by Dustin Michael
Bruises were the first signs that Phin was in trouble.
It was winter of this year, but it’s hard to say exactly what day it started. Phin wore long pants and long-sleeved shirts to preK each day, and he changed into warm, full-body pajamas at night. How long did he have those bruises before we noticed them? It doesn’t matter now, I guess. At least, that’s what they tell me.
Phin was getting into the bathtub one evening when my wife and I finally saw them–blotches of yellow darkening to purple and indigo all over his body, a hurricane sky doing its impression of skin on our son.
“How did this happen?” we asked him, trying to tamp down the alarm in our voices. “Phin, listen, we need you to tell us how you got these marks.”
But Phin just smiled, shrugged, and splashed in the tub. He looked like a little seal cub that we’d rescued after someone tossed it down a flight of stairs.
That night, we contacted his teacher.
“Is something happening to our son on the playground?” we asked. “Are the other kids messing with him?”
Phin, who was little even for a four-year-old, still fit into some of his toddler clothes. Picturing him getting pushed around at school required no imagination at all.
The teacher responded that no, she hadn’t seen anybody picking on Phin. She promised to keep an eye out and suggested that maybe he’d gotten banged up some other way.
“Is Phin playing any sports?” the teacher asked.
Actually, he had just recently joined a soccer team. Maybe he’d gotten bruised up at soccer. But then we remembered that now, unlike his performance the previous season when he had been all reckless motion, Phin mostly wobbled and swayed like a tiny scarecrow all alone in some deserted part of the field, far away from the action. That’s when we realized that somehow, right under our noses, our child had transformed from a dynamo of light and movement into a creature of lethargy and blemish.
Winter lurched into spring. Phin got new bruises on top of old ones, their edges overlapping onto one another like the stains on a seat in an old cinema. Every morning, he got harder to wake up. He all but stopped eating.
“Hey buddy,” I said one evening after throwing his uneaten dinner in the trash. “Let’s go out in the garage and hit the punching bag.”
“No thank you,” Phin said.
“It’ll be fun!” I said. “I’ll show you how to punch and block. That way, you can show whoever this bully is that you’re not somebody to mess with. I used to teach lots of little kids like you how to defend themselves. I’m a blackbelt, you know.”
I threw in that last part about being a blackbelt so that Phin would know that I wasn’t somebody to mess with, either, since it isn’t exactly obvious. He’d never seen me suit up in my taekwondo uniform, but he’d seen me bumble around in my English professor uniform all his life. If I’m being honest, I also said it as a reminder for myself.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Phin said, his whole body drooping. I told him that would be fine and helped him climb the stairs and get ready for bed.
Not long after that, Phin ended up in the hospital. It turned out his full-body bruises were not the work of some preschool bully, as I’d imagined.
They were the work of leukemia.
We use violent language to talk about having cancer. Fighting words. It isn’t just treatment–it’s a fight. People don’t just die from cancer–they finally lose their battle with it. People don’t just recover from cancer–they beat it. Attack the cancer. Hit it with chemotherapy. Hit it with radiation. Knock it down. Kill it. The lexical choices that laypeople make when discussing this disease usually involve opposition, confrontation, combat. Physicians, too. After I announced that my son had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia–AML–one of the first messages I received came from a pediatrician who’d been my friend back in high school. She reached out to let me know what to expect. I appreciated her candor.
“AML is nothing but a straight up bitch that you have to beat into submission,” she wrote. “I wish I could say or do something to ease the journey but I just can’t bullshit you like that.”
That brings up another thing: When we talk about cancer, if it isn’t a fight, it’s a journey. And sometimes it’s both. My pediatrician friend concluded her message in fight mode, writing that “this is going to be the longest, toughest battle you’ve ever fought, but I choose to believe that warrior Phin is going to conquer this beast.”
I’m not the first to notice this linguistic phenomenon, and I’m not really out to resist it. After all, our dear friends generously organized a “Phight for Phin” fundraiser to help us with our medical bills. I own a t-shirt with the words “Daddy of a Warrior” printed on the front. Phin’s school distributed bracelets that have a picture of a shark printed beside the words “Phin Phans–Take a bite out of leukemia!”–an apex predator as a symbol of strength, toughness, and superiority attacking Phin’s illness with its mighty teeth. I imagine this shark silently prowling the bloodstream, ready to devour some punkass little disease like cancer. Let me just say I’m here for all of that.
But I’m also a little wary of the flipside of it.
When we position having cancer as being in a fight, does it suggest that people who die from cancer weren’t strong enough? Or that they weren’t prepared enough? Or that they weren’t determined enough? Fights have winners and losers. I have watched people die from cancer and I refuse to think of them that way.
But perhaps more than anything, fighting involves making decisions. People who have cancer relinquish much of their agency and often find that they are not allowed to make even basic life choices for themselves. In many cases, they are told exactly what they can do and what they can’t. Where they can go. How hard they can push themselves. Their choices become governed by a new form of time, their minutes and hours having been replaced with checks on their vitals and the plodding rhythm of eat, sleep, take chemo, repeat.
In the hospital, people would often tell Phin what a brave fighter he was. Invariably, he’d shoot them a puzzled look.
“But I’m not fighting,” he would say. “I’m not doing anything.”
I faced many kinds of opponents during the fifteen years I actively trained in taekwondo..
I fought white belts who had only moments before strapped on their sparring pads for the first time (reliably some of the most dangerous people to fight, their techniques supercharged by adrenaline but untempered by control). I fought all the other blackbelts and every student in every rank in our organization so frequently that our matches became almost symphonic, the same melodies and harmonies played again and again, just with different pairings of instruments, so familiar were we all with one another’s rhythms, preferences, and styles. At tournaments, I sparred martial artists from other disciplines, our bouts a garbled confusion, like when two people try to have a conversation using languages that only share a few root words passed down by a common ancestor. I fought detached, dispassionate opponents and I fought opponents who were my best friends and I fought opponents who hated me and wanted to make me suffer.
I never fought anything like what my son had to face.
Many nights I stayed awake in Phin’s hospital room thinking about his leukemia and the way it fights.
First of all, it’s sneaky. Some diseases practically announce themselves with fanfare, presenting themselves in the body the way a professional wrestler enters an arena. Music, fireworks, the whole bit. Leukemia tends to be much more subtle. The fight is almost over before its victim even realizes it’s there.
It’s also adaptable. One of this disease’s most horrifying qualities is its ability to adjust to what’s being done to it, like a fighter who studies its opponent’s techniques after the match begins and gets better at countering them the longer it lasts. That is why the strategy pediatric oncologists use on AML patients is to charge in, go for a knockout with the first punch, land three more hits just like the first before the break, and pound it all the way into the mat.
But leukemia is also deceptive. Sometimes it gets knocked out. But other times, it only acts knocked out. It allows the oncology team to shower it with blow after blow of chemotherapy, each one exacting a devastating toll on the patient, exhausting them and nudging their organs toward the point of shutdown and their systems toward the precipice of collapse. Then, with the patient weakened from throwing their strongest techniques, the disease rises up and surges forward once more.
And more than anything, it’s fast, advancing with relentless aggression. Some cancers, like the one that the dermatologist chopped out of my torso a while back, grow at such a glacial pace that we walk around with them for years or decades until someone leans across a pool lounge chair, taps it with a fingernail, and says “Ew, you should really get that looked at.” Not AML. It goes right to work filling the blood with garbage white blood cells called blasts that crowd out the healthy white blood cells and platelets. Hence all the bruises that made Phin look like he’d been beaten up and left for dead. Without platelets, everything Phin bumped into left a mark. When he arrived at the hospital, the pediatric oncologist met him in the emergency room and immediately ordered blood and platelet transfusions. Within a few days, he was starting his first round of chemotherapy.
Once, when Phin was asleep after receiving his morning dose of chemo and the oncologist was doing her rounds, I took her aside to ask one of the unanswerable questions that eat at the hearts of parents of kids who have cancer.
“Just so I know,” I said quietly, “how much longer do you think he would have lasted if we hadn’t brought him here when we did?”
She paused. The IV machine clicked and burbled softly in the background.
“The really important thing” she said, “ is that he’s here now.”
Everyone who gets served with a leukemia diagnosis has to reckon with the initial shock. Since Phin was too young (and too weak) to really understand what he was up against at the time, we experienced that shock for him. Eventually, we had to figure out how to process it. The leukemia fight. The leukemia journey. The leukemia.
A lot of time passed between when I last bowed out at taekwondo class and when my son’s AML diagnosis came in. I’m not counting the most recent decade and a half of me sneaking in a quick between-diaper-changes workout in the makeshift garage dojang, kicking the yardsale Wavemaster across the dusty cement until it bumped into the lawnmower, dragging it back, doing it again. I’m talking about tying on the belt and doing the work with the other students. Being a part of a community of martial artists. Doing the same drills. Breathing the same air. Feeling the same sense of belonging.
I trained in and eventually taught Moo Sul Kwan taekwondo at the Lee H. Park Martial Arts Institute. The founder of the school, Great Grandmaster Lee H. Park, is regarded by everyone who has trained there as our style’s finest practitioner, wisest teacher, and greatest champion. I never had the honor of meeting him. He passed away four years before I enrolled. For his many students, even today, his loss is still keenly felt. He was struck down by cancer.
I am trying to pass on to my son what I learned at Great Grandmaster Park’s school. I do not believe it’s possible to overcome cancer with martial arts, but I do believe that martial arts can provide a useful perspective for confronting adversity–cancer included. Martial arts can help with the development of an awareness and acceptance of the body, its condition, its potential, and its limits. Martial arts can strengthen and focus the mind. Martial arts can increase confidence and fortify courage. I want my child to possess this knowledge. I want it to help him the way that it continues to help me.
One day during Phin’s hospitalization, out of nowhere, a package from a friend arrived for him. We opened it to discover an inflatable punching bag–the kind with the water-filled base that lets it wobble over and return after being hit. Not quite the Wavemaster from the garage, but close enough. I filled it with water and blew it up. Phin barely looked over. He had been pretty much immobilized for days.
“Hey buddy,” I said. “Do you feel like hitting the punching bag? I can show you how. I’m a blackbelt, you know.”
To my surprise, Phin crawled out of bed, pulling his IV pole along with him.
“Okay,” Phin said.
Holding my hand open in front of me, I showed Phin how to make a fist by rolling the fingers down and wrapping the thumb over. He did it. Then he forgot. I showed him again. He curled his fingers around his thumb. I showed him again. We had nothing but time.
“Now, are you ready to hit the bag?”
He smacked the punching bag, sending it careening sideways with an echoing “boing!”
“Again,” I said.
He swung his other arm. The bag wobbled in the opposite direction. “Boing!”
“Again,” I said.
Another haymaker. Then another. Then another. We would work on technique later. Phin’s IV tubes flailed and lashed against the floor of the hospital room. Suddenly, I feel that sense of belonging return. Phin and I are on a journey together.
“Again,” I said. “Again. Again. Again.”
“Ah,” Phin said. It was less a deliberate kihop than a noise that escaped from somewhere deep down.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” Phin screamed, his tiny fists sinking into the plastic.
The blows were coming hard and fast now, and there was no more need for me to say anything. Even if I had, he wouldn’t have heard me. In an instant, everything had all fallen away from Phin–the IV tubes and pole, the hospital room, and me. For a moment, I saw the punching bag transform. I saw what it became, so towering, so utterly relentless. Then I saw my little boy. He was all alone, but he wasn’t afraid. He had his fists. He had his scream. He was on his feet. He was fighting.
Dustin Michael holds a second dan blackbelt in taekwondo. He lives in Georgia with his family, where he teaches English writing and literature. He and his wife share blogging duties at https://phinphans.blogspot.com, where they write about their son, Phin, who was recently diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.