Easy/Lucky/Free: A requiem for Cody

I’m 12 years old, back in the States for the first time in over a year. I’m still fighting a losing battle with jet lag, but nothing can contain my excitement about the day. Today marks the official kick off, of what could quite possibly, most probably be the best summer break ever. As cool as it is to live in Tokyo, there’s nowhere I feel more at home than Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s going to be a summer filled with Skyline Chili Dogs, King’s Island roller coaster rides, sleepovers without the sleep, ice cream trucks and water slides. I know it won’t all be sunshine and rainbows; I’m a sensible kid. Last summer, I wrecked my scooter and skinned both my knees; I got poison ivy and poison oak, and I got roped into helping my next door neighbor run the worst lemonade stand with her younger sisters. I imagine I’ll once again have to sit in the sun for hours, drinking warm lemonade that’s mostly sugar. The future really is exciting, when you think about it, but not as exciting as right now. Because summer doesn’t officially start, until I hang out with my best buddy Cody, and his family’s black Toyota just pulled in.

I guess I got a little lost in my day dreams, because as I look up I realize that mom’s now outside talking to Cody’s parents. No big deal, parents do this all the time before sleep overs; they’ll take turns asking about work and life, boring adult stuff that I’m happy to be left out of. I think its called small talk. I figure that you can’t just tell another parent when to pick up their kid, so you have to ease into it by talking about simple, small things. To me it just seems like a waste of time, putting off whatever actual thing you want to talk about. I’m starting to get antsy, and even a little annoyed; I’ve slept over at Cody’s enough times that this shouldn’t require a long discussion. This should be easy.

I won’t let this ruin my day though, so I’ll make the most out of my time alone in the back of this car. I place my feet against the back of the black leather seats and put the A/C on full blast, both things my parents do not like. If my mom comes back, catching me in clear violation of the rules of the car, I’ll have a perfect excuse for the AC being turned up. It’s unbearably hot today, I’ll plead with sweat dripping down my face; I’ll tell her how kids can die sitting in hot cars: an iron clad defence. I’ll get off scot-free. I have no defence for the shoes though, so I take them down. To my horror, the dirt on my shoes left a perfect set of footprints; this is probably why such a rule exists. I become focused on wiping away any evidence of my crime from the back of this chair before my mom returns. I’m worried, but I don’t think this is something God can help with, so instead of praying I’ll have to rely on luck.

Some time passes, and I’m satisfied in the cover-up job I’ve pulled off. I look over towards Cody’s car, and my mom is still standing there in the heat. This is definitely strange. I guess my mom hasn’t seen Mrs. Mayo in a year, and they’re friends; I think they’re friends. I don’t really know since it’s pretty much impossible to figure out if your parents are really friends with the parents of your friends, or if they have to just put up with them. Yet another mystery of adulthood that I will learn some day.

Having just cleaned up my previous crime against leather seats, I break another cardinal rule of the car by opening the window with the A/C still on. But this is out of necessity, as I can’t hear anything that the two are talking about. I crane my neck, leaning my head out of the window, a choice I immediately regret as I’m greeted by the thick summer air and the fumes of the parking lot. I’ve endured this, and broken multiple laws of the car along the way; there’s no turning back now. The constant clanking of shopping carts, trunks and doors opening and shutting, make it hard to hear much of anything. I try to focus my hearing, looking with great intensity in the direction of Cody’s car. This might not be a real thing that anyone actually does, and if it is I haven’t had the proper training. However, within moments their conversation is over, and I’m overcome with a boundless excitement. I immediately grab my bag, and reach for the handle, before catching a glimpse of my mom. Her posture seems strange, with her head bent down, not looking up at me. I loosen my grip on the door’s handle and feel my excitement drop a few levels. The door finally opens, and my mom has me scoot over, sitting down right next to me, in the sweaty indents I had left behind.

“So, its about Cody.” she says in a tone that’s foreign to me.

“Aw man is the playdate cancelled, is he sick or something?”

“Well, no the playdate is still happening but yes Drew, he’s sick. He’s very sick.”

Somehow I know what she’s going to say before she even says it. It’s all over her face, strained with sorrow, trying to get the next words out. It can only be one thing, a word I can’t even bear to think, let alone hear. I can see the beginning of the sentence forming on her quivering lips, I want to stop her from speaking that sentence. I’d do anything to prevent having to hear her say the word.

“Cody’s been diagnosed with brain cancer, and he’s undergoing treatment, but he’s going to be a bit different. He’ll still be the same person, but he’s going to be weak, so don’t rough house, or do fake Pro-Wrestling in his basement.”

Cancer. I know she’s still talking to me, but I can’t hear anything as the word reverberates in my mind. I’m barely 12, and I don’t know much about the medical things doctors know, but I know this word. I don’t just hear this word, I can feel the word, as it rips through my soul. I never knew a word could carry this much weight, uncorking such raw emotion: the fear, anxiety, confusion, and anger consuming me. I don’t cry, I don’t ask why. I just sit in silence, staring at the imprints I’d left on the back of the chair and the dirt I’d failed to clean up.

Cancer. Cody, has cancer.

I’m lost in my head, fixating on that dread word. As Cody’s mom asks me about Japan, I’m on autopilot, passively answering in short sentences, and mumbled words. Just as I began to think this car ride would never end, I see the familiar driveway and basketball hoop outside of Cody’s house. Once we’re finally back at Cody’s place, everything’s more or less how I remember it being. Physically speaking. The same TV, with the broken speaker, their fridge still filled with all the soda pop my mom never lets me have. Cody’s awesome basement still has all the best toys, and most importantly all the best videogames, even a Sega Dreamcast! His older sister, who always scared me getting into fights with his mom or secretly smoking cigarettes out back turns the corner and gives me a hug. What was going on, does she think I’m someone else?

“Aww Drew, its so amazing of you to come see Cody, and you’ve grown so much since you moved. If you guys want anything I can just get in the car and pick it up. It really is good to see you.” She playfully messes up my hair for good measure, before heading upstairs.

That was really weird, but maybe I’m remembering things wrong. You grow up and things and people become less scary right? Its not lon before it happens again, this time his dad. Mr. Mayo was never cruel, but he was a man of few words, he cared about his Cincinnati Bengals, Bearcats and Reds, and very little else. He extends his hand, then gives me one of those firm older man handshakes that as a kid, you feel proud about receiving. “It’s real good of you to come over, I hope it wasn’t too much trouble for your mom. You still playing basketball? I’m sure those Japanese boys have no chance keeping up with a real Ohio ballplayer.” Once again, Mr. Mayo gives the standing offer of getting in his car to retrieve anything, and “he means anything” we might need. I’m polite as always, and say that we’ll be fine with what’s here.

Ok. Now this is getting weird. Some twilight zone version of the Mayo residence. It looks the same, but everyone has been replaced by a version of themselves from an alternate planet, an Earth where everyone is always nice, and insistent that they can just jump in the car and get you anything you need. Almost out of muscle memory, I start heading up to Cody’s room, where we always start our sleepovers, looking over trading cards, talking about Pokemon. As I am halfway up the staircase I look back and Cody’s slowly moving, just reaching the first stair. I wait for him to catch up, remembering my mom had even warned me about this, before he interrupts me; “you know the rules Kim, last one to the room get’s the broken controller first.”

Cody has cancer, but Cody also is still Cody. His whole family may have changed into odd versions of themselves, but not him. This was the same competitive, outgoing, best friend, I’ve always known, racing me to his room. He’d always beat me, but I was ok with that, knowing there was going to be another race. I would always run as fast as I could for fear of being left behind.

As I write this, or anytime I think of Cody, I’m filled with a mixture of emotions and memories. I don’t organize them into pre-cancer, and post-cancer, the good from the bad. They’re all pieces of the whole, the stars that make up a beautiful constellation you get a glimpse of in the night sky. You might look up in the sky on other nights to find that some stars burn brighter, while others fade from view, hidden behind clouds. Yet, you can still see the entirety of the constellation, and you hope there have been others as lucky as you. I still look up into the night sky, hoping to get that perfect glimpse once again, but even if I never do, the memory of it will remain with me.

I moved a lot as a kid, every couple of years would mean a new city, a new school, and new friends. I became unusually comfortable with saying goodbye to these friends, a defence mechanism, that allowed me to ignore the reality behind these goodbyes. This was a time before social media, and no kids had an email address or cell phones. These were the “Hi this is Drew Kim, is Cody home? Could I talk to him please?” land-line days. So for me, a goodbye often really meant it in earnest. I wouldn’t see this person again; I’d have to make new friends, and so would they. I’ve made many a great friend, whom I’ve never seen again, but none hurt more than the loss of Cody.

Coming back home that summer was already special for me. The early writer in me had a theme for this and all summer breaks. I had declared this summer would be a return to the beautiful normality of America. After the chaos that was a my first year in Tokyo Japan, there was a certain romance about Cincinnati, Ohio. That great theme I had was quickly challenged by stark reality. I was sure my dreams for the summer were over. I clearly had forgotten to account for the x-factor in Cody. Looking back I now realize that, even during the times when he was visibly ill, he managed to keep the same personality and spirit that he had in good health. Despite all the change in his life, in his body, and in those around him, he held it together. He was a superstar athlete who could no longer compete, but he still assured me that as soon as he had the chance, I’d be toast on the court. There’s was so much beauty in the way he looked at life, not worried about how much of it he had left, not changing how he went about his day. Never once did he take up any of the offers for, “literally anything you want, its a drive away”, that his family continually offered. He was a constant, he was the rock holding that family together. Cody had cancer, Cody was 12 years old, he was going to die, yet he was keeping his family from falling apart.

I went back to Japan and through a strange early version of the internet’s archaic Alta Vista search engine, I searched his name one night in the middle of winter. Expecting to find nothing, there were results for dozens of articles, not just by local papers but by national ones, the kind my dad read, with coffee before work. The headlines hit me like a ton of bricks. Not because they let me know that he had passed away, but for what they were reporting. Cody, was the first child in the history of the Make a Wish Foundation, to not ask for something for himself. Instead, he asked them to take however much money they were going to spend on him, and put it into a college fund for his older sister. I cry every time I retell this story; I’m typing this sentence through a cloud of tears. I always think, if that’s the kind of 12 year old Cody Mayo was, just think of the man he would have grown into.

One of the last things I remember was a joke about how everything in my life seemed to come easy, and that I had a special kind of luck. I laughed at the joke, even though I didn’t really get it, before he asked me about Tokyo and what it was like. He said it sounded like his kind of place, and I assured him he would see it for himself when he came to visit me. He pointed over at the oxygen tanks he had to drag around, and said “as soon as I’m free from this mess.” It took me a decade but I get the joke, which was really a bit of advice wrapped inside a joke. Cody wanted me to appreciate the things I had in life, the beauty of it all, the experiences which I got to have which he never will. If there’s any justice in this universe, there’s a place where Cody Mayo, a kid much better than the man writing this piece, gets live Easy, gets to be Lucky, and gets to be Free.

Suggested Listening:

Easy/Lucky/Free by Bright Eyes (Digital Ash in a Digital Urn)