The boy was grounded. Mouthing off to his mother, first offense. You stick near the house, ordered Kathy Ahearn before she left for work. Brian pretty much obeyed. At least he could say the skateboarding race at the top of the street would end near his house. The sandy-haired kid leaned forward ready to fly. Brian whizzed downhill standing too far to the front of the skateboard and he tumbled. His wrist cracked. By day’s end, his throwing arm was wrapped in a cast. “What a pain”, he grumbled.
Even when Brian skated, the moody side of almost 13 or, worse yet, was forced to sit still, his parents agreed he was a good kid. He was simply all boy at full throttle. Now Little League was out just five games into the ’97 season. The grumpy shortstop threatened to bop his teen-age sister over the head with the cast. He hung out with Gerard Friedler, his partner in action, but they couldn’t do much and the boys’ friendship wasn’t based on yak. By the time Brian was back in swing, his 13th birthday had passed, and summer was half gone. The family set off for a week at the Jersey shore. Brian couldn’t wait.
On the drive from Warwick to Wildwood Crest, the Ahearns sang. All of them. Brian’s father, Jeff, gentle and intense, a hard-working manager at Imperial-Schrade, an Ellenville knife-maker. Kathy, connected by free spirit to her son, was a dental hygienist right in Warwick. Oldest sister Shannon, fun-loving and strong-willed, striding into her senior year. Megan, like her younger brother, a graceful reed of a long-distance runner. The family sang TV commercials in a Chevy Lumina as they journeyed to the ocean.
Brian and his father brought along their baseball gloves. They connected in the easy closeness of long catches on the beach. As the waves pitched back and forth, the father saw his boy becoming a man. Brian took Shannon on the roller coaster and they shrieked for joy. They hopped on a head-rattling ride called The Human Slingshot. He and Megan teased without sting. Brian joined his mother in the ocean where they romped for hours. He always brought out the tomboy in her. The summer before, they had gone on a canoe trip, the two of them. Now, like childhood chums, mother and son splashed and swam. When they finally emerged from the water, Brian mentioned he had a headache. Too much ocean, they decided, and it was forgotten.
The sun set on summer. First week of school, Brian woke up saying his head ached. You’ve been used to sleeping in all summer, Bri. Got to hit the hay earlier. The morning headaches continued, so Kathy took him to the doctor. Another stuffed-up kid in Sinus Valley. The doctor gave him Claritan. More headaches. “You know”, thought mom, “years of trampoline bed-jumping with Gerard had broken the boxspring”. Brian had slept in that bed since he was a little kid. No wonder he was having headaches. They brought him a new bed. When Brian got rolling each morning, the headaches mostly disappeared. Once, in science class, he asked Gerard if he had any Tylenol. Once, he came home from track and said he felt a little dizzy. He never begged off school or practice. On Columbus Day weekend, Brian went down with the Warwick team to run in a big race at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Jeff and Kathy watched their son steam toward the finish line. Top fifth of the field no less. But, as he chugged closer, they saw something was wrong. Brian crossed the finish line with one eye closed. He seemed to be moving sideways. His head was tilted. Kathy worried out loud to another mother who said maybe you should get him tested for Lyme disease. Oh my God, Lyme. She could barely handle the thought.
Next day was Columbus Day. At 1 o’clock, Kathy took Brian to her doctor. I think he needs a Lyme test, she told Dr. Nicholas Pennings as he began to examine Brian. “Can you feel this?”, asked the doctor, brushing the left side of Brian’s face? “Yep.” “And can you feel this?”, he asked, touching his right cheek? “No”. The doctor also noticed Brian’s right eye was blinking less than his left. Could be nerve damage from the Lyme, thought Kathy. “He needs a blood test”, Dr. Pennings said, “let’s get an MRI first”. Kathy figured they would schedule it in about a week. The doctor made a phone call and, casually as he could, told them to go to Monroe immediately. Kathy called Jeff while Brian ate a slice of pizza. The MRI was done. They sent Kathy back with a copy to take to their doctor. She left Brian in the car. “Hang on, Bri, I’m just going to drop this off”. She handed the copy to the receptionist who said Dr. Pennings wanted to see her. Kathy heard the receptionist tell someone on the phone that the doctor couldn’t talk now. He had an emergency. “Great”, thought Kathy, “now I have to wait here, with Brian in the car”.
But in the next breath, the receptionist said go right in. “Sit down”, said Dr. Pennings, and she did not see him swallow hard. Something showed up, he said. The radiologist had called. “Kathy,” he said gently. “I’m very sorry. It’s a brain tumor.” Words flashed by. Stem. Base of brain. She could not hear, and she was still as stone. The doctor paused. He waited for her. And then she hung her head in her empty lap and sobbed. “Kathy, he said, do you want to call someone to take you home? Jeff?” “No”, she thought, she couldn’t tell this to Jeff over the telephone. She walked to the car. She saw her son and tried to drain her face of expression. He joked, “So what did the doctor say, I have a brain tumor?” She jumped. “Of course not,” she raised her voice, annoyed. “Don’t even joke about something like that.”
Brian couldn’t wait to show off his practical joke. He had set every radio preset button in the Lumina to 92.7, the rock station. Go ahead, mom, push any button, yuk, yuk. She thanked God for the distraction that got her home. She reached Jeff at work in Ellenville. “Something showed up,” she said. He said he’d stop at church first to pray. “No, Jeff, come right home”, he heard her say. His stomach made a fist. With the alarm of adrenaline, he made the hour trip in 45 minutes as if the faster he got home, the quicker he could make it better. They drove first to the doctor’s office. Dr. Pennings had known the family a long time. His oldest son was Brian’s age, nearly to the day. He told Ahearns that he would help them find Brian the best treatment. He was calm and reassuring. It wasn’t until the Ahearns left that Dr. Pennings cried.
The Ahearns went to St. Stephen’s and prayed in the empty church. Kathy faced the statue of the Blessed Mother. She’s a mother, thought Kathy. She will understand a love like this and deliver a miracle. On the way home, they stopped by Kim Frawley, a neighbor and friend who had been a nurse in cancer care. She told them about Fred Epstein, a famous pediatric neurosurgeon in Manhattan. He was aggressive in his treatment and some believed he had worked miracles. Before bed, Kathy and Jeff told Brian and the girls that “something” showed up on the MRI – they were going to New York to look at it a little further. Brian seemed relieved there was reason for his headaches. Now they knew what it was, they could fix it. Jeff went to the Internet, combing through webs of information trying to find encouraging news. He asked Kathy if she wanted to look. She said no. They did not talk much. They were too scared.
The next morning Brian went to school as if every day would be like the days before yesterday. Wednesday morning, they drove near Gracie Mansion to Beth Israel Hospital North. The sign on the door of the world famous neurosurgeon simply said, “Fred.” Fred Epstein, whose kid-friendly ways and minor miracles would land him on the cover of Reader’s Digest, was grandpa-kind and rumpled. His surgeon’s mask was haphazardly pulled over his tousled white hair when the Ahearns walked in. “Well, Brian,” he said right away, “looking at your MRI, it looks like you have a brain tumor and I think it has to come out.” Months before, the boy had bucked at a cast on his wrist. Now he did not pout or cry or flinch. He nodded agreeably. Kathy and Jeff felt oddly comfortable, too, with the doctor’s matter-of-fact tone. The tumor simply has to come out. Could be benign. The thought flashed through both of them, “What were we so worried about?” They set surgery for the following Thursday. And, yes, the doctor said Brian could go to school, no gym, of course. Kathy and Jeff set off for a round of tests with hope and a son who looked as serene as a saint. I have a brain tumor, he told a few friends at school, and I need an operation next week. He said it as if he were going for dental braces. He told his track coaches, Tim St. Lawrence and Dave Paffenroth. For 27 years, St. Lawrence ran a program that had gained statewide fame. He had seen a generation come and go and raise their own children. He knew kids. He liked Brian Ahearn. The boy was a good runner but he never made a big deal of it, always looking out for the other guys on the team. A down-to-earth child with a nice sense of humor. After Brian told him he couldn’t play because of the tumor, St Lawrence said to him, “be my assistant.” A few days before the operation, the cross-country team was playing flag football. St. Lawrence, a world class motivator, walked up to Brian by the goalposts to cheer him up. The coach fumbled for words. He was afraid he’d choke up, frightening Brian. Finally, the child put his arm around the man and said, “Don’t worry, Coach Saint. Everything will be fine.”
That Friday night, Brian went to a school dance. Hung out with Gerard, of course, and the rest of his buds. His parents went to pick him up and Brian cringed to see the both of them there. “You guys are so overprotective,” he protested. He went to a party Saturday night. Allison Cleary was there. They had gone together for a few months but they had broken up earlier that summer. She still liked him. “Coming to my party the day after Halloween?”, she asked. “Sorry”, he said, “I’m having an operation for a brain tumor”. Allison was furious at being mocked. How weak can one guy’s excuse be? Brain tumor, right. He explained everything to her. “How can you be so calm?”, she asked. Brian said, “I don’t want anyone to worry.”
On Sunday, Brian, Gerard and the gang went to the movies in Chester and saw, “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Just another weekend. Jeff came home from work early Monday. He and Brian went out to shoot some baskets. God, he looked so healthy. They played Around The World, a backyard hoop game the athletic Brian usually won. Now Brian’s shots bounced wildly off the backboard. Jeff didn’t have the heart to make a single shot. Father and son talked outside in the brilliant autumn afternoon. Brian opened up. His coordination had been off for a while, he admitted, he had no depth perception. He was OK with grounders or tossing a ball on a line but if he had to look up, he couldn’t see the ball. Tuesday night, they were scheduled to go to St. Stephen’s to receive the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. At dinner, Brian was cranky. Everyone had been coming up to him wishing him well. He didn’t like all the attention. So we won’t go, said his mother. No, said Brian, let’s do it. Brian’s family and close friends gathered round. Father Desmond O’Connor sprinkled holy water and oil over the boy’s head. They prayed. The church emptied. They went home. Kathy and Jeff heard their son on the phone talking with a girl, laughing easily, a happy boy becoming a man. The next day is always in the present tense. It is Wednesday, the day before the scheduled operation. Jeff gets up to go to work early as he’ll be taking off the days after the surgery. At 6:30, he finds Brian on the couch. “How ya’ doing?” “Fine”, says Brian. He had slept through the night. The father kisses his son goodbye and says he’ll see him a little later. They’ll go into the city tonight and have a nice meal. Everything will be fine, the father tells himself, as he heads through the winding roads of the Hudson Valley and the dawn’s early light.
At 7 a.m., Brian gets up to go the bathroom. He walks back through the kitchen into the family room. He puts his hand on his head and says, “Mom, my head is killing me.” Kathy tries to give him Tylenol, but Brian begins to vomit. Meg holds him up. Kathy races to the phone to call the doctor in New York. “I can’t feel my body,” he says to Meg. And then he collapses. A doctor at Beth Israel asks Kathy if there’s a neurosurgeon on duty at St. Anthony’s in Warwick. She checks. No. Then come right down to New York. She calls next door. Dave Lawrence is there. Help. He rushes over, helps dress Brian in sweats. Kathy asks him to drive them to New York in the Ahearn’s Lumina. She calls out to Shannon and Meg to call dad at work and tell him to come down to Beth Israel North. Kathy is in the back holding Brian in her lap. He’s unconscious. Dave rips down Route 17A to Old Route 17 through Tuxedo. As he enters Sloatsburg, he goes even faster. Sloatsburg is a well-known speed trap. He hopes the cops will stop him, get Brian to the hospital. He passed a parked cop car, going 65 in a 30. Nothing. Kathy is cradling Brian. As they hit the Thruway, Brian begins to gurgle, his lungs filling with fluid. “Dave, Dave, he’s not going to make it”. She doesn’t know where these next words are coming from because if she’s heard of the place, she has no idea where it is. But she cries out, “Good Samaritan.” Dave hears her. Yes, yes, Good Samaritan. In five minutes, they are at the Suffern hospital. Shannon reaches her father at work. He speeds for Manhattan.
At Good Sam, doctors and nurses descend on Brian, inserting tubes, trying to stop him from dying. They do a quick CAT scan. His brain is hemorrhaging. Dave Lawrence calls his wife, Roe, who gets hold of Jeff in his car. Go to Good Samaritan in Suffern. Jeff gets to the hospital to see the son he just talked to two hours before now unconscious. They hear the rumble of a helicopter. Jeff will go with Brian to Beth Israel North in Manhattan. Kathy is waiting outside the room where they are trying to keep her son from dying. A woman comes up to Jeff and Kathy. The woman has on a white hospital staff coat. A look of revelation lights an ebony face. Kathy looks into her eyes. The woman seems awestruck by what she is about to say. Kathy hears the woman’s words clear as a bell: “I have been impelled by the Holy Spirit to tell you everything is going to be alright.” At once, Kathy is calm. Yes, everything will be alright with Brian. She knows it deep in her soul. There will be a miracle, she says, as a soaring helicopter whisks her boy away.