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Fight with leukemia is like playing Red Light Green Light

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Summer is an island, surrounded by sunshine and freedom. It is freedom from coats and boots, from school schedules and study, from darkness and cold.

I love waking up early on a summer morning, the sun already up or daylight lasting until bedtime. To me, summer is warm nights with fireflies and hot days interrupted by thunderstorms and the smell of dust rising up from the rain.

However, this summer was different. Not because there weren't fireflies and thunderstorms, but because my brother Doug was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.

He lives in New Mexico with his wife and six children. He was immediately admitted to University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque, where he began chemotherapy.

My husband reached out to friends in Salt Lake City, and within days of the diagnosis, we were discussing moving my brother to the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. After finishing his first round of chemo, Doug was airlifted to HCI. Upon reaching the hospital, he called me.

As he described his new hospital room to me through his tears, it sounded like he was describing a hotel room: hardwood floors, wood paneling and marble everywhere. He felt undeserving.

"I don't belong here," was all he could say.

My brother is one of the hardest working men I know. But he doesn't wear a suit or work behind a desk. Rather, he works behind a mower, running his own landscaping business. By worldly standards, Doug doesn't have a lot.

But I know better.

My brother has a beautiful family. When I flew to Salt Lake City earlier this month to spend several days with my brother, I was reminded that success comes in many forms. And if success were measured by the happiness and love of family, then Doug would be a millionaire.

When Doug was diagnosed in June, his oldest son, Colin, had planned on marrying later that month. Instead, he ran his father's business, driving hundreds of miles to various jobs, repairing machinery and calling clients.

Colin and his fiancee even rescheduled their marriage for the Salt Lake area so that Doug could participate between chemo sessions. In fact, Doug's entire family made the eight-hour drive to Salt Lake City. And Doug's wife, Patricia, spent most of her summer in a hospital room, leaving her young children primarily in the care of their high school-age children.

Now my brother is about to enter the next step in his treatment: bone marrow transplant.

Thanks to my youngest sister, who will be the donor, Doug is scheduled for transplant. Then he has another 100 days before he will hopefully receive a green-light from the hospital.

Mary Lowe, a nurse who works directly with Doug's oncologist, has been like a sister to Doug, making him strawberry cheesecake and inviting him home to have dinner with her family. I spoke to Mary about the transplant process.

"I understand that Doug will be feeling pretty sick after the transplant."

"Yes," she said, "It's like chemo times 10."

When I was with Doug during his last chemo session, he said he hoped to be home with his family by Thanksgiving. By that time, he will have been in a holding pattern for almost six months.

And while Doug has learned more, grown stronger and loved deeper through this experience, in the end he is just hoping and praying that he will get a second chance at life.

Doug and I spent hours and hours talking about things we haven't talked about in more than 25 years.

He is the oldest and I am the second, with only two years between us. And yet, he told me things that I heard for the first time. Late into the night we talked about love and disappointment and faith.

We recalled our childhoods and what it was like growing up in a family of nine children.

I remember riding bikes up and down our half-mile dead-end road, racing each other. We caught frogs in our pond and built forts in the woods. The whole neighborhood gathered in our front yard to play cowboys and Indians, partner tag, freeze tag, TV tag and just plain old tag.

But one of my favorite games to play when I was a little girl was Red Light Green Light. The practice of running, then freezing, then sprinting for the finish line hoping not to get caught seemed so entertaining.

As I think of my brother in a place that isn't home, his life on hold while he undergoes cancer treatment, I think of our childhood game.

It is a red light. He is standing still, trying not to flinch and waiting for the signal … green light.

Lydia Hansen Benedict blogs about food, health, education and family. She runs an organic farm in Virginia. Her website is www.lydiabenedict.com.