Songs in the Key of Life: Rascal Flatts’ “Skin (Sarabeth)”

There are certain phrases in life you just don’t want to hear. “You have cancer” usually makes the top five of that list. On April 7, 2005 – nine years ago today – my wife and I heard those news as the doctor informed us that she had leukemia.

I had always enjoyed the “Songs in the Key of Life” column that we posted on PopBlerd! A reference to Stevie Wonder’s Grammy award-winning Album of the Year titled “Songs in the Key of Life,” the column would feature one of our writers relating a song to a moment in their life.

I made my “Songs in the Key of Life” debut in September when I used Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Cinderella” to celebrate my daughter’s fifth birthday.

We all have songs that may pop up on your iTunes playlist and take you back to a moment that either made you smile or made you emotional. We all have songs that we like to put on to take us back to a moment that either made us smile or made us emotional.

Rascal Flatts’ 2005 single “Skin (Sarabeth)” has done that to me for the last nine years.

Fitting that the song was released just months after my wife’s diagnosis, and right before her final round of treatment. I still remember the first time it played on the radio. I tried to shush my sister-in-law, who was visiting from Brazil and understood no English, so I could listen intently to the lyrics.

Sarabeth is scared to death
To hear what the doctor will say
She hasn’t been well, since the day that she fell
And the bruise that just won’t go away

It was late-November when my wife took a tumble, carrying our son, down the concrete stairs of my parent’s porch. Like a good running back she kept our one-month old tightly in her arms, using her left to brace herself for the fall. No damage was done, but a month, and then two months later her wrist was still sore and still bruised.

Not only was her wrist bruised but so were odd parts of her body. Her abdomen, the palm of her hand, I had wondered what I might be doing to her while I slept. Her co-workers jokingly – I hope – said, “I don’t want to know what’s going on with you and Kevin at home.” We waited, and waited, and waited … almost too long.

She began to fill fatigued. She had non-stop headaches. But what first-time mom, with a 5-month old doesn’t feel fatigued or have headaches? Then the pinpoint red dots began to appear on her feet, her shins, before covering her entire leg. Okay, fine, maybe it was time to heed the advice of many of people and visit the doctors.

So she sits and she waits with her mother and dad
And flips through an old magazine
Till the nurse with the smile stands at the door
And says will you please come with me

It was the morning of April 7, 2005 when my wife, 5-month old son and myself sat in the doctor’s office. He ran some blood tests, thought everything sounded odd and sent us on our way. I went back to work, my wife and son back to our rented townhouse just a block from the medical clinic.

I went to work, told my boss that we were waiting and seeing, and introduced myself to our newest employee. Then the phone rang. It was my wife, frantic and almost in tears. My wife never cried, not even during “Old Yeller.” We needed to head straight to the hospital because it might be cancerous. My body trembled. I hung up the phone, stuttered to my boss that I needed to go to the hospital right now, and stumbled out the door. I called my mom and asked if she could drive us to the hospital. I was in no condition to drive my family to the emergency room 20 minutes away.

We sat, and sat, and sat in the ER confused. We were finally told to go up to the seventh floor, and checked into Room 707. Again, we sat, and sat, and sat confused. The nurse asked my wife to undress. She hesitated, confused. They need to run tests, it’s likely that she’d have to stay overnight. Tests? Overnight? Just a hospital gown? Geez! What did we have for dinner?

Sarabeth is scared to death
Cause the doctor just told her the news
Between the red cells and white, something’s not right
But we’re gonna take care of you

Six chances in ten, it won’t come back again
With the therapy we’re gonna try
It’s just been approved, it’s the strongest there is
I think we caught it in time
And Sarabeth closes her eyes

That evening an oncologist came in, excused my confused (using that word a lot, but seriously, we were all confused) dad and brother, and told us the news. She had Acute Myeloid Leukemia aka Cancer, and if not treated immediately, she would have roughly 3-6 months to live. If you’re a fan of the TV show “Scrubs” this is where there’d be a quick flash to my thoughts and a ton of bricks landing on my head.

Yes, they thought they caught it in time, but yes, we waited until the very last minute to come into the hospital. The cancer cells were eating up her blood. In fact, she was so low on blood that they would need to refill her immediately, before starting chemotherapy. So for 24 hours straight she received a refill on blood. Twenty-four hours after that she received 24 hours a day, for seven straight days, chemotherapy treatment that killed the blood – and her body. I’ve never seen anyone go through hell, but this has to be pretty darn close.

Our immediate thought went to our 5-month old. She would need to stop feeding him, and we would need to ween him immediately to the bottle. What would we do with him, with work, with life? It all came to a crashing halt. It didn’t matter.

The morning of April 7 was the last time she would taste fresh air for 30 days.

And she dreams she’s dancing
Around and around without any cares
And her very first love is holding her close
And a soft wind is blowing her hair

Sara Beth is scared to death
As she sits holding her mom
Cause it would be a mistake for someone to take
A bald headed girl to the prom

For just this morning, right here on her pillow
Was the cruelest of any surprise
And she cried when she gathered it all in her hands
The proof that she couldn’t deny
And Sara Beth closes her eyes

And she dreams she’s dancing
Around and around without any cares
And her very first love is holding her close
And a soft wind is blowing her hair

It’s quarter to seven, that boy’s at the door
And her daddy ushers him in
And when he takes off his cap
They all start to cry
Cause this morning where his hair had all been
Softly she touches just skin

And they go dancing, around and around
Without any cares
And her very first true love is holding her close
And for a moment she isn’t scared.

The rest of the song is less-relateable for us. My wife didn’t dream of dancing (though Brazilian she can hardly bust a move on the dance floor), and she didn’t care about losing her hair. I still remember walking into her room one Sunday morning, and, with two clumps of hair in her hand, stating, “I want this out now.” She was my bald beauty just a couple hours later.

I always knew my wife was tough, preferring a good punch in the arm over a gentle kiss, but this battle just confirmed it. She never worried, never backed down, never got upset or depressed. Even her oncologist admitted that he had dealt with a lot of tough dudes in his time, but none compared to her. That’s my girl!

It helped that we were able to have our son, in his playpen, in the room for the majority of the time. It helped that family and friends would treat her room like the local coffeehouse. My brothers would be playing cards, my dad would be napping in the chair next to my wife’s bed, my mom – who finished runner-up in the MVP race during my wife’s battle (sorry, but when you win the battle you rightfully earn the MVP) because she went above and beyond what any other mother-in-law might have done – feeding my son. My buddy and I watching the NBA playoffs. The cafeteria was our dining hall, the nurses became family. My son learned to walk on the seventh floor, and the nurses called him the “Prince of 7A.”

On the day before her first Mother’s Day my wife was released from the hospital with a BIG smile on her face. Her mom and youngest sister were able to make the trek up from Brazil to be with her.

My wife would have four more week-long stays at the hospital for follow-up treatment. Those were usually followed up with an infection and another week-long stay at the hospital. But in the end she was victorious. So victorious that there was no need for a bone marrow transplant, and so victorious that, despite being told we’d likely not have kids again, we had two more.

There are so many more stories or details I could get into (you’ll have to read past posts for all that), but I won’t bore you with that. I will say that since then I’ve been heavily involved with the American Cancer Society and have listened and shared my story with hundreds of people. There are three things that I consistently tell people that were keys to my wife’s victory: Faith, support and a great sense of humor.

Today is April 7, a day I like to call our “Pause and Reflect Holiday.” A time for my wife, kids and I (and often my mom because she played such an integral   role in this battle) to take an afternoon off to be together. We can all get caught up, stressed and frustrated over financial turmoil, petty family drama, packed schedules and when will they announce the cast of the upcoming Star Wars film, that we need to look back on this date in Johnson 5 history and realize there was a time when time stopped and we didn’t know what tomorrow might bring. I know, we still don’t know, but April 7, 2005 taught me, as tough as it might be, you really have to take life one day at a time. And love … we always need love!

Oh, and if you feel so inclined, help us as we participate in our 10th American Cancer Society’s Relay For Lifeby donating to our ACS RFL team, The Force. Click http://main.acsevents.org/goto/johnson5   to support me in this fight. Thank you!

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