By A.R. Hansen
I had to lie at first and tell the producers I was about to turn 12 because they said 11 was too young to go on a national talk show with such a messed-up family. Except they didn’t say “messed-up”; they said “dysfunctional,” which I think means “messed-up.” I stopped memorizing vocabulary words a while ago. The doctors said I could keep going to school if I wanted to, but why would any kid want to spend his last six months in school? I kept going at first to see my friends, but not anymore.
I don’t really need anyone to feel sorry for me. I’m pretty sure I’ll go to Heaven. We go to church every Sunday, even my sister, who wears “unchristian” clothes and texts her boyfriend during the service, and Uncle Kevin, who hates church and says he’s being dragged against his will, but Gramma says he needs it more than the rest of us because of his gambling. I’ve never really done anything bad except sneak cookies and curse, and I don’t think those are big sins. And once I blamed my little brother for breaking a window even though I threw the baseball. But I do good things, too. And my last good thing was to try to get my family to stop hating each other by taking them on TV so they could talk about their problems with therapists they couldn’t afford otherwise and be happy after I’m gone.
I kind of wanted something for myself too, and the producers said they’d pay to send Mom and me on a five-day trip to New York City after the show was taped, which is where I’d live if I got to grow up, and I’d be a stockbroker and drive a Jaguar and have an apartment on the 50th floor with zebra-print rugs and a girlfriend with curly hair who wears high heels and pink lipstick, and we’d eat in restaurants every night and go to basketball games and fly to Disneyland every summer. But I’ve only ever lived in this boring little town, and we never take vacations. So New York will be awesome if we actually go, but Mom doesn’t seem to want to, and I can’t go alone, so I don’t even know if it will happen. Maybe there’s reincarnation and I’ll be born in New York next time.
At first I was crying every day about having cancer and embarrassed because I’m 11½, so I’m too old to cry. My little brother, Ben, is seven; he can cry, but I’m not a little kid anymore. And then I cried more because I was embarrassed about crying, and some kids across the street saw me crying through the window and told everyone in the neighborhood, and they made fun of me for crying because they didn’t know yet I had cancer, which made me cry more, and it was like I would never stop crying, like I had to spend every last second on Earth crying.
But then Mom gave me some of her special orange juice that she drinks when she gets “sick of all the bullshit in this lousy world,” and she said it would “de-stress” me and make me stop crying. She gets annoyed when I cry for more than two minutes and covers her ears and says I’m giving her a headache. It tasted weird, like it wasn’t just orange juice, but I drank it, and I mostly stopped crying, and it was a lot easier to deal with things then because she gave it to me every day before breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus extra if I had a really bad day. She said not to tell the doctors. On the days I’m in the hospital, I don’t get any, so I feel worse then, but I mostly just want to be at home now and not in the hospital, and Mom said that’s okay, and we got a nurse at home for the times when it’s too much for her and Gramma to take care of me.
Mom used to give me beer a long time ago before Gramma found out and made her stop. Mom said beer wasn’t real alcohol, just “kiddie stuff.” It tasted gross, and she’d laugh at me when it made me act strange, but it was mostly a fun thing for us to do together except once when I threw up all over the dog.
And she drank other kinds of alcohol with names I can’t remember, but some of them were clear like water, and once when she fell asleep on the floor, I drank out of her glass to see if it tasted like water or if maybe it was really water, and I had to spit it out because it burned my throat.
She mostly stopped drinking alcohol lately and says she wants to be healthy so she doesn’t get cancer like me, and she started exercising and taking vitamins that her friends give her. She stopped smoking cigarettes, too, and now I want to try one just out of curiosity, because what bad thing can smoking do to me now? Uncle Kevin said he’ll give me some of his cigarettes if I don’t tell Gramma.
The host of the TV show is named Dr. Suzie!. She always has an exclamation point after her name on the show and on her website so everyone knows how excited and happy she is all the time. She doesn’t have a last name, like Dr. Phil, and I don’t think she’s even a doctor. People write articles saying she’s a quack and never even went to college and should be taken off TV, and I don’t know if she did go to college, but sometimes she helps people, so I don’t care.
She gets angry and screams at her guests and makes them cry, and then she makes the studio audience vote on whether the guests deserve her help, and she plays dramatic music for one minute while they vote. A giant red clock with big black numbers counts down, and you see the camera on audience members’ faces looking confused or sad or angry while they vote, and if the audience votes yes, she sends the guests to therapy or pays for them to get a house if they’re homeless or to get help to stop taking drugs or plastic surgery if they’re ugly or help getting a job or whatever they need. And she hugs her guests at the end even if she decides not to help them with money. And she has real therapists and real doctors on the show who did go to college probably.
She inherited a lot of money because her parents and husband were rich, and she says she wants to do good things with it. I guess she wants to get famous, too.
She gets angry if the guests try to lie. Her line that she says all the time is, “You can’t bullshit me!” The show is on a cable channel that I normally am not allowed to watch, except I do when Mom falls asleep in the living room and Gramma goes to bed before Ben and me. They’re allowed to say all kinds of swear words on the show, and they bleep only about half of them. I know most of them because I’m not a little kid anymore, but sometimes a guest says a bad word or phrase that even I don’t know, and I can tell it’s bad because everyone gasps, and sometimes Dr. Suzie! says, “Watch your profanity! I don’t want to have to wash your mouth out with soap.”
Mom is the only one in the family who has seen Dr. Suzie!’s show, but she doesn’t really pay attention. I didn’t think she’d say yes to going on the show, and there was a huge fight between her, Gramma, Grandpa, Uncle Kevin, and Louise about whether to go on the show after I called the number on the screen and the show called me back. They all yelled at each other for three hours. They finally agreed to go only because I’m dying and I guess they feel guilty or something.
The show sent people with cameras to interview me. I had to talk to a therapist and two doctors, and then they recorded a long interview with me. They wanted Mom to be there most of the time, but she disappeared, and since Ben was sick, Gramma was taking care of him, and who knows where Grandpa was. So it was mostly just me alone with the adults who run the show. I could say anything I wanted to, and I let them snoop all over the house and take pictures of everything. Then they came back a week later and interviewed everyone else in the family.
So, like I told the producers, these are the people in my family and the things I wanted them to get help with, besides learning how to not fight with each other all the time. Mom is 26 and never goes to work or college or cleans the house or cooks or teaches us things like other parents do. She said she refuses to give up her own childhood. I don’t know what that means because she’s not a kid anymore. She didn’t finish high school and hates reading except on Facebook and Instagram and is angry a lot of the time. I wanted her to get help on the show for her anger, and I wanted her to learn how to be a real parent to my little brother and maybe even finish high school and get a job to help Grandpa support the family.
Since Mom doesn’t do much of the normal parent stuff, Gramma does the housework and cooking and mostly takes care of us. She’s 62 and likes birds and crossword puzzles and doesn’t really have any problems.
And then there’s Grandpa, but he doesn’t pay much attention to me. He works in an office and gets home late, criticizes whatever Gramma made for dinner, and then goes in his room for the rest of the night, so I don’t see him much. I don’t think he likes me as much as Ben, probably because Ben is younger. Grandpa has arthritis, which makes him irritable, so I wanted the show to help him find a better doctor.
And then there’s Uncle Kevin, who is Mom’s big brother, and he’s 31. He’s a jerk a lot of the time, but sometimes he’s cool and fun. He has diabetes, which Gramma says is caused by drinking too much soda and being too fat, and he’s always trying to lose weight. I want Dr. Suzie! to help him with that and to get Gramma to stop nagging him about it, because that’s one of the reasons they argue all the time.
He likes me better than the other kids because I’m the only one who gets good grades—or used to, anyway. Uncle Kevin is the only adult in the family who went to college—just a little bit of college, but it’s better than anyone else. Before I got cancer, he said I could be the first one to graduate.
He lives with his girlfriend, Louise, and when he comes over, she’s always with him, every second. She’s always popping her gum, biting her nails, or smoking, and gives me weird looks. When Uncle Kevin used to help me with homework, Louise would sit near us, just sitting there and looking stupid like a cow. She’s kind of pretty and wears sexy clothes and high heels but she’s old—32 or 33. And she doesn’t like talking to anyone except Uncle Kevin, and she follows him everywhere and they always hold hands, which is gross. If I could live long enough to get a girlfriend, I wouldn’t be clingy like that around other people. It’s like she can’t stand to be by herself for 10 seconds, but she doesn’t want to be friends with any of the rest of us in the family. I don’t know why he doesn’t get a new girlfriend.
Then there’s me. I’m Josh, and I’m 11½. And my little brother, Ben, is seven and follows me everywhere. He’ll be so sad when I die. And LeeAnn is my sister, sort of. My mom’s big sister is LeeAnn’s mother, but she couldn’t take care of her kids so Gramma took them and now they live with us. LeeAnn says because she’s 16, she can drop out of school and move out. She hates it here in this dinky little town and wants to go to Hollywood to be an actor or a singer or a model. I don’t want her to leave, and I don’t think she’s old enough to go to California alone, but I understand why she wants to get out of here.
And our oldest brother, Dean, who is also technically my cousin but I think of him as my brother, is 18 and almost finished with high school, but he moved out and lives with his girlfriend and her parents. Her parents let them stay in the same room, and Gramma keeps saying that’s irresponsible and someone will get “knocked up,” but I don’t know what that means, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else really cares.
Also, Mom has a boyfriend, Lorenzo. He has an Italian accent and always wears a leather jacket. I’d like to have one when I grow up—I mean, if I could grow up—except mine would be black instead of brown like his. He tries to be nice to me for Mom’s sake, but I can tell he doesn’t like kids. It’s hard for grown-ups to fake that. Mom forced him to teach me how to play soccer and baseball a few years ago. He played baseball in high school a million years ago, and because I’m left-handed like him, Mom thought I could be a good pitcher like he was. But he didn’t even try to hide the fact that he was bored, and he looked at his watch, which I think is a Rolex because he’s kind of rich and fancy, every 30 seconds, so I guess he’s glad that he won’t have to spend time with me anymore.
Mom has dated him for as long as I can remember, and he’s really old—almost 40. About once every two months they get in a huge fight and he walks out and slams the door and calls her names and Mom says she’ll never see him again.
In between him, she has other boyfriends for a little while. Sometimes they try to talk to me in the morning like they know me and like it’s normal for them to be there. But now that I look like a kid with cancer, they just try to leave as fast as possible. I heard Mom tell her friend I’m ruining her love life.
If you’re wondering about my dad, I don’t know who he is. Mom gets mad when I ask about him and says he’s a “no-good fucking loser deadbeat who should rot in hell forever.” I’m not supposed to say words like that, and she slaps me if she hears me, and once Gramma put soap in my mouth. Mom says my dad’s name doesn’t matter, and she thinks she forgot it anyway. He’s not the father to my sister and brothers. The older ones who are really my cousins have a dad who sees them a lot and buys them presents when they behave, but he doesn’t want them to live with him. Ben has a different dad than I do who sees him twice a year on his birthday and Christmas. I don’t know if I care that I don’t have one, but it would be nice to get presents.
Mostly what I want for my last wish is to be a foot taller and a few years older so I could ask out Lila, a girl in the grade above me, who isn’t going to be in my school next year because she’s going to private school, and she has curly hair and smells like coconut, and I used to stare at her all the time at lunch, back when I was going to school. I want to look like the men in the adult shows Mom watches at night and do the things they do with the ladies in those shows, even though some of it looks pretty weird. Lila is taller and more popular than me and once called me a moron. So there isn’t enough time for any of that to happen.
And I wanted to go skiing, and the doctors said no at first and then changed it to “Why not?” but I never got to go. I don’t even know why. Maybe Mom just didn’t want to have to go with me, and everyone else was busy. I think they all forgot now.
When I got cancer in my kidneys and the doctors thought at first that I could survive, they said I needed a kidney transplant, and everybody in the family had to get tested to see if their blood type and other things matched mine. Mom didn’t match, and she said she was relieved she didn’t have to have surgery and lose one of her kidneys, and I don’t think she knew I could hear her. That happens a lot. It’s like people forget you’re in the room until you’re 15 or older. Ben, LeeAnn, Dean, Gramma, and Grandpa didn’t match. Uncle Kevin didn’t have to get tested since diabetes damages people’s kidneys, so he can’t donate them.
Aunt June, who I forgot to mention before because she never used to seem like part of the family, isn’t related by blood but she wanted to get tested anyway just in case, and she didn’t match. She married one of Mom’s brothers, and we see her usually just at Christmas, but she has been coming around a lot since I got sick. She’s pretty nice but is always annoyed at Mom and seems to think she’s better and smarter than us. She offered to take me to New York and skiing, but Mom said no and told her to worry about her own family. Aunt June got mad that no other family members who “married in” got tested just in case they could help. She said the adults in this family are all selfish.
So the doctors were thinking about using a dead stranger’s kidneys, but there was a long waiting list, and my body was hard to match. But then the doctors and Aunt June and the nosy neighbors said to Mom, Find his dad because he could match, and she got mad at them and said to butt out and do a bunch of curse-word things, and then Gramma started crying and saying this family was going to be the death of her, which seems like a pretty insensitive thing to say around a kid who is probably dying, but like I said before, no one notices if I am in the room or not.
And then finally the doctors said it was probably too late anyway, because now the cancer has spread to other parts of my body, so it wouldn’t matter if I found a donor.
I told Dr. Suzie!’s producers all of that. She’s known for checking out everyone before they go on her show. She even hires detectives. She yells at the beginning of each show, “This is my show, and no one gets anything past me. I will ferret out all of your secrets! Don’t come on my show and ask for my help if you aren’t willing to bare you soul!” She waves her arms around when she says that. She has bright red, poufy, fake-looking hair that looks like it has a lot of hairspray in it, like it wouldn’t move even in a hurricane, and she wears orange lipstick and has rings on every finger and dragon-lady fingernails, so she looks especially dramatic and a little scary when she says things like that. She makes people take lie-detector tests like the police or the FBI and drug tests and she stands over them and yells at them until they either cry and spill their guts or run off the stage.
I gave the producers some papers from the hospital. I knew Mom wouldn’t miss them. She hadn’t been able to find any of my paperwork for a while. She had it folded up in a shoebox, and then she lost the shoebox, and I found some of the papers under the sofa and gave them to the producers because they asked.
I told them a social worker came to the house a month after I got diagnosed to see why Mom hadn’t taken me to the hospital sooner. A doctor called the social worker, I guess. And Aunt June was yelling at Mom and Gramma one time, and I thought she said, “Maybe he could have lived!” I asked Mom about it, and she said I didn’t know what I was hearing because chemo messes up your brain and ears.
On the day of the show, everyone was in a bad mood. We were in a fancy hotel the show paid for, and I wanted to swim in the pool but no one would go with me because they were all too busy fighting. Uncle Kevin and Louise came with us and they were in another room, and Mom and Gramma and I were in one room and Grandpa was being antisocial in his own room, and Aunt June insisted on coming even though no one wanted her there, so she was in another room.
Mom was upset that she forgot to pack her special vitamins and furious that Lorenzo refused to come until the last minute but then called to say he was stuck because his car broke down. She said this time she was going to break up with him for real, forever.
Uncle Kevin’s hands were shaking because he has stage fright, so he had alcohol that he brought with him to calm his nerves, even though Louise told him not to, and then Mom and Gramma had some too, and Gramma took some pills because she was also nervous about being on TV. I tried to give Gramma and Uncle Kevin a pep talk, but it didn’t help.
We heard Uncle Kevin and Louise fighting through the wall all night, even though we couldn’t hear most of the words, and Mom went over and banged on their door and joined the fight, and then some guests called the front desk and they told us to shut up or go home. So none of us got much sleep, and everyone was grouchy. I was trying to have them on the show to help everyone stop arguing, but they were fighting more than ever right up to the minute we got out of the limo the show sent to take us to the studio. They had coffee at the show, which always makes Mom angrier and meaner. I told the producers that, but they kept giving it to her anyway—a lot of it—which was weird.
We were all nervous when the show started, but the audience clapped for a while for me (who wouldn’t do that for a kid with cancer?) and I felt calmer right away. I usually don’t get nervous in front of crowds and was in a bunch of school plays. If I could grow up, I’d be an actor, if I couldn’t be a stockbroker.
Dr. Suzie! seemed really cool and friendly, even better in person than on TV. At first, she asked about my hobbies and favorite movies and books and what it was like to have cancer. And then she asked everyone else questions. She asked Aunt June about her kids and piano playing and asked Uncle Kevin about his job in a hardware store and what it’s like to have diabetes, and asked Mom about what TV shows and music she likes, and Gramma about her bird-watching and how much work she does taking care of four kids even after her own kids grew up. She was trying to get on everyone’s good side, and I thought she’d bring out the family therapist soon to teach the adults how to be nice to each other.
Instead she got out a folder with papers—the hospital records and a bunch of other stuff that I didn’t recognize. Mom was furious because no one had asked her permission. Dr. Suzie! said she’d had a private detective, (which is what I want to do in my next life, if I have another one, if I can’t be a stockbroker or an actor) follow the adults in the family and take pictures and find records and papers online and other places and put everything in one big folder.
She held it up and talked to my mother like she was scolding a kid: “Gwen, why did you receive a visit from Child Protective Services on October 3rd of last year?”
Mom turned red and said, “I didn’t…I…that’s a lie, and none of your fucking business!” I guess when the show is on TV, they’ll bleep that out because that word is too bad even for this show. But now I don’t even think the show will be on TV. I heard Gramma say after the show finished taping that she’ll sue them if they put it on TV, and I don’t get it, why she doesn’t want it on TV, because they can just bleep out all the embarrassing words. I kind of wanted to be on TV to get famous a little bit before I die. I guess that’s just one more wish that won’t come true.
So Dr. Suzie! read the paper from the social worker, and it said that the doctors thought Mom had messed up by not taking me to the hospital when I first started saying things were hurting. I didn’t go there until I was crying in the middle of the night and so sick that Gramma finally called an ambulance. And the doctor at the hospital said she found adult medicines in my body—antibiotics plus other stuff that I don’t remember. Mom told me she had been giving them to me instead of my regular vitamins to fix whatever was hurting me, and she didn’t think it was serious enough for a doctor. A cop came to the house to talk to Mom (that’s what I’d do if I could grow up, if I couldn’t be an actor, a stockbroker, or a private detective), and it seemed like she was in big trouble, so to help her, I said I took the pills out of her purse when she wasn’t looking. So the police left us alone after that even though they didn’t seem to believe me.
Sometimes when I think about how sick I felt and for how long before Gramma called that ambulance, I’m confused. I guess it’s because Mom didn’t finish high school, so she’s pretty clueless about things like health, illnesses, medicine, and doctors, and Gramma was always paying so much more attention to Ben than me because he’s little and cute.
Dr. Suzie! kept asking Mom about the social worker, so Mom stood up and got in her face and said, “You have no idea what it’s like to be a mother at 15! And I had no man to help me. I’m all alone! I do the best I can.”
“You’re not 15 anymore, at least not chronologically. Apparently you never grew up, never learned how to be an adult and a parent. And who is this child’s father? Why didn’t you search for him in case he’s a potential kidney donor?”
Mom frowned and said, “It doesn’t matter now, does it? And what am I supposed to do? Hunt down that stupid, no-good loser in every dive bar in this town and ask every man there, ‘By the way, did you take advantage of me when I was 14?’ Who’s gonna say yes and risk going to jail?”
“Are you saying that Josh’s father was an adult at the time?”
“No, he was like me, high-school age.”
“But you met in a bar?”
“Yeah, I was tall for my age, and we all had fake I.D.s.”
“Then why would he go to jail?”
“I don’t know. For running out on his responsibility nine months later and leaving me alone to take care of it, and for being a stupid, selfish loser?”
“That’s not a crime. And if he went to high school in this area, you can track him down. We’ll have our detectives do it for you.”
“No! He’s dead, okay?” Mom started crying. I know her fake tears. She does it when people call to say she owes money and they want to shut off the electricity. But I couldn’t tell this time if she was faking. It seemed halfway between fake and real. “That’s why I didn’t want to say who he was before. He’s dead. He was from England and on vacation and I met him in a bar, and he was almost 18 but I was just 14, and he said he loved me but he went back to England and abandoned me afterward, and then karma got him and he died in a car crash.”
“How did you find that out?”
“From friends I’ve got over there.”
“What are their names? We’ll bleep them out when we air the show.”
“None of your damn business! The kid’s father is dead, okay? Have some sensitivity. He’ll never know his father, and I lost my one true love. So I don’t want to talk about it anymore; it’s too painful. I didn’t want to say it before because I didn’t want to ruin Josh’s hope of ever meeting his father.”
Dr. Suzie! didn’t seem impressed. “What about finding the man’s parents to see if Josh’s grandparents are potential kidney donors?”
“They’re dead too.”
“Let me guess: they died in a car crash, also?”
Mom was crying for real now, and it was hard to understand all her words. “You don’t know what it’s like to have to grow up so fast. I got knocked up at 14—14! And my parents wouldn’t let me get rid of it; they said I’d go to Hell, and I believed them. So I had to walk around knocked up and miserable with people laughing and whispering about me behind my back, and I had to carry that…it…him around inside me knowing that its father was a monster and knowing that if it was a boy, it would get its father’s genes, and I’d be bringing another monster into the world, and every time I’d look at it—him—I’d think of what happened. At a time when I should have been worrying about math tests and school dances, I had to worry about that! What do you think that was like? And you don’t know all of it, all the stress I had. I thought it would be born with…would have…like…two heads or something because of…of…”
“Because of what?”
Gramma looked angry and said in a loud whisper, “Gwen!” and Mom turned around and gave her and Grandpa a look that I’d never seen on her face before, like she was the one dying.
She said, “Never mind. I don’t know what I was saying. This show has got me so confused, and the only reason I came here was for Josh, for his last wish. The past is ancient history. It doesn’t matter. When do we get to the reason Josh brought us here?”
Dr. Suzie! started talking more softly. “It’s okay, Gwen, you can say whatever you want. Finish what you started to say.”
“No, I can’t. I’m a Christian; I have to forgive. It was a horrible, horrible thing, but it wasn’t his fault that he was like that. And I was a bad kid in a lot of ways; I was already smoking and drinking, going to bars and ditching class and dating a lot of guys, so there was probably something about me, something wrong with me that…maybe caused…made him…and he repented, and I have to forget about it, and I don’t talk about it, ever. I want to change the topic.”
“Gwen, you know how it works on this show—no bullshitting. No one leaves ‘til we have the truth. I had my producers snoop through your house; I have your son’s and your medical records; I interviewed your whole extended family, your neighbors, and your son’s teachers. My detective even looked through your garbage. I did drug tests on you, your son, and the rest of the family; we still have to talk about the results, but we’ll get to that in due time. I did lie detector tests on everyone in the family. I also performed DNA tests on some men my producers and I suspected could be Josh’s father. They thought we were just testing to see if they could donate a kidney. In two cases, we did it without them even knowing—a saliva test from a toothbrush or utensil. I know everything, so you may as well talk to me.”
Gramma and Grandpa both started screaming at Dr. Suzie!. And Grandpa got in her face and told her to back off. It looked like he was about to punch her. So she had her security guards take everyone off the stage except Mom. The adults were in the “green room,” with guards watching them, and I was supposed to be too, but they were all so busy yelling at each other that they didn’t notice that I snuck off and got close enough to the stage to eavesdrop. I’m good at going places unnoticed. Maybe I’ll be a spy in my next life.
Mom was really, really crying now. “This isn’t fair! I didn’t even want to come here! It wasn’t supposed to be an interrogation; you weren’t supposed to violate my privacy like this. It was just supposed to be some stupid, sappy, feel-good TV—some family therapy so Josh could feel like he did some good. You have to humor kids, you know? I’m not gonna win any Mother of the Year awards; you don’t have to tell me that. But I wanted to do this one thing for Josh, let him go on TV and have his moment in the spotlight and be happy. It wasn’t supposed to turn into this! I want to go home.”
Dr. Suzie! looked at Mom almost kindly for a minute. “Gwen, I think maybe you really did want it to turn into this. Maybe you wanted to finally speak your mind after all these years. I mainly want to help Josh, and you’re right: you’re a terrible mother. But since you have another child to raise—if the state doesn’t take him away—and since there’s still a chance Josh might survive, I have to invest in helping you so you can learn to be a good mother, if that’s possible. So let me help you. Talk to me. Josh is in the green room, so he won’t hear this. We won’t even air this part if you don’t want us to. It will just be between you, me, and the studio audience, and then we’ll bring a therapist out. Talk to me.” She sounded like she was crying, too, but I couldn’t tell if it was real or for TV.
And then we heard noise from the green room, and Gramma came running past me back out on stage with a security guard chasing her. She yelled, “This family has been through enough! What are the odds of a kidney match now? The doctors said it’s too late. Josh’ll die anyway. He didn’t know what he was doing; he hasn’t been right mentally for most of his life. He couldn’t risk getting tested in case the hospital found out. The doctors do all those complicated tests and we can’t understand it all; we didn’t know what they’d test for or find out. We couldn’t risk it. I had to protect my baby. But we didn’t want Josh to die. We never meant for that—” She was crying too and looked like she was going to faint.
Mom yelled, “You shut up! What have you told me all these years? And now you’re the one blabbing?”
And then Aunt June and Louise ran past me, with a security guard grabbing them, so they didn‘t quite make it on stage, but they were yelling loudly enough to be heard on stage. Aunt June screamed, “Does he even have diabetes? Ask her, ask the host; she has all our medical records and lie detector results. Ask her if he really has it!”
Louise shrieked, “Yes, you stupid bitch, of course he does! Who would make that up?” She was trying so hard to get away from the guard and wearing the highest heels I’d ever seen, and she twisted her ankle, fell, and started sobbing like a little kid. She looked so sad that I almost wanted to go over and help her get up.
I don’t know why Aunt June would even think that. Uncle Kevin takes pills for his diabetes every day. He goes to the doctor every week. I’d never make up having cancer, so why would an adult make up having diabetes? I know Grandpa doesn’t fake his arthritis. I guess it’s true what Mom and Gramma always said, about Aunt June thinking that she’s better than the rest of us and that she knows more than we do.
I guess a producer motioned to the security guards because they let Louise and Aunt June get on stage, even though they made it look like they were trying to hold them back. Aunt June got calmer and said, almost nicely, sweetly, like Louise was a little kid, “There’s got to be a statute of limitations or something, so just tell the truth now. It has been long enough.”
Louise shouted, “He’s no harm to anyone! I make sure of that. All you people lied about him, anyway; I don’t believe a word of what you said! You just can’t stand that he’s so much smarter than all of you put together, that he still has a better future than any of you!”
And then Aunt June said the thing I thought I’d heard her say a long time ago: “Josh could have lived! If I had known at the time he first got sick what you people were doing, that you hated this innocent child so much and that you were so paranoid about the secret that might come out, that you refused to take him to the hospital or get everyone tested…You should all be in prison!”
Mom stood up and yelled at her from the middle of the stage, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! The doctors said the cancer moved so fast that even if we’d brought him in sooner, it would have been too late!”
Dr. Suzie! put her hand on Mom’s shoulder like she really cared and said, “It wasn’t your fault. You were a child. You don’t have to keep secrets for anyone. You deserve to talk about it and to get help, to start healing.”
Mom looked like she wanted to strangle Dr. Suzie!. “You shut up! I never should have gone on this stupid show. This is a joke, you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re just spreading lies. I’ll sue you! I’ll sue this fucking show off the air!” And she ran off the stage crying, almost howling.
She didn’t notice I was standing there. It was kind of dark, and I’m pretty small, and I stood behind a stack of boxes and then snuck back in the green room, like I had been in the bathroom, and no one realized I had been gone.
In the green room, Uncle Kevin got up, and I thought he was going to get more coffee or go to the bathroom, but suddenly he ran down the hall and, I think, out of the budding. I guess it was his stage fright. Plus he probably didn’t want to go back on stage because he knew Dr. Suzie! did a drug test on him and was going to read the results. I know he does drugs, or used to, because of how weird he acts sometimes plus once, before I was born, he was in a hospital for a while for something serious and mental, probably drugs. I heard Gramma whispering about it. Also, he used to owe people lots of gambling money. Some crazy mobster guy came to the house once looking for money and punched him. So Uncle Kevin has a lot of stuff to hide. I used to think I’d want to be a mobster guy, back when I was really young, but now it doesn’t seem like such a good career choice.
So the show stopped there, with all the adults crying, running, yelling, or threatening to sue someone or punch someone. The audience didn’t even get to vote on whether to help us. It was like a circus with me in the middle except no one noticed I was there.
Afterward, Dr. Suzie! paid for a really good pediatric cancer doctor, and Mom agreed to let me see him. So I’ve been in the hospital with that doctor for a few days, but he said he probably can’t help me, and I can leave soon and go to New York since Dr. Suzie! already said she’d pay for it, except who knows now if anyone will go with me since I messed up the family so badly by taking them on TV?
The doctor said I can’t have any more of the special orange juice but said he’ll give me medicine that’ll make me hurt less, and that Mom should have asked about that a long time ago instead of just giving me her own orange juice medicine and telling the doctors I didn’t need anything for pain.
And then someone called Child Protective Services, and they said I need to be in a different house for a little while, and I guess I will have to stay with snobby Aunt June. Maybe she’ll at least take me to New York to make up for the trouble she caused on the show.
I still don’t understand what the secret in the family was, besides the drugs and gambling, and why everyone hates everyone else so much. I keep replaying the show in my head to figure out what everyone was talking about, but I don’t get it, and no one will explain it to me, and they’re all still fighting worse than ever. When I talk to one of them on the phone from the hospital, I hear the others yelling and cursing in the background. I guess I just made things worse.
I hope they can all work it out someday and be happy after I’m gone. Grown-up life is so complicated. Sometimes I’m glad I’ll never have to experience it.