Originally published July 11, 2006. Third of four parts.
"Derek, where are you?"
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Cyndie French is roaming the basement of the UC Davis Cancer Center, scanning for signs of her runaway son.
"Anyone seen my little guy?" she asks a woman in a white laboratory coat who is studying papers attached to a clipboard.
Nope, the woman answers.
Sunglasses perched on her head, the heels of her chunky sandals announcing her every step, Cyndie clomps across the polished floors. She ducks into conference rooms. Peers into treatment areas. Knocks on closed doors.
Finally she spots his unzipped Shaq high-tops behind a curtain in the men's locker room, just a few steps from where she left him when she went to check in at the receptionist's desk. Cyndie stifles a smile. "This is not funny," she says, grabbing him by the hand.
Cyndie, a single mother of five children ages 6 to 18, celebrated her 40th birthday in November, but this afternoon she is feeling much older. She has been up for most of the past three nights with Derek as he moans and cries in pain.
Her youngest son, 11 years old, has neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer of the nerve cells, and the disease has spread throughout his body.
Vicodin and Demerol, when she can convince Derek to take them, no longer are controlling his pain. Sometimes he curls up in a ball, clutching his stomach.
He is so weak that he has trouble getting into and out of the car, and his wheelchair is his constant companion. His appetite is gone. He weighs 62 pounds, four pounds lighter than last week.
Today's radiation treatment may make him feel better -- but only temporarily.
Cyndie has never felt more helpless.
"It's like a sore that someone keeps rubbing," she says. "I'm down to the bare bones. I don't have much emotional strength left."
For more than a year, since Derek's diagnosis in November 2004, the disease and treatments -- from chemotherapy to radiation to surgery -- have quietly robbed him of his childhood. He no longer can go to school, play dodgeball or roughhouse with his dog and his four siblings.
Now cancer is stealing even his sleep.
On many nights, when the house is dark and quiet, Cyndie cuddles up next to Derek in bed, or in front of the fireplace in the living room, and they talk for hours. He tells her that he is sorry for behaving badly sometimes. He talks about going back to school, and about the day he will finally get his driver's license.
He tells her he is afraid of "being alone up there" if he dies. They link their pinky fingers and promise that they always will love each other. They vow that they will be each other's guardian angel.
Sometimes, after Derek has finally fallen asleep, Cyndie just watches him breathe.
Derek's best hope for survival, a blood stem cell transplant, now is in question because of his refusal to cooperate with doctors. He would have to undergo another round of intense radiation, then torturous chemotherapy followed by weeks of isolation, for the transplant to work. If everything went perfectly, the treatment might increase his chance of survival by about 10percent.
So the transplant is on hold right now, and the idea is to make Derek as comfortable as possible.
A series of radiation treatments beginning today could shrink the tumors in his body and lessen his pain. But, as usual, Derek is resisting.
"I don't want to do this!" he shrieks, sitting across from his mother in a small room near the nursing station. Tears are welling in Cyndie's eyes and Derek's, too. "It's a waste of time! I want to go home!"
Cyndie usually is armed with something to take the sting out of Derek's appointments, whether it's a plan to feed the ducks at Howe Park or a handful of chocolate candy or a can of Silly String. Today, though, she knows that none of her tricks are going to work.
She steps outside the room, leaving Derek with his "Grandpa," her longtime friend Patrick Degnan. Degnan lives with the family, helping with rent and chores, and plays the role of "good cop" when Derek is angry with Cyndie.
"I don't know if I can take much more of this," Cyndie says, facing a blank wall, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. "When do you just say, 'Enough'?"
A few minutes later, she gathers herself and walks back into the room where Derek sits, arms folded, scowling. Two doctors stand before him, doing their best to talk him into submitting to the treatments.
We just want to make you feel better, they say. This won't hurt at all, they assure him. It will only take a few minutes.
No, no, no, he says.
"Derek, you might not make it if you don't do this," Cyndie says, grabbing onto his chair.
"I don't care!" he says, his voice rising. "I'm not going to sit still for it. It won't make me feel better. I just want to go home."
He glares at his mother.
"Take me home, period!" he shouts.
"I'm done, Mom! Are you listening to me?
Teenagers are pouring out of their classrooms on a Friday afternoon at River City High School in West Sacramento, and Cyndie French is ready for them.
"Hey, you two!" she says, gesturing toward a young couple with arms draped around each other's waist.
Cyndie is dressed to attract attention, in boots topped with brown fur, jeans, a light jacket and a white boa. "Hi, hon!" she calls to another girl who catches her eye. "Hey there! Come on over!"
Eyeing her suspiciously, students start to approach the folding table that Cyndie has set up in front of the gym. Her three older boys -- Micah, Vincent and Anthony -- attend school here, and she is looking for recruits for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life.
The teens seem more interested in the candy and bubble gum she has scattered across the table than the charity event, but Cyndie is unfazed. The Cancer Society needs this. She needs this.
It helps her feel as though she is contributing something to the cause, and it distracts her from her worries about Derek, and her youngest child Brieanna, whom she sees only on weekends now, and Micah and Vincent, who are slipping in their studies, and Anthony, who at the moment seems to hate her. Not to mention her empty bank account.
Sometimes, she says, "I thank God for the opportunity to go through all of this, so that I can help other people."
If one person signs on today, she will be satisfied.
"Do you know anyone with cancer?" she asks each student who wanders up to the table. Sure, they answer. My grandma. My cousin. My neighbor. To the ones who answer "No," she points to a picture of Derek. "Now you do," she says. "This is my son. Micah and Vincent and Anthony's brother. He has a little sister, too."
As usual, Cyndie has her Nikon digital camera at her side. For the past year she has been documenting everything about her youngest boy, from the mundane to the dramatic. Derek taking a bubble bath. Derek sitting in a convertible, looking very Hollywood in a baseball cap and sunglasses. Derek in the hospital, awaiting surgery. Derek, a sour expression on his face, stepping onto a scale at the clinic. Derek bravely fighting the waves at Waterworld.
"One of my biggest fears is not remembering everything about him," Cyndie says. "I don't want to forget anything, the good or the bad. It's all real. It's life."
At the moment, Derek is inside the school gymnasium, which is pulsating with music and hormones. River City High is having its Valentine's Day dance this night, and the students are getting ready for a rally.
Derek and his best friend, RJ Dolan, are sitting in the bleachers, swinging their legs, watching the older boys and girls flirt, listening to popster Avril Lavigne sing about skater boys from the loudspeakers. A sign above their heads reads, "BLUE SIDE. TESTOSTERONE ONLY!"
Derek's body is practically swallowed up by his coat. His jeans hang off of his thin frame. He looks bored and tired. He complains that his back hurts. His brother Micah stops by and gives him a gentle punch to the shoulder. Derek barely acknowledges the gesture.
Finally, when RJ bats a blue balloon toward his head, Derek's mouth curls into a smile. The balloons start flying. Cyndie walks through the door and immediately joins in. Soon her boa is on the floor and her hair is mussed and staticky.
By the time the rally begins, Derek is so exhausted that Cyndie must carry him out of the gymnasium.
But he is a happy kind of tired, and his mother has a Cancer Society sign-up sheet with 21 names on it.
The day has been a success.
Cyndie wants to take everyone out for a celebratory meal, but she can't afford it. To focus on Derek, she had to sell her portion of a nail and tanning shop to her business partner, and she didn't come close to recouping her original investment. Cyndie works odd jobs, but has a hard time fitting them around Derek's appointments. A couple of times, she put in a few hours as a bartender at a Sacramento club, which made everyone laugh since her personal drink of choice is milk and she can count the number of times she has had alcohol.
She is getting some financial help from friends, but she is not keeping up. The vacuum cleaner broke recently, so Cyndie, a meticulous housekeeper, has been sweeping the carpets with a broom and dustpan. Unopened medical bills are piling up on the counter, and Social Security payments for Derek still have not started.
"Hello?" she says, to no one in particular. "I'm drowning!"
But inside her head, the wheels are turning. Cyndie has a plan.
A couple of weeks later, on a blustery March day, Cyndie is on the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and 14th Street in West Sacramento, waving pink and white pompoms in front of a poster with her son's picture on it.
"DEREK'S WISH," the poster reads. "CAR WASH."
Despite the cool weather, a steady stream of vehicles is keeping her washers and rinsers busy. Vincent, 15, climbs inside the bed of a monstrous white truck, soapy sponge in hand. Micah, 17, hoses off a black Mercedes.
A West Sacramento fire truck comes rumbling down the street, and Cyndie beckons it over.
"Come on in!" she shouts into traffic.
She is shivering in her blue sweat suit and sandals, and her hands are turning lobster red, but she is upbeat.
"Lord, you gave me my wish because you didn't make it rain," she says, clamping her hands together and looking up at the heavens. "But could you make it just a couple of degrees warmer? Please?"
Daughter Brieanna, who at 6 is a miniature version of her mother, is watching over a table where Cyndie has placed a large plastic bottle for donations. Grandpa Patrick stands beside her.
People dump quarters into the container, to which Cyndie has taped a picture of Derek and her. They fold in $1 bills. Cyndie engages as many customers as she can, telling them about her family and listening to their personal stories. She learns of a nephew killed by a drunken driver, a wife who died of cancer. She pats hands in sympathy, and walks a small dog whose owner is waiting for an Acura to get cleaned. Soon a $50 bill is floating around inside the bottle, and lots of $10s and $20s.
"That's for Derek," remarks Brieanna, who because of her brother's illness is spending most of her time with her father in Orangevale. Turning to a visitor, she asks, "Do you think Derek is going to die?"
Derek is supposed to be here, but today he is too sick to get out of bed and is home with Cyndie's best friend, Kelly Whysong.
This weekend, he has turned down all of his favorite foods, even tomato soup and steak. He wants only his Red Bull energy drinks, which he believes may have the power to cure him.
Cyndie admits she is scared. Some days, she finds herself crying until her eyes are red and puffy, and staying in her bathrobe until late afternoon. "I want the miracle," she says, her voice breaking. "Every day, I beg God for one more day with my son. But I think the cancer is going to win."
She doesn't want to lose her faith in God, she says. "But is this really the way things are supposed to go? I just know there's a reason for all of this happening."
By late afternoon, carwash business is drying up and Cyndie decides to pack up the buckets, the soap and the towels and head home.
She finds Derek lying in bed, miserable, the light of his aquarium casting a glow on his face. She walks through the door to his room, which is guarded by a wooden dragon she bought at an import store to ward off his nightmares and monsters.
Cyndie spreads the car wash booty out over Derek's blankets. It adds up to $481 and change.
"Maybe we can buy PlayStation 2!" Cyndie says in a desperate bid to cheer her son.
"No, Mom," Derek replies. "I think we better use it to pay the rent."
Even as she stretches out on the living room floor to watch the videotape, Cyndie can hardly believe she pulled this one off.
On the tape, Derek is looking out a window on the 24th floor of Doubletree Hotel in Houston, marveling at the lights below.
Later, he is riding in the back of a limousine, joshing with his brother Micah and his best friend RJ. There they are, eating their sandwiches and fries at Whataburger.
There is Derek, shyly shaking hands with one of his idols, the heavily muscled world wrestling star John Cena, and accepting an autographed picture from him.
Derek, his hand over the catheter in his chest, wading in the hotel spa in his shorts.
Five days before their trip, arranged by Cyndie and funded by NBA star Chris Webber, Derek's mother learned that the tumor inside her son's body was starting to wrap around his internal organs, including his heart. The news made her more determined than ever to get Derek on a plane and fulfill his dream of meeting Cena, even if some of her friends thought she was crazy to do it, even if it meant putting off a medical appointment or two.
Yes, Derek cried out in pain a few times on the trip. Yes, he disturbed other passengers on the plane when he yelled at her to "Fix it!" and "Do what a good mother does" to make him better. Yes, she had to deal with the disapproval of other people at the airport when he decided to get out of his wheelchair and curl up on the carpet while they waited to board their plane. All of it is documented on videotape.
But now, as she watches Derek's lit-up face on the television screen, Cyndie feels vindicated.
"Look at that smile!" she says, pointing to his image. "That, to me, is worth a million bucks."
Everyone else around the TV set is smiling, too, including Derek. Desperate for relief from his pain and fatigue, he recently submitted to a couple of radiation treatments and a blood transfusion, which have made him feel a bit better. He looks relaxed as he sits on the sofa, spooning warm noodles into his mouth.
But beneath the surface, the family structure is shaking. Everyone is aware that someone is missing.
Cyndie's volatile relationship with her oldest son, Anthony, has blown apart. The tall, handsome boy with the sardonic smile is not here with his mom and siblings, celebrating this small victory.
No one wants to share the details of what happened in August after a loud argument between Cyndie and Anthony about whether they could afford Internet service.
All they will say is that Anthony has vanished, and no one is sure whether he is ever coming back.
How This Story Was Reported
Reporter Cynthia Hubert and photographer Renee C. Byer met Cyndie French in May 2005, about six months after her son Derek Madsen was diagnosed with cancer. French invited the journalists to observe all aspects of the boy's care and to document its impact on him and his family. For the next year, Hubert and Byer spent countless hours with Derek and his friends and relatives -- at home, on family outings, and during doctor visits, blood transfusions, surgeries and other treatments. Bee journalists witnessed all scenes in this story.