks a size too small and he keeps reaching for the collar. I don’t think my mountain man likes dressing up.
The baby monitor on the table is quiet, but I still glance at it to see if Ollie is awake. He’s sleeping soundly, and the sight makes me relax.