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Authors: Jan-Philipp Sendker

Whispering Shadows

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For Anna, Florentine, and Jonathan

PROLOGUE

He was a small child. Even at birth. Six and a half pounds; barely more than a preterm baby though he had stayed in his mother's body a week past term. No cause for alarm, the doctors had assured them. He would catch up.

His skin was pale, almost transparent, and ever more delicate than that of other newborns. Tiny blue veins shimmered on his temples, his chin, and his hands even after the first few weeks, when suckling infants normally turned into well-padded babies.

His cries were less shrill, less piercing and shorter than those of the others. He grew tired easily, even later on, as a three- and four-year-old. While the other children at the playground on Bowen Road or, later, on the beach at Repulse Bay, barely knew what to do with their energy, while they climbed, charged about, or ran into the water shrieking wildly, he sat on the sand and watched them. Or he climbed onto his father's lap, lay his head on his shoulder, and fell asleep. He was economical with his movements, as if he felt that he had to conserve his strength, that his time was limited. No cause for alarm, the doctors thought. Every child is different.

He remained a delicate child. Thin legs and arms with no muscle tone, like sticks, so that at six years of age, he was still so light that his father could pick him up with one arm and throw him in the air. At school, he was one of the quiet ones in class. When the energetic Mrs. Fu asked him a question, he almost always knew the correct answer, but he never said anything without being prompted. During
the break, he preferred to play with the girls or he sat alone in the schoolyard and read. In the afternoon, when the other boys either played basketball or football, he had ballet lessons. His parents had objected. Was he not enough of an outsider as it was? An oddball with no close friends. He had not needed to beg them for long. The quiet disappointment in his face had been a fervent plea that his father had not been able to refuse.

A few weeks later, he had complained for the first time about pain. His limbs hurt, his legs especially. That was perfectly normal, the ballet teacher said comfortingly. Many children felt the same when they first started dancing, especially when they threw themselves into it with the dedication that made him stand out from the others. Muscle cramps as a result of movements he wasn't used to, suspected his father. An orthopedist whom his parents were friendly with offered reassurance. The boy was probably growing, so a strong tugging sensation in the bones was not unusual. It would pass. Nothing to worry about. Then the unexplained exhaustion began. He fell asleep during lessons, had difficulty concentrating, and spent most afternoons on the couch in the living room.

Would they have consulted a doctor sooner if they had not been able to lay the blame for the pains on ballet? If he had been a boy bursting with good health, a boy whose every prolonged spell of fatigue or weight loss would have immediately seemed strange? Should they have taken his complaints more seriously? Had they been inattentive or careless? It would have made no difference, ultimately. The oncologists took every opportunity to emphasize this. Paul wasn't sure if they only said that to calm him down—so that on top of the panicky fear he had about his son's life, he would not be tortured by his own conscience—or if they were telling the truth. Unlike other types of cancer, with leukemia, early diagnosis made no difference the doctors told him over and over again. As though they assumed that he had feelings of guilt. As though those feelings were justified. But even if they were right, even if an earlier visit to the doctor would have changed nothing about the illness, the treatment,
the prognosis, or the chances of survival, what was the point? Was that supposed to comfort him? Paul and Meredith Leibovitz had failed as parents; he had no doubt about that. Their son had been given to them to care for; they were responsible for his well-being, for his health, and they, Paul and Meredith Leibovitz, had not been able to shield him from this illness. What were a father and mother for if they could not protect their child against this?

“Don't blame yourselves. Blame God, if you like. Blame fate. Blame life, but not yourselves. You can't do anything about it,” Dr. Li, the oncologist in charge, had said to them in a conversation shortly after the diagnosis. Meredith had taken that advice seriously and, over the next few months, been able to free herself of the guilt she had felt at the beginning. Paul had not. He did not believe in God, he did not believe in Karma; there was nothing and no one he could make responsible for the illness, who he could blame for it. Nothing and no one apart from his own complete inadequacy.

Paul stood by the window and looked out. It was early in the morning. There were several tennis courts and soccer fields right in front of the hospital. A couple of joggers were taking advantage of the still-tolerable temperatures at this time of day and running their laps. The dark gray clouds that had hung low over the last few days had disappeared and given way to a cloudless blue sky. The monsoon rain had washed the smog out of the air and the view was clear, which was rare in Hong Kong. He could make out the Peak clearly, the narrow IFC tower and the Bank of China in front of it. Between the skyscrapers of East Kowloon and Hung Hom the silver-gray water of the harbor gleamed, already crisscrossed by dozens of ferries, tugboats, and barges. Traffic had already come to a standstill on the Gascoigne Road and Chatham Road South flyovers. He thought about the beach in Repulse Bay and about the sea and how often he had gone out with Justin to build sandcastles at about this time of day on the weekends, while Meredith was still sleeping. Just the two of them, father and son, with the warm and humid summer air of the tropics blowing around them, bound by a
mutual understanding that neither of them needed to speak. How he had allowed Justin to spread mud on him and how they had returned home laughing, and how Meredith, heavy with sleep, had always been a little put out by their good mood and needed some time and two coffees to be able to share it with them.

He turned around. The room was tiny, hardly bigger than a storeroom. He could cross it in two or three big steps. Justin's bed was against the pink wall. Next to it was the stand for the drip, a chair, a nightstand, and a foldout armchair, on which Paul spent the night. On the nightstand were two books that Paul often read aloud and a pile of cassettes, which Justin had still liked listening to a couple of days ago. Now he didn't even have the strength to do that. Paul watched his sleeping son. His skin was as white as the bedclothes; his face had lost all color. His eyes lay deep in their hollows and a soft, light blond down covered his head. His breathing was shallow but quiet.

Paul sat down and closed his eyes.
I'm sorry to have to tell you . . .
It had been nine months since the pediatrician had, in a low voice and with a sorrowful expression, told them the results of the first blood test. Since then these words had rung in his ears. They had taken hold of him, and they echoed in his head even nine months later. Would he ever be free of them? Would he ever hear anything else?
I'm sorry to have to tell you . . .

Why my son?
he had wanted to scream, but he had kept silent and listened to the doctor talk about myeloid leukemia, hemoglobin counts, bone marrow tests, and procedures. Why Justin? Why did Meredith no longer ask herself this question?

Relief came only in the brief moments when Paul started awake at night and thought he had dreamt it all. He sat in bed for a few seconds and had the feeling he had woken from a nightmare. It wasn't true. The blood count was normal. Justin still had his head of strawberry-blond curls; his hair had not fallen out. He was lying next door in his room, in bed asleep. Paul felt such relief then, such indescribable joy, almost foolishly happy, as never before in his life.
It made the crash to reality seconds later all the worse.

Where was Meredith? Why was she not with them? She was on a plane. Probably forty thousand feet above Pakistan and India right now. Or over Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, depending on whether the plane had taken the northerly flight path or the southerly one out of London. A very important conference, she had said. About the bank's new strategy in China. About investments and shareholdings worth billions. As the head of the Hong Kong office, it was impossible for her not to be there. She would be in Europe for two or three days at the most. They would be able to keep Justin in a stable condition until next week. The doctors had assured her of this. And the morphine had knocked Justin out; he slept practically all day, so he wouldn't notice his mother wasn't there anyway, she thought. She had looked at Paul, and they had looked into each other's eyes for a moment, for the first time in a long time. Should he disagree? Should he tell her that he was almost certain that Justin knew perfectly well whether his father or mother was in the room, if they were sitting by him, holding his hand, stroking his head, or talking to him, even if his body did not display any outward reaction any longer? That was why he had practically not left the tiny room for almost a week now. That was why he sat here, camping on the small cot, which was at least ten centimeters too short for him, and on which sleep was out of the question. That was why he read aloud from books, sang lullabies, hiking songs, and Christmas songs, anything that came to mind, until his voice gave out. He knew that Meredith had felt comfortable with her decision and that she would not have let herself be dissuaded, that she did not even expect him to understand her any longer.

Meredith's workload had increased in proportion to Justin's condition worsening. He had read somewhere that this was not uncommon for parents whose children were dying of cancer. What was unusual in their case was that it was the woman who sought refuge in work. Two days after the diagnosis she had unexpectedly flown to Tokyo. From then on she had shuttled more often between Beijing,
Shanghai, and Hong Kong and her long days at work were followed by dinners with clients that went on late into the night.

Paul had noticed that there were two kinds of couples at the pediatric oncology unit. The first kind still looked each other in the eyes; their child's illness welded them together. They shared their fears, their doubts, and their feelings of guilt. They supported each other, gave each other strength or clung together. The other kind crept through the corridors with their heads down, staring at the floor. They were afraid to look into their spouse's eyes because they would see in them what they did not want to see: a reflection of their own fear, their rage, and their immeasurable grief. They were made mute by the prospect of death; they turned away from each other; they retreated into themselves, more and more despairing, as they searched for a place that they hoped would be free of pain. Paul and Meredith Leibovitz were one of these couples.

Just three days ago, making the most difficult of decisions, they had no longer been able to look each other in the eye. They had sat side by side, like two strangers, neither able to find strength or support in the other. The doctors told them there was no hope. The relapse of six weeks ago was as unexpected as it was serious. The cancer cells were multiplying at an explosive rate. They had not responded to the two courses of chemotherapy. All medical recourse had been exhausted. Now it was just a matter of keeping Justin as free of pain as possible. And it was a question of whether his life was to be extended at any price. There were options. They talked about the intensive care unit and ventilators. They could certainly win some time that way, perhaps a week, perhaps two. It was not a problem, medically speaking.

We assume that you wish to do this, Mr. and Mrs. Leibovitz?

Meredith said nothing. She had closed her eyes and she was silent.

The doctors looked at him. They waited. They waited for a decision. Do you have any other questions? Should we talk you through it again? Meredith kept quiet. Paul shook his head.

Should we move Justin to the intensive care unit?

Paul shook his head again.

“No?” the doctors asked.

“No!” he heard himself say. “No.” He had decided. Meredith did not disagree.

———

It must have been just after 2:00
PM
when the heart stopped beating. Dr. Li could only guess at the exact time of death later on.

A nurse had last been in the room at 1:00
PM.
She had wanted to collect the tray with the soup and the tea that she had brought an hour ago, that lay cold and untouched on a small table. She had felt the boy's pulse, which was weak but regular. She had checked the drip, the catheter, and whether Justin was getting enough morphine. Paul Leibovitz had been sitting silently next to the bed, holding his son's hand. He had asked for the ECG machine to be switched off, so the room was unusually silent, unlike the rest of the unit.

Dr. Li entered the room at five minutes to three
PM
and thought at first that father and son had fallen asleep together. Paul Leibovitz had tipped forward, his upper body lay on the bed with his right arm stretched out, and his left hand clasped his son's delicate fingers. Justin's head had sunk deep into the pillow and was turned to one side. Only when he looked again did Dr. Li realize that the boy was no longer breathing, that his eyes were wide open and staring, and that the father was not sleeping but weeping. Not loudly, not plaintively. It was not pain that was being cried out, as was often the case here. These sobs were terribly quiet, hardly audible; they reached deep inside, and sounded all the more despairing for it.

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