Three blocks from Garfield High School is a yellow house where everything is broken. A few rusted cars and a minivan are parked out front, and part of a lawn chair sits on the patchy grass. The old porch creaks when I step on it. The house is bright on the outside, but inside it’s dark. Every window is covered with blinds, drapes, or sheets, and a dim light shines from the open oven that’s heating the house.
It’s the end of January, and a small Christmas tree is in a corner surrounded by a mess of clothes, paper, wrappers, and boxes. “It’s my mom’s house out there,” says a teenager named Nick Sears. “This is my house in here,” he adds, referring to his bedroom.
Nick’s space is brighter than the rest of the house, and he relies on his computer to heat the room, which is covered with electrical cords. When Nick’s overhead bulbs go dark for the night, there are still blinking neon lights everywhere that make it hard for him to sleep. Electronics ads line the walls, covering up holes that he’s punched in them. Nick hasn’t had a chance to cover up the heart-shaped hole behind me yet.
His closet has only suits and pajamas. When Nick is at home, he wears pajamas, but every time he goes out in public, he’s in a suit. It’s a high-end suit, no less, because everything Nick Sears owns is high-end. His favorite tie, an $80 Nordstrom number, is shimmering silver silk. When Nick wants something, he wants it now. Not next week, he says, now. And he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. He’s always been this way, but ever since he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he has a reason to be.
It was June 18, 2005, when Nick started wearing suits. That was the day of the eighth-grade boat cruise at Washington Middle School when he woke up with a headache. He’d had bad headaches before and the doctors said he wasn’t drinking enough water, which he probably wasn’t—he thinks water tastes like an “old refrigerator.” The doctors hadn’t checked for a brain tumor, even though Nick’s little brother, Jacob, had one five years earlier. This particular headache hurt so badly that Nick thought he was going to die. Pain, pain, pain, he says. Twelve pains in a row. He needed the pain to go away before he could even breathe.
Nick ran to the minivan his family had just bought—the first car they’d ever owned. In the hospital he got a huge dose of morphine; that was the first time he’d ever gotten high. The scan showed a tumor the size of a baseball, and Nick underwent emergency surgery. When he woke up, he had 50 staples down the side of his head, tubes everywhere, and a massive acne outbreak caused by his medications. Pus leaked from his right ear, and the pain of moving his head repressed all yawns and desire to chew.
He made the mistake of coming home only two weeks after the surgery. His head felt so hot that he wanted to sleep outside, and was so tender that he couldn’t take a shower. He was rushed back to the hospital with a high fever. The month he returned home, he would get so angry that he almost broke his hand on his wall, so obnoxious that he almost caused his mom to get in a car accident, and so depressed he would lay in bed all day. Again he returned to the hospital, this time to have his mental status evaluated. The doctors told him that he was suffering from an emotional disorder. The hospital became like home.
Nick began his freshman year at Garfield High School, but spent it mostly at the hospital. He had brain scans and labs taken every two weeks. He received radiation treatment that caused short-term memory loss, making school incredibly difficult. At home, he ingested chemotherapy pills. He made up a lot of schoolwork over the summer, and finished his freshman year with a 3.833 GPA. And finally, his cancer was in remission.
Tenth grade began as Nick’s favorite year ever, until October, when the cancer came back. Since then, he’s been on more intense chemotherapy, for two hours every two weeks. A second brain surgery remains a last resort.
Wednesday is chemo day. Nick arrives in the morning for labs and blood tests, then has a checkup with the doctor, and then receives radiation and chemo. Entering the oncology center of Children’s Hospital, we walk down a narrow hall lined with curtains. Inside each small curtained room a child with cancer receives treatment. A dad works on his Treo while his daughter waits for her treatment. I’ve never seen anyone so tired. I see a 2-year-old with patches of hair missing and a teenager who looks just like someone I would be friends with.
“How old are you?” is a question Nick gets a lot but hates to answer because he wants to be older. “I’ve been through so much, I could be 20 easily,” he says. “And there are 25-year-olds that are still so irresponsible.”
Nick answers that technically he is 16 5/12 years old. He always pays attention to numbers; when you don’t have very many days left because of “this annoying tumor,” you count them. The maximum number of years anyone has ever lived with his tumor, glioblastoma, is nine. The average number is a lot lower. How long he lives depends on how effective the chemo is, but glioblastoma is incurable. With no known survivors, his chances of living very long are small.
His chances of getting the tumor in the first place were also small; only a handful of other kids in the United States have it. As much as he’s aware of it, Nick’s impending death and the days passing are “not a happy thought.” When the five-day weather forecast comes on TV, he changes the channel. He doesn’t have a calendar on the wall, and he usually doesn’t know what day of the week it is.
Nick says he can actually feel the tumor in his head, a constant reminder of his cancer. He describes it as a feeling of emptiness, like it has squished part of his brain. When he feels it during chemo, he takes it as a good sign that something is happening there. But being able to feel it keeps him thinking about what it will be like to die, wondering if it will hurt. His condition will slowly deteriorate, he’ll be hospitalized, and then he fears that he will fall into darkness.
Even though he doesn’t believe in heaven, Nick is certain that life exists on other planets. He carefully watches UFO movies on the Internet, enthralled. His favorite item, his computer, is made by Alienware, and his desktop has a picture of the sun and planets, with the icons carefully arranged around them.
“I’ve never seen a ghost before, but think they’re real,” he says. He hopes he’ll get to be one. I’m scared of ghosts and make him promise not to haunt me.
Nick tries to sleep when the chemo makes him the sickest, which means letting go of the day and having to sleep through it. It usually takes him a couple of hours to fall asleep. He’ll lie down, but if he thinks of something he owns that he hasn’t seen for awhile, he’ll have to get up and go find it.
He feels the loneliest when he’s the only one up at night. After receiving an e-mail from me, he calls my home at 1 in the morning to talk. My angry mother hangs up on him.
If Nick feels good enough to go out, then it’s an occasion to dress up for. On a trip to Safeway, he wears his freshly shined mahogany-soled shoes that he polishes almost every day. As he strolls in, they click on the linoleum floor, confirming their high value. A salesman immediately rushes up to him and says, “Can I assist you with anything today, sir?” “Yes, could you help me locate the Starbucks village dark coffee brew?” Nick asks. “Certainly, sir, right this way,” the clerk responds.
When Nick was in sixth grade at Mercer Middle School, the staff was trying to find a serial arsonist who’d been setting fire to the grounds. The fires were mostly in trash cans or other containers located around the school. At the time that the tumor was pushing on the front of his brain, the fires seemed funny to Nick.
In the summer, Nick’s mom got a call from a private investigator, who said that her son had been linked to these fires. Subsequently, Nick had to go to eight-hour classes twice a week all summer on the dangers of fire.
He didn’t want to go back to Mercer after that, so he switched to Washington. He didn’t light fires anymore, but he hid bagels in library books, left caterpillars on teachers’ desks, and threw apples at administrators.
Nick stops talking abruptly and tells me he has female intuition. He’s very aware of how I’m feeling. He notices that when I’m uncomfortable, my teeth clench slightly and my temple throbs a little. His “auntie” also has a great sense of intuition. She’s actually his mom’s best friend, but he calls her that because Nick needs family. His brother, Jacob, and mother, Jonae, are the only blood relatives he knows.
Jacob was the first in the family to be diagnosed with cancer. He had a different type of brain cancer than Nick. Jonae was working at the Future Trust Day Care two houses down when Jacob became very sick. The doctor misdiagnosed the cancer as the flu until Jacob’s birthday, when he was so sick he couldn’t even play his new Super Nintendo game. He couldn’t walk straight and was sitting on the couch when he began to throw up blood. It was the scariest moment of Nick’s life, and he cried as he watched his mom pick up his baby brother in a complete panic and call a cab to the hospital.
In the months Jacob was undergoing treatment, things began to fall apart. Jonae lost her job, the roof was constantly leaking, and all the windows were moldy. The trio went to live with their auntie and signed up for welfare. Nick remembers long walks to food banks.
Eventually, Jacob’s cancer went into remission, and Jonae found a job. Then she was diagnosed with cancer of the abdomen. This was about the time when Nick was lighting fires. Jonae would get treatment while Nick was at school, and they barely saw each other. The day Nick got the worst headache of his life, they rushed to the same emergency room his brother had first been to five years before. There was another CAT scan, with the same results.
“God, will I be living in my mom’s house for the rest of my life?” Nick wonders. He doesn’t just want to grow up and be an adult; he wants to be an accomplished and financially secure adult.
Six months ago, he had it all planned out. First he would need his GED and driver’s license. Then, instead of going to college, he would go to flight school. His dream job would be computer engineering at Microsoft. He knows about all the computer engineering classes and has his résumé for Microsoft written, but with so little time he had to make a choice: Microsoft or treatment. A pilot’s license was faster and cheaper to acquire, so that was his second choice.
An e-mail he sent me lists the average salaries airlines offer to pilots. We determined that Delta would be best. “And those baby boomers from the ’50s and ’60s will be retiring,” he wrote. His e-mails are signed “Nicholas Sears, President/CEO–NVS & Associates.” That’s the home business he started, buying and selling electronics for profit. (The V stands for his middle name, VaughnPatrick.) Technically, it should be NVS & Associate, because he only has one: His neighbor James sometimes makes suggestions on electronics he should sell. Now Nick has decided that his business will be his life’s main focus, and he has a very high-end bike instead of a driver’s license.
He began his business with $200, and now has $80 left and his room stuffed with electronics to show for it. He shows me a BlackBerry, GameCube, DVD player, and big TV. He’s been using Craigslist to find deals on items and then resell them, but now says he’s become too smart for it. Most of his free time is occupied trying to launch his business on eBay. His first problem is that you have to be 18 and possess a credit card to begin an account.
In the beginning, Nick had nothing. He won part of his $200 seed money in an essay contest for Gilda’s Club, a cancer support group. The rest he got through a job washing windows for a Microsoft employee named Alan Merrihew. “At first I thought he meant he needed help cleaning Windows the operating system, but he works for Microsoft, so he could obviously do that himself,” Nick says.
Even though Merrihew is older than Nick’s mom, he and Nick have so much in common that they’ve become close friends. In addition to his obligation to the Redmond software giant, Merrihew is a musician with a shining grand piano in his living room. Nick has a grand piano in the living room of the mansion he’s drawn floor plans for. Currently, he has an expensive keyboard in the center of his room that he plays whenever he can. He can’t read music, so he learns songs by listening to each note, searching for individual notes on his keyboard, and then memorizing them.
He plays his best song, which has a tempo so fast he can only play it at about half-speed. First he removes his hat and then breaks a sweat pounding out the notes as fast as he can. The sound booms from all around the room on the speaker system he’s rigged up. Later he plays “Dreamz,” a song he wrote and stored on his computer that blends the sound of every instrument the keyboard can simulate. He closes his eyes, and it sounds like he’s directing an entire orchestra.
Sitting on Nick’s dresser are rows of feathers that he puts in his hats and coordinates with the color of his suit. Everything he does is so blatantly adult that I laugh extra hard at a spontaneous remark, funny face, or small prank. “I’m just being interesting,” he’ll say afterward.
As Nick will tell you himself, you will never meet anyone who is anything like him. His idea of fun is having a laptop propped on a cart while someone pushes him on a wheeled office chair as he wildly trades stocks.
The effect radiation has on his memory is apparent. One day he says he wants any car with four wheels that can get him places. Another day he says he’s holding out for a BMW. When NVS & Associates expands, he imagines the associates can accompany him as walking memory supplements.
When mailing a 1-cent Pokémon card sold by NVS & Associates, he gets into a complex discussion with a postal worker named Guy over an issue concerning his official preprinted label and stamps. Guy is patient with Nick while multiple waves of customers lined up all the way to the door pass by us. After 30 minutes, two purchased labels, 12 free envelopes, a photocopy of the original label, and new stickers to replace it, the novelty Pokémon card is mailed.
I ask Nick if I can see him while he’s getting chemo, and he hesitates. Chemo is very personal, and no one other than his family has ever gone with him. It is both an emotional and physical experience; he is so vulnerable and the chemo so powerful. The pain locks him into the moment.
Nick knows chemo will either save him until there’s a cure or weaken him until he dies. Then he looks at me with his big green eyes and asks me to go with him. I’m not so sure I should’ve asked in the first place.
Already familiar with every step, he sits in the hospital waiting room, sipping lemonade nervously. I’m nervous, too, and I’m not even the one getting chemo. The chair Nick sits in is like a La-Z-Boy that’s been sterilized to remove the comfort. Sometimes his mom will go with him and read a magazine, or she’ll leave and go out to coffee with a friend.
“We come every other Wednesday,” she says. “But it feels like so much more.” Of the three people in her family, she says, Nick has suffered the most. Nick never swears; so when I ask him how the treatment makes him feel, he says, “Like a brown lump on a green hill on a Sunday afternoon.”
The chemotherapy treatment can’t be exposed to sunlight. The artificial light inside Nick’s curtained room is dim, but not gloomy. The nurses rush around, bringing in Nick’s chemo bags, which are so strong that Nick used to feel the fluid burn through his veins. But he’s since had a port installed in his chest, which sends the chemo through a large vein close to his heart and is not as painful.
Nick asks over and over for a nausea patch, but the nurses aren’t able to get one for him. He finally gives up, saying that all the people around him help take his mind off the chemo. Nick’s “cousin,” American Idol‘s Sanjaya Malakar, comes to visit him in the hospital. They aren’t real cousins, but their moms are best friends (Sanjaya’s mom is the aforementioned “auntie”), and I sense that everything they’ve gone through together has made them as close as family.
Sanjaya has just become an overnight American Idol phenomenon. He wasn’t the best singer, but was targeted by radio personality Howard Stern and others as a way to make fun of American Idol. He is also known for his great hair. He suggests to Nick that they could shave a design into Nick’s head so that the scar from his operation would blend in.
Sanjaya takes pictures with the kids, and signs a stack of autographs that say “Keep smiling.” In his picture, he holds a puppy in the sun on green grass. He even signs one for Nick’s mom, writing a note telling her to stay strong. “Oh, what a hunk,” she says, reading it and smiling. His entire entourage accompanies him: publicist, bodyguard, mom, and sister. Nick compliments the bodyguard’s perfectly fitted suit and fancy shoes. “I like to see my reflection in my shoes,” Nick says. Sometimes Nick gets so bored, he’ll habitually polish his shoes up to 10 times a day.
The tumor has brought Nick many good things. People have been more accommodating of him. A music therapist visits him regularly at the hospital and connects him with other musicians who are willing to help him. Merrihew invited Nick to his CD release party at Jazz Alley, and he makes suggestions for how to improve Nick’s latest song. Sanjaya is also planning to work on music with Nick.
When Nick feels sad, or is alone in his room and the only one up in the middle of the night, music keeps him going. When Sanjaya leaves, Nick sits down at the piano in the children’s playroom. He plays vigorously while the chemo runs through his body. Nurses stop by to compliment him, opening their doors to hear the music. “You’ll be hearing this at the Seattle Symphony soon,” he tells them.
Nick was also granted a wish from the Make-a-Wish Foundation. He thought about meeting Bill Gates to talk about how to make a fortune through a love for technology. Nick also wanted to meet his dad, whom he hasn’t seen since he was 4.
The last time his father was supposed to pick Nick up, Nick sat by the window, watching every car pass by. His dad never came, and Nick hasn’t heard from him since. Finally, Nick decided to ask for a computer. Finding his father may be impossible—he could be anywhere in the world or even dead—and then the wish would be gone. Nick’s dad may not even want to see him, while his computer is there for him every day.
Exactly a year ago, in the few hopeful months after the cancer went away and before it came back, Nick was looking for a tutor to help him with catching up in school, and his counselor introduced him to a girl named Sarah. “When there’s someone with an equal level of intelligence as me, we can talk on the phone for hours without even realizing it,” Nick says.
With Sarah, it was his first time ever holding an umbrella for a young lady, and the first time sitting next to one on the school bus and having a decent conversation. Nick had never shared a drink with someone else, but when she offered him a sip of her coffee, he said yes.
“When we went out for coffee, I never saw that coming,” he says. He believes he has a lot to offer ladies because he is so unique. He even knows how to ballroom dance, having learned from watching Dancing With the Stars. “I am the most untypical young man in high school that you’ll ever meet,” he says.
When Nick won the Gilda’s Club essay contest, the second-place winner was Gui Robichaud. Gui was the one other teenager in the Seattle area who happened to have Nick’s type of brain cancer. Nick had seen him around the hospital before, and they became friends. For Nick, Gui was someone who could come close to knowing what he was going through.
A few months ago, Gui passed away. Nick was too depressed to attend the memorial. He says he wouldn’t have been able to control his emotions. “I don’t cry like other people,” Nick says. So instead he stayed in his room and punched a new hole in his wall.
The worst part of being such an unusual 16-year-old is that no one has the same priorities as Nick—no one else shares his urgency. Not even his Microsoft friends and lack of profanity could prepare me for the extent of his desire to live an adult life: He wants to get married. Lots of people want to get married, but Nick seems to be the only teenager who worries about it.
During the time I spend with Nick, he talks for hours, telling stories about every girl he’s known. “Something has to be going on upstairs,” he says. Intelligence is the No. 1 thing he looks for in a girl, but with so little time and such high goals, he can’t afford to be picky. He’s beyond going out. He even thinks the term “going out” sounds childish and unintelligent. When Nick is at home, he can only think about the relationships he’s missing. “What math class are you in, Bianca?” he asks. I mumble something about calculus and change the subject.
The first time I met Nick at his yellow house in January, he was adjusting the wires on his big TV that only gets three channels for a fuzzy view of the State of the Union address. He was as excited about the debate on global warming as most teenagers are about the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy. He knows all about the science of all the polar ice caps he would probably never see melt, the agricultural changes that probably won’t affect him, and the species he won’t be able to help keep from extinction. This all adds up to a vote he will probably never cast. But the discussion of how to stop global warming gives him hope, even if he’s watching it alone and will have no one to discuss it with.
Now it’s September and school is beginning, and when I visit Nick again I almost don’t recognize his house. His address is 813, but only an 81 hangs to the right of the door; the missing 3 is in the dirt below. The house also has a new color, which Nick describes as “an earthy, light-brownish green.”
Turns out Nick, Jacob, and Jonae are preparing to move to a nicer house in Lynnwood. The inside of their soon-to-be-vacated house looks much emptier, and new piles of trash are in the yard. I recognize the rug from Nick’s floor. The holes in Nick’s bedroom walls have been fixed with drywall instead of posters.
In Nick’s room, his keyboard and computer are among the very last things to be packed away. He’s using his computer to record music and create a CD that he plans to sell for profit. The CD has been renamed every time I see Nick, from Roses to Roses in the Wind, and finally Roses Catching in the Wind Current. He begins to play the track that he has recorded and mixed, mutters something about too much French horn, and announces that “I’m not going to present something that’s not to my standards.”
He begins playing other music for me, constantly jumping up to adjust a knob on his keyboard, then speaker system, then computer. He holds his fingers out completely straight while he plays, so every free finger is pointing directly at me. He plays a piece and asks me if I recognize it, and I admit that I do not. It’s “Bowser’s Castle,” a tune from the video game Super Mario Bros.
Nick had dropped out of Garfield to complete his goal of getting his GED, but now his auntie (Sanjaya’s mom) is giving him new ideas for his education. He could quickly re-enroll in Garfield before his family moves away, so that he could still be involved with the people he knows there and the school’s social activities. This way he would also be eligible for Running Start, a program that allows high-school students to take community college classes for free.
“I’ll have to think about it for like a half hour,” Nick says. He decides to get his GED anyway. Then he decides to quit chemotherapy and switch to a naturopathic treatment. He doesn’t want to spend any more of his free time feeling as sick as he knows he is.
Nick has been concentrating on his fledgling business, spending his days buying and selling items online for profit. When it comes to fiscal matters, his auntie is able to speak to him in a constructive and harshly realistic way: Your expensive bike that gave you that scrape on your knee shaped like Africa may not be the best choice in spending; don’t assume your 6,000 Pokémon cards are worth thousands until you’ve actually sold them; your attempt at going door to door trying to earn money by raking leaves, while mentioning that you’re a cancer victim, is sketchy.
I’ve been asking Nick questions for nine months now. He is now a self-proclaimed “hopeless romantic.” He tells me about the girls he’s known. First there’s Sarah, who became overwhelmed by his illness and needed to focus on her schoolwork. Then there’s Lauren, a girl he met at Children’s Hospital. “She broke my heart, buried it, dug it back up, burned it, and then buried it again,” he says.
Then there’s another girl, the one who only talks to him because he’s sick. The girl he tells everything to, but knows nothing about. The girl who insists upon scheduling him into her planner, when he hopes they’ll naturally spend time together, like friends.
“I’m sick,” says Nick. “So are you a writer, or are you my friend?”
I drop my pen. The girl is me.
Bianca Giaever is a senior at Garfield High School. A version of this article that originally appeared in The Garfield Messenger was recently named Feature Story of the Year by the National Scholastic Press Association.