Empty Rooms Filled By a Boy’s Life

I recently turned the key to the apartment that my wife and I had once called home and encountered a setting that was both familiar and strange. Our stuff was there, but the place no longer looked or smelled like it belonged to us. The tenants who had sublet the place had moved our furniture, taken down pictures and filled the rooms with remarkably redolent floral-scented candles that, within moments of my entrance, triggered my allergies.

I made a beeline for the candles and threw them away–my first attempt at restoring my turf. I had been reluctant to sublet in the first place, and I wasn’t looking forward to dealing with the artifacts invariably abandoned by the tenants. I was not prepared for what else I found.

The reason for the sublet was work-related. I had co-written and co-directed a movie called Knockaround Guys . The film was shot in Canada, finished in Los Angeles, and had kept me in those places for most of the past year.

The sublessors were a young woman in her early 20’s and her ailing brother, age 10. She had left college in Boston during her senior year to take care of him here in New York. The boy, whose name is Logan, suffers from brain cancer and had to undergo radiation treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Their divorced mother was an international business executive temporarily forced to live in Poland. Her job was a financial necessity for the family. The father visited, but didn’t live in the area.

The type of cancer Logan has, medulla blastoma, had once responded well to surgery and chemotherapy. Recurrence of this type of tumor after treatment, however, was something from which there was virtually no statistical chance of recovery. Soon after the early courses of chemo, Logan’s cancer had recurred. The kid faced a death sentence.

The grounds for their stay had given me great pause when my wife and I were deciding whether or not to rent to Logan and his sister. I felt for them and their situation in a vague way, but the idea of a gravely ill person living, and possibly dying, in my apartment was not appealing.

There is also the matter of an inner hardness that I’ve wrestled with since I was young–a wall that I have built around my heart. It is a marshaling of my gifts against my own shortcomings and against the onslaught of the outside world. I’d probably started it around the time of my parents’ divorce when I was 9, or perhaps it was a few years earlier when I lost my first Little League game. It is a ring of protection, of blindness, of youth and vigor against loss and infirmity and death. My wall quietly quaked upon first hearing about our potential renters.

My wife and I talked it over. She met with the sister, and we decided to rent to them.

Back from my sojourn, I toured the apartment and found the usual aftermath: burned-out light bulbs, some broken glasses, an area rug that, they warned us, had succumbed to a double hit of olive oil and red wine.

I also discovered a number of possessions that they had left behind. In the bedroom that the sister had used were several yoga tapes, a set of hand weights, three cacti. In the kitchen, a cappuccino grinder and a few bottles of fancy liqueur bore testament to a vital, modern life in progress.

Logan’s castoffs were in the den where he had slept: a toy basketball hoop that glowed in the dark (called “The Luminator”) and its accompanying ball, a book titled The Summer of the Monkeys , a souvenir cup-and-pencil set from the Jekyll & Hyde theme restaurant, a yellow whistle and the entire Harry Potter canon.

Seeing them, I felt I had glanced through a tiny window into the delicate soul of a little boy in struggle. I had never met Logan, but he became immediately vivid to me: a typical yet totally unique kid. He was inquisitive, active. He had an imagination and a sense of humor. He was brave. I wondered how he was facing his illness, and exactly how he spent his time in the apartment.

I thought of his sister. When I was her age, my sum obligations consisted of progressing through college with respectable grades and doing something job-like during the summers. My priorities then ranged from choosing which campus bar I might attend at night, to wondering how I might find employment once I graduated.

How did this young woman bear the weight–of caring for her brother, of seeing to his treatments, of watching him face his mortality–at a time in her life when the world was supposed to be hers?

I’d heard from my wife that Logan had asked his sister if he could live his “whole life on chemotherapy.” She began to explain that no, he could not; that the body couldn’t withstand it, and that the tumors would eventually become resistant and grow–

“Oh, no,” he’d cut her off, “don’t go any further.”

Logan and his sister left the States for Poland shortly before we returned to the apartment. His treatment finished, he was reunited with the family dogs he loved so much. In an e-mail to my wife and me, his sister wrote that when she asked Logan if he wished for anything, he told her: “Donate to a charity for animals.” Other than that, there was nothing he wanted.

That wall inside me, I realized long ago, functions poorly. While it can sometimes keep the pain out, it too often keeps feelings locked in. Despite this recognition, I have been, by and large, unable to dismantle it. Old habits die hard.

But in my apartment that day, the wall crumbled completely. I was beset by a consuming, impotent anger at the cruel unfairness of life. I was ashamed at the thousand “problems” I allowed to distract me from the simple beauties and gifts of daily life. I found myself in tears for a boy I’d never met, for his sister to whom I’d never spoken.

Until that moment, a “charmed life” had been just a concept to me. It was something I wished for, could momentarily taste in my own best times, and it was what I envied others for having during my worst. But Logan, who had left something of himself behind in my apartment, taught me that those words are not a mere concept, that they are inextricably linked. He left me hoping that he will beat the odds and live the long life he deserves. He left me feeling deeply for him and his family. He left me totally exposed, and wanting to remain that way.

Empty Rooms Filled By a Boy’s Life