(Editor's note: Blake Anderson died Monday morning, a day after this column was published.)
Blake Anderson hopes to feel well enough this summer to spend a week at Camp Mak-A-Dream in Montana. The camp at the base of the resplendent Flint Mountains offers kids with cancer a chance to feel normal.
It also offers Blake, 17, a chance to sleep in a bed.
It's hard to imagine anything worse for a high school kid than being homeless, but being homeless while fighting a merciless form of cancer is probably it.
Since being diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in 2008, Blake and his single mom, Michelle Anderson, have been couch-hopping and hoping for a miracle -- or two.
Michelle, 44, has become an expert in packing two huge totes as they move in and out of apartments, motels and hospital rooms. One tote is stuffed with clothes, blankets and sheets, the other with lamps, medications and paperwork. Blake, she said, "likes his own bedding," so she always makes sure to have it.
The totes are currently stored in the basement of a family member's home where they are staying. But the quarters are tight, and they're wearing out their welcome, Michelle said.
Blake explains matter-of-factly that he sleeps on the floor on a foam mattress, inside two sleeping bags. Michelle can barely stand it.
"Here come the waterworks," Blake says drolly, as Michelle reaches for a Kleenex in an examining room at Children's Hospital of Minneapolis, where they've come for a routine platelets transfusion.
"I'm sure there are people out there who have gone through worse things than we have," Michelle said. "But I never thought my life would be like this."
Michelle, Blake and her now-21-year-old married daughter moved to the Twin Cities from Hayward, Wis., in 2006. Michelle is candid about her past, which includes bad checks and public assistance theft more than a decade ago. Apartment evictions have dogged her since Blake's diagnosis, mainly because she finds it impossible to work and be the full-time support system her son needs as he navigates life with endless medications and doctor's appointments.
"I don't want to be without him," she said. She worked as a grocery store cashier for many years. Now she relies on $400 in monthly Social Security income and $600 in child support.
Ed Murphy empathizes with her struggle. Murphy lost his only child, Benjamin, to cancer in 1997 when Ben was 7. During their heartbreaking personal journey, Murphy met a lot of parents like Michelle "who were so overwhelmed. This is not something people prepare for."
Particularly people already living on the edge in this economy, one paycheck away from losing everything. In 2010, Murphy founded Hearts and Hands, a nonprofit providing non-medical-related financial support, resources and advocacy to low-income families with a child facing a life-threatening illness.
Among their many services, they connect families to benefits, grant emergency aid for groceries and child care, and intervene with landlords. Murphy, who works with one part-time chaplain, funds his non-profit with private donations.
Michelle was referred to Hearts and Hands in December by a social worker at Children's. Murphy's goal is to get mother and son a permanent place to live as quickly as possible. "Obviously, couch-hopping is not a very healthy environment" for Blake, he said. Evictions on Michelle's record "make it tough," he added, "but I think we can get around that."
Blake's leukemia was diagnosed on Oct. 31, 2008. He underwent chemotherapy and was in remission but then relapsed. Hope for a bone-marrow transplant faded due to lack of a match. Blake received a double stem-cell transplant but, last November, doctors found leukemia cells in his spinal fluid. He's on oral chemotherapy now.
Blake, a senior at Mounds View High School in Arden Hills, missed most of his freshman and sophomore years. A tutor keeps him current and he hopes to walk with his class at graduation. Friends send him messages via Facebook, he said. He'd like to return to school part time, but his energy level is unpredictable.
"Sometimes I can walk the whole day," said Blake, wearing multicolored M&M pajama pants. "The next day, I feel like somebody drained all my energy out of me."
His appetite varies, too. The night before his doctor's appointment, the 6-foot-tall Blake couldn't eat his mom's chicken enchiladas, but he managed to get down a few toaster waffles. He loves biology and wants to be a veterinarian.
"He's always had such a positive attitude," Michelle said. She doesn't know that she would be as strong if she had cancer.
She does know what she hopes for, intensely. "I want to be in a home where we can pay our bills and live life to the fullest. Just to have him in a safe place to sleep and not worry about anything. Just to say, when he comes closer, 'I'm home.'"
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