This week, I have agonized for and empathized with some parents whose children are going through serious health scares. Both children underwent successful surgery; one child will have no more problems, and the other had the best result possible, which bodes well for his future. I remembered my own fear when Emily had a health scare last year and my devastation when a friend’s grown daughter succumbed to leukemia a few years ago. I also remembered my classmate, Calbert Dawson.
Calbert and his family were, by all standards, poor, as were many in my school, but Calbert always came to school bright-eyed and ready to learn, playground-ready, and wearing clean, pressed clothes. Until I was in junior high, I didn’t realize that Calbert wore long-sleeved shirts until the elbows were worn out, when his mother shortened the sleeves so he could get another season or two of wear out of them.
In the same way, he bought his pants too long so he could “grow into” them. Then he rolled up the cuffs so that the length was right. In fact, one of my memories of Calbert was the day he came to school — I think it must have been the first day of some grade school year — in brand spanking new blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, new black shoes, and a plaid long-sleeved shirt with shiny mother-of-pearl snap buttons. I could tell that he was very proud of the way he looked in his new clothes.
Later during our school years, Calbert developed leukemia. I don’t remember when we first found out he was sick, but I remember being puzzled and afraid, because in those days, leukemia was a death sentence. Calbert and his family had more problems, though, because they had no money, and that meant they had no way to treat his disease or to try to extend his life.
Consequently, our doctor referred him to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, where all patients, including Calbert, are welcomed, regardless of their ability to pay. He was gone from school for what seemed like a long time, and then he came back to class, in remission, feeling weird, I’m sure, because he was now totally different from everyone else.
I don’t know how long his remission lasted, but I remember that around Christmas of our ninth grade year, he had returned to the hospital. I was working after school wrapping Christmas presents in the Senn 5¢ & 10¢ with my best friend Susan, whose parents owned the store. One day Calbert’s mother walked in. I watched her walk around the store looking at little toys that her other children would like but that didn’t cost too much. She looked what I would have called, in those days, unhappy, but I now realize that she was dazed and afraid. She had on a thin little coat and no gloves, and it was cold outside. I watched Susan’s mother take a pair of gloves out of a box on the counter and surreptitiously stuff them in Mrs. Dawson’s purse. And then Susan’s mother started to cry and hurried to the back of the store.
Calbert came back to school again for a while, but he was back in the hospital when the Thayer Marching Bobcat Band went to Memphis that May for the Cotton Carnival. We all stopped by to see him at St. Jude’s while we were in town. He was glad to see us.
Not too long after that, the Thayer High School Class of 1971 lost one of its 40 members to a horrible disease. At our graduation ceremony in May 1971, we left one chair empty in memory of Calbert.
Fortunately, leukemia is no longer a certain death sentence. Also fortunately, St. Jude’s still helps sick children and their families. But children still get sick and their parents must experience a fear they never expected. That is why I still feel a pit in my stomach and hot tears and think of Calbert and his family when I hear about children’s serious illnesses. I say a quick prayer for those families, hoping that peace will find them one way or another.