By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
Theirs was not your average love story. Kevin Pratt and Tashi King got married young, in an age when people tend to wait. The wedding was so small, they didn't even tell their immediate family. They served pie instead of cake — and the bride wore red.
They were perfect for each other.
But in just a few short months, the fairytale turned into a nightmare. The economic downturn gripping Arizona cost Kevin his job at an architecture firm. Tashi, who worked for a real estate company, was cut back to part-time.
And rather than roll with the tough times, Kevin faltered. He was depressed. He complained of headaches. He said he was tired, even though he didn't seem to do anything.
Sometimes, Tashi would come home from work and find that he'd slept all day. He'd be confused, she says. "He thought I'd just left."
He'd always been honest to a fault. But Tashi started to catch him lying, in weird, obvious ways. He'd claim that he'd paid the rent, when he hadn't. He'd tell her he hadn't purchased something — when credit card statements showed otherwise. He couldn't always account for where he'd been.
At Tashi's insistence, they started therapy. He went by himself. They went together. Sometimes Kevin went as often as three times a week.
Nothing changed. Nothing got better.
He stopped going to class. Tashi found the tuition check from Kevin's parents months after it was due, buried under a pile of stuff. And as for those piles . . . Kevin seemed not to notice that laundry was overflowing, that dirty dishes filled the sink.
Worst of all, he completely lost his sense of humor. He'd always been funny — and he'd always thought Tashi was hilarious. Not anymore. He simply didn't laugh.
Tashi would call her friends in tears. "I can't live with this," she'd say.
It might sound like a cautionary tale about young love. Maybe this is why people don't get married in their early 20s. Maybe these two should have gotten to know each better first. Maybe it was never meant to be.
Except this isn't that kind of story at all.
This is a love story, albeit one with a medical twist.
Unbeknownst to anyone — including Kevin himself — there was a tumor the size of a Granny Smith apple pressing onto Kevin's brain.
Kevin didn't need therapy. He needed surgery.
He had cancer.
Kevin's cancer came in an unusual form, especially for a 24-year-old. Only two to three cases of gliobastloma multiforme are diagnosed per 100,000 North Americans. Most of those are in men over 50.
It's also an unusually aggressive cancer. It is almost always fatal. Without treatment, the median survival time for a patient diagoned with glioblastoma multiforme is three months. With treatment, a "lucky" patient might get two years.
No one knew any of this in the summer of 2009, when Kevin started behaving erratically, but in retrospect, his tumor explains everything. It was pushing on his right frontal lobe — the brain's emotional control center. That affects judgment, decision-making, and overall personality.
Kevin's doctors now believe that the tumor had formed back in February, just before he and Tashi got married. And because the tumor quickly began to affect his memory, much of the following months are lost to Kevin — he simply doesn't remember that period of time with any clarity. When Tashi tells the story of how they got to the point of diagnosis and surgery, he sits back and lets her talk. A gentle guy with a dry wit, he doesn't mind letting his wife take the lead.
But after his brain tumor was discovered, Kevin's actions during the summer and fall of 2009 suddenly made sense to Tashi and his parents. And not just his erratic behavior, but physical symptoms, too — things that seemed unimportant or unrelated at the time but, in retrospect, seem about as obvious as a sign with giant flashing lights.
That summer, Kevin often complained of feeling dehydrated, and said that the light hurt his eyes. His mother, Marie Franke, remembers Kevin telling her about it on the phone, and thinking it was just a matter of adjusting to the desert. Sure, Kevin had always loved the Arizona heat, but it's one thing to pass through on vacation, as Kevin had as a kid. It's another thing to live in it, she reasoned.
And Kevin had insisted that he was having some sort of low-grade seizures down his right side. "My right leg wouldn't support my weight," he recalls. But his therapist had told him not to worry. They were merely full-body panic attacks. She suggested antidepressants.
Kevin really didn't want that. "He was 24," Tashi says. "You don't expect a 24-year-old to need those." What's more, he'd never been depressed before that summer.
Kevin had grown up in the small bedroom community of Hercules, California, in the East Bay area. In high school, he hung out mainly with one close group of friends, his mother recalls, and was chiefly involved with the school's Celtic Club.
"He's always been very, very bright," says his father, Chuck Pratt. "And his sense of humor was always just a little bit different, even when he was a little guy."
It was in college that Kevin really blossomed. He lived at home and signed up for classes at a community college in California. There, he became something of a big man on campus, acting in plays, getting involved with the Student Senate, and excelling at speech and debate.
He'd always wanted to be an architect, and so after he transferred to ASU, he majored in design studies. He was into steampunk, the movement that combines Victoriana with science fiction, and he had this idea that he could become a steampunk architect. Kevin marched to his own drummer.
"We're both raving geeks," Kevin explains, gleefully.
The couple met through a mutual friend, a fellow undergrad at ASU, in May 2008.
Eva Wingren had been dating Kevin, but it wasn't serious or even exclusive. And so when Tashi invited some friends over to a watch a movie, Wingren invited Kevin to come, too.
The only problem? Wingren promptly forgot about the invitation and made other plans. When Kevin showed up anyway, he bonded with Tashi over a love of cult TV shows.
But nothing happened that night. It was only later, when they started talking online, that they both realized they were smitten.
The problem, potentially, was the friend who'd introduced them. Wingren and Kevin had been dating, after all, and Wingren was Tashi's friend. They wanted to come clean, but Wingren was out of the country for the next eight days. What to do?
Tashi insisted that they not meet again in person until they could talk to Wingren.
"That was the longest eight days of my life," she says.
But when Wingren returned to Phoenix, she gave her blessing without hesitation. "I was really happy for both of them," she says.
After that, Kevin and Tashi's relationship was on warp speed. Within two months, they were already talking marriage. Ten months after meeting, they eloped. He was 24. She was just 22.
And though the ceremony was just outside Las Vegas, it had none of the usual clichés. They said their vows in a lovely park, on a glorious March day. She wore a scarlet dress — a long, strapless number that made her look like a medieval princess — and carried a bouquet of brilliant blue irises. He wore a kilt.
The wedding was so quick that they opted against telling their families. "When we announced our engagement, both [sets of] parents said, 'Don't you think it's kind of fast?'" Tashi recalls. That reaction didn't give them much hope that their quick elopement would be welcomed with enthusiasm. Why not give their parents time to come around?
Their friends, though, were all for it. "I am not one of those people who believe in love at first sight and long-term stuff like that," Wingren says. But, by the time of the wedding in Vegas, Wingren was on board: "They'd made a believer out of me."
And that's why the events of the spring and summer of 2009 were so bizarre. Everyone knew Kevin and Tashi were great together — but suddenly, they weren't great at all.
Kevin was lethargic and unhappy. Only one semester away from getting his degree from ASU, he dropped out.
He grew angry, and even violent.
Tashi took to scribbling in her diaries. "There's somebody else wearing Kevin's skin," she wrote. "It's like Men in Black. This is not the man I fell in love with."
When therapy didn't help, she began to seriously question whether to file for divorce.
"I was getting more and more resentful because he was not getting any better," Tashi admits.
It wasn't until the last week of October that anybody had any inkling that Kevin was sick.
That week, Kevin started a new job. After months of virtual unemployment — he'd briefly held a job working nights at Circle K and, even more briefly, worked for the Census — he landed a gig selling auto glass door-to-door.
It wasn't a great job by any means, but Kevin was out of options. And Tashi just wanted him off the couch, doing something.
He made it through his first day. But on the morning of the second, Tashi got a text message from Kevin at work.
He was supposed to report for duty at 10 a.m. Instead, he wrote, "I'm not feeling good. I had to go back home. I'm feeling too ill."
Tashi responded in a flurry of angry texts.
"This is your second day!!!"
"They're going to fire you!"
"I'm sorry you're having a panic attack. You need to man up and get over it!" Her pleas were ignored.
Sure enough, that evening, when Tashi came home from work, there was Kevin, back on the couch. "Did you at least call in?" she demanded. He said yes.
"Did you drop off the mail like I told you to?" she asked. Oh, yes, Kevin replied. He'd done that, too.
When Tashi stepped into the kitchen, there was the mail, sitting there in plain sight.
She called her best friend in tears. "I can't take this anymore," she sobbed. "He's lying to my face."
Tashi spent the night at her friend's house, pondering how things had gone so horribly wrong. She returned home the next day. Her 23rd birthday was that Monday, and she didn't want to be a 23-year-old divorcee. But what choice did she have? And what was wrong with Kevin?
That Sunday, the truth came out.
Since it was the day before Tashi's birthday, her friends and family had planned a party. Not a
party party — all Tashi wanted was to play board games.
Before they headed over, Kevin volunteered to get takeout from Baja Fresh. He'd been complaining of a headache, but otherwise seemed okay, so Tashi gave him her order.
It should have been a short walk from the couple's Tempe townhome. He should have been back in 20 minutes, tops.
Instead, 30 minutes later, Tashi was greeted by a heavy knock on the door.
Standing there, she says, was a Hispanic family. They looked petrified.
"We found this guy in the middle of the street," one of them explained. "We didn't hit him! He said he lives here." And there was Kevin, with absolutely no explanation of how he'd ended up in the street, being cared for by strangers.
Weirdest of all? In Kevin's hands was a Baja Fresh bag — full of fish tacos.
Tashi is a vegetarian. And Kevin has always hated the taste of fish.
"I've never seen him eat seafood, ever," Tashi says.
He couldn't explain his menu choices, either. "I need to sleep," he kept saying. "I need to sleep."
So Kevin went to bed, and Tashi went to her party with a heavy heart. It was a mistake. All she could think about was Kevin.
"Everyone's there except the person I really wanted to be enjoying this day with," she says.
But Tashi's sadness turned to worry, and then fear, when she called Kevin to check in.
He didn't answer. She called again.
And again, and again. He didn't pick up.
"I know it's my party," she told the guests, "but I have to leave. Something's not right." Her mother dropped her off at the townhouse.
But when she walked in the door, Kevin was not on the couch. He wasn't on the bed, either.
Tashi found him on the bathroom floor — in a fetal position in a pool of urine. He was hitting the back of his head, over and over, against the bathtub.
"Kevin!" she cried. "Kevin!" One of his pupils wasn't reacting. The other stared at her.
"Don't leave me alone," he said weakly.
Frantically, Tashi called her mother, who was only a few blocks away. They loaded Kevin in the car — he was still mostly incoherent — and raced to St. Luke's Hospital, just a few blocks away.
At the emergency room, Tashi nearly shouted at the intake workers.
"My husband is having severe neurological issues," she cried. "He needs a CAT scan, now!"
They got him in to a doctor in less than five minutes.
Later that night, the physician on duty summoned Tashi and asked her to sit down. He told her that Kevin had a "mass" on his brain, and that it was around eight centimeters. He didn't know if it was tissue, blood, or a tumor. They needed to send him to Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital.
They needed to send him immediately.
When Kevin arrived at Barrow at 1 a.m., Tashi was there with him. And it was there that morning that everything began to sink in.
Kevin was very, very sick — and he had been for a long time.
Kevin's odd behavior, depression, lethargy, and even his "panic attacks" weren't the signs of a nervous breakdown. And they didn't indicate that Tashi had married the wrong man. They were something physical.
Kevin could die.
It was all happening so quickly. And they were so very young.
It was so weird sitting there in the hospital that morning, trying to fill out the requisite stacks of paperwork, trying to comprehend that this was their new reality.
"This is my 23rd birthday," Tashi told herself, stunned. "This is my 23rd birthday."
By the time of Kevin's collapse that Sunday, Kevin and Tashi still hadn't gotten around to telling their parents that they were married.
The Pratts had met Tashi the previous Thanksgiving at their home in California, and liked her. "He needed someone very bright, and intellectually they were equals," says Kevin's mom, Marie Franke. "They could spar with each other." But Kevin's parents still thought they were meeting his girlfriend, not his fiancée.
The truth came out at the hospital.
That Sunday, Tashi had called Kevin's mom even before arriving at the emergency room. Something was seriously wrong, she explained. Kevin's parents needed to get to Phoenix as soon as possible.
Kevin's mom got on a flight at six the next morning. His dad, Chuck Pratt, found someone to take care of the house and watch the dog, then hopped in his car and raced southwest. (Although the drive is supposed to take 14 hours, Pratt did it in 12. "I drove like a madman," he admits.)
Originally, the surgery was scheduled for that Thursday. But by the time his father arrived Monday night, doctors had grown concerned enough to put Kevin on the fast track. They announced that surgery was scheduled for Tuesday morning.
And, oh, by the way, Kevin was married.
"He was not quite in his right mind, and we were expecting that we, as his parents, would be signing the papers," Marie Franke explains. "The doctor said, 'No, his wife's already taken care of that.'"
By this point, Kevin had at least stabilized, to the point where Franke and Pratt wondered whether there had been a mix-up. "Are you married?" they asked.
"For all intents and purposes," Kevin replied.
"What does that mean?" his mother demanded.
It meant Kevin was married but too sheepish to admit it.
It was an awkward scene, to say the least. But in retrospect, perhaps the timing wasn't all that bad. "Under the circumstances we were trying to deal with, we couldn't really make too big a deal of it," Franke says. (Later, she adds, "I let loose on him.")
Indeed, at the moment, things looked bleak.
Once Kevin had stabilized, the main thing was to get the mass out, ASAP. But that would not exactly be easy: The brain is delicate, and there was so much tumor to deal with. Paralysis, loss of bodily function, and brain damage were all serious possibilities.
They cut open his scalp that Tuesday. The doctors worked for nine hours before stitching him back up.
And then the bad news: Not only was the tumor malignant, but Kevin's physician realized they simply hadn't gotten it all. Because of the location of the remaining mass, the second surgery would be even more dangerous.
Kevin didn't care.
"I was very adamant about a course of action," he says. "Get it the hell out of me!"
So on Thursday, Kevin went back to surgery. They opened him up, again. And for another five hours, they painstakingly worked to remove the rest of the tumor.
It was a rough time. Kevin floated in and out of consciousness. "Is this real?" he'd ask. "Is this really happening?" At one point, he was in such terrible pain, he was convinced that a crown of barbed wire was pressing into his skull.
The worst news of all came a few days later. The tumor wasn't just cancerous. It was also a particularly lethal type, and it was in an advanced stage.
It was almost surely fatal.
Not surprisingly, the good news was lost in the face of that. After the second surgery, Kevin's physicians were satisfied that the cancer was gone, at least for now. And they'd done such a good job with the delicate area that he had full muscle control. No paralysis!
His old personality was back, almost instantly. Suddenly, he was funny again.
"He came out of the surgery, and he started joking," Tashi says, amazed.
But the story was far from over. Kevin would have to have six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. And, after that, he'd be given maintenance doses of chemo, in pill form, for the next year.
In the long term, the prognosis was not good. Statistically, he was almost certain to die within two years. His best chance — their best chance — was to keep undergoing chemo. If they could keep the CAT scans clear for a full year, his chances improved significantly.
Before Kevin began his radiation and the rounds of chemo, he and Tashi spent four weeks together. They wanted him to gain weight, to be strong enough to take the poison.
Kevin and Tashi also wanted time together before Kevin's ordeal began. They'd unwittingly endured so much in the past year — didn't they deserve a break before leaving the frying pan for the fire?
During that time, the couple decided to freeze Kevin's sperm. Even though it clearly wasn't a good time to have a baby — and maybe it never would be a good time — they could at least leave the option open.
The sperm bank wanted $715 to store a shot of sperm for one year. They didn't have it, Kevin recalls. With a little bit of begging, Tashi got a "cancer patient discount" — $350 for a shot.
But they didn't even have that.
Tashi had taken the previous three weeks off work. And Kevin, of course, hadn't lasted two days on the auto glass job before becoming a full-time cancer patient. They'd had to ask their family for support just to keep the lights on.
So they swallowed their pride and turned to their friends. "It's hard to say, 'Can you spare $10 so Kevin can whack off in a cup and have kids?'" Tashi says, grimacing. But their friends were happy to help. They had the money in a week.
That left only one problem: Getting to the sperm bank.
Kevin wasn't allowed to drive, and Tashi had been scheduled to work during the appointed hour. They could hardly push back the appointment — chemo was beginning the next week.
Kevin was forced to hitch a ride with his mother-in-law.
It's important to note that, in most versions of Kevin and Tashi's story, the couple didn't elope for fear of upsetting Kevin's parents, who are laid-back Californians. Tashi's parents, who live in Phoenix, have been a bit more difficult. They were really the ones whom the couple didn't want to set off.
Suffice it to say, Tashi's mother was not thrilled to learn that she had a secret son-in-law, much less one who was probably dying.
Months later, when Kevin had successfully come through radiation, and was taking his monthly maintenance doses of chemo drugs, he did a five-minute stand-up routine at the Comedy Spot in Old Town Scottsdale.
Naturally, his trip to the sperm bank with his newly acknowledged mother-in-law was part of his set.
"A few months ago, about half a year ago, I had a tumor pressing on my brain," he began, launching into an Arnold Schwarzenegger "TOOM-ah" joke.
Then he continued, more seriously.
"The downside to facing the specter of a malignant tumor in my head: I had to go through cancer treatment. It was going to leave me completely and genetically junked.
"So I had to go down to a fertility clinic to give some sperm. And, well, the only person who could give me a ride was my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law."
People started laughing, loudly. One girl gasped, "Oh, my God!"
"My just-found-out-that-I'd-run-off-with-her-daughter-and-secretly-deprived-her-of-her-wedding mother-in-law," Kevin continued. "I've walked on Canadian glaciers, and . . . it was warmer than that car trip over to the sperm bank.
"At a fertility clinic, for a guy, the procedure is a lot less invasive than it is for women. You basically just make a little jizz in a cup. When you're 14, 19 — you know, a teenager — and you know your mom's on the other side of the door? You know how to be quiet, but it's still kind of awkward.
"When it's your mother-in-law," he said, "and she knows what you're doing — because she brought you there — it takes all your mental focus and concentration to manage to get it in the cup."
The crowd howled.
But then, as Kevin continued, there came the crushing denouement.
After months of being so sick, and the two surgeries, Kevin's sample came back showing just seven sperm.
At first, the couple thought that must be shorthand for something. Seven thousand? Seven hundred thousand?
There would be no kids for Kevin and Tashi. Not now. And, with the cancer treatments likely to keep his sperm count low for the indefinite future, probably not ever.
Kevin joked about it at the Comedy Spot.
"Really, with all these treatments, it's aged me 40 years. I feel like I'm 65 instead of 25. I have memory problems. I can't walk, or think, that quickly. I take forever using the bathroom. I need to use constant laxatives to do just that.
"I'm going bald. I beat my father to Social Security. I take more pills than my grandmother and I have a really odd urge to play shuffleboard.
"I have memory problems," he says again, then milks the long pause, grinning. "I can't walk, or think, that quickly . . .
"Death is my wake," he concludes a few minutes later. And this time, the crowd's laughter is a little more nervous.
Kevin and Tashi's townhouse is a dim, cluttered space, stacked full of books and board games and videos and Kevin's hand-painted fantasy figurines. They've hung reflective sheets against the windows to keep out the sun; air-conditioning is expensive enough in the summer without the townhouse's sliding glass doors soaking in the sun all day.
But the place is cheerful in spite of their forced frugality. There's a little herb garden on the back patio, and one of Kevin's steampunk sculptures sits proudly in one corner. Cards that they wrote back and forth during their courtship — "when Kevin wooed me," Tashi boasts — hang on the wall.
The kitchen is spotless, with signs of cancer everywhere. A dry-erase board charts Kevin's chemo cycle and pill regimen. They always have a giant bag of little prescription bottles to return to Walgreen's for refill or recycling. And, over the sink, a handwritten note reminds Kevin to rinse his plate. Even today, he has trouble with his memory.
Kevin and Tashi are straddling two worlds: They're both college-age kids and world-weary adults.
Thanks to Kevin's chemo, he can't drink at all — and some friends have steered clear. "They're reaching these natural milestones," Tashi says. "They're getting married, having kids, moving to the city of their choice. We're stuck in a holding pattern."
Most days, their lives feel more like that of 70-somethings than 20-somethings: They organize their schedule around trips to the pharmacy, doctor's visits, the taking of a maintenance dose of chemo. A game night with a few friends is about as exciting as it gets.
Money is a constant concern.
Kevin and Tashi were raised in middle-class homes. At the time of Kevin's collapse, they were both on their way to college degrees and employer-funded health insurance. Kevin is roughly a semester away from having a degree from ASU.
Meanwhile, Tashi dreamed of being a forensic anthropologist, just like her hero, Dana Scully of The X-Files. But she'd temporarily dropped out of ASU to help put Kevin through school. (He was closer to finishing; after he had his degree, he could help her, or so they reasoned before the cancer struck.) She had a full-time job — but her hours were cut to part-time, right around the same time that Kevin lost his beloved internship and was forced to make ends meet with jobs at Circle K and the Census.
Catastrophe struck at the worst possible time. Since neither had college degrees nor full-time jobs, neither had insurance. And so, through no fault of their own, Kevin's cancer ended up plunging the pair into the hell of poverty and all its attendant government programs.
The programs have been a blessing. At the emergency room in October, Kevin was signed up for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS, the state's publicly funded health plan. Since the first two surgeries easily ran into the six figures, not counting the hospital stay, that was essential to keeping him alive.
But keeping him enrolled has proved to be something of a full-time job.
In January, AHCCCS administrators sent Kevin and Tashi clumsily worded letters, saying they were both about to be kicked off.
Kevin desperately needed to stay on. He was in the midst of his chemo cycle. Without insurance, his medication alone cost $8,227 — a month. And other than Tashi's hourly wages at her part-time job, the couple's only income came from Kevin's Social Security check.
Yet AHCCCS determined that, in the preceding month, Kevin and Tashi had notched $612.25 in earnings. The monthly limit for AHCCCS users? $608 a month.
Tashi and Kevin were $4.25 over the limit.
The whole thing was galling — not just because $612 a month is nothing, and not just because that $4.25 seemed so arbitrary. At that point, health insurance was literally the only thing keeping Kevin alive.
Tashi spent hours pleading with caseworkers. She called her congressman, her city councilman, and the governor. She even called Nancy Pelosi. "We were told by one person to do one thing — by someone else to do another," she says. "There'd be all these paperwork hoops. We'd send things in three times. They'd say, 'We never got that. You're lying.' Or, 'It's processing.' We'd call back a week later. 'It's processing.' The week after that? 'We never got it. You're lying.'"
By spring, AHCCCS administrators relented and put Kevin back on the program. But his wife wasn't so lucky. AHCCCS insists on treating the couple as individuals. And Tashi doesn't qualify, they say, unless she can show that her medical bills have been at a certain level for the three previous months.
But she can't spend money she doesn't have: Tashi stopped taking various medications when she was kicked off AHCCCS.
Tashi quit her job in May. While serving as Kevin's caregiver, it was simply too much.
But, she admits, there's another benefit. If she's unemployed, their income will come entirely from Social Security and food stamps. At that point, maybe AHCCCS will think they're desperate enough.
"I don't want to say they're trying to kill people, but they're trying to kill people," Tashi says, exhausted.
Chemo has been tough, even in maintenance doses. Kevin talks about green banana days: "When you don't feel like you're going to last long enough to buy green bananas at the grocery store," Tashi explains. You have to buy the ones that are already ripe, or you may not be around long enough to eat them.
And though Kevin can joke all he wants about his low sperm count, when things turn serious, they both admit they're mourning the improbability of having a future together.
"The idea of getting a life partner — to grow together, with your career and your lives . . ." Tashi says, trailing off. "Eventually having kids, and nieces and nephews, and grandkids. How do I put this? There are things I didn't know I wanted until I had almost no possibility of getting them."
"Kids," Kevin says quietly. "Kids is a big one."
When they look on the bright side, they admit they have new appreciation for each other these days. Just having the old Kevin back fills Tashi with delight. "I have him back, and it's his personality," she marvels. "I have to make the most of this."
But the cancer is omnipresent. They both talk about death casually, without sentimentality. It's never far from their thoughts.
Kevin has been exploring religion. When a Jehovah's Witness knocked at the door earlier this summer, the two ended up becoming friends. They bonded over a shared love of astronomy, but that's not all. Kevin is looking for answers. He's reading about Taoism, Buddhism, and the Christianity that his parents held nominally. He's trying to get ready for the end.
"I don't see death as something to be afraid of," he says. "I'm not eager to bring it closer — but I'm not going to shy from it if it comes for me."
He's more afraid, he admits, of what happens before death. He doesn't remember much of the summer of 2009, but he's horrified to hear that he was angry, and violent. When Tashi notes that, during those dark days, Kevin was abusive, his eyes are sad. "I'm sorry," he whispers.
That's what he's most afraid of: Not death, not pain, but becoming a monster.
"If it" — meaning the tumor — "comes back, the personality changes come back too," he says. "To me, it's the zombie dilemma. If your best friend gets bitten by a zombie, do you shoot them — as a favor to them?
"I will make arguments to end this early rather than become the horrible person that I was. I don't want to hurt the people I love most on the way out."
For now, though, that's not the question. Kevin is still Kevin. And so, for now, things are a little bit simpler.
"At the end of the day, is my heart still beating? Yes. Am I still with my wife? Yes," Kevin says. "Then that's a good day."
In June, Kevin had another CAT scan. And in June, once again, he was clean: no tumors, no resurgence of the cancer.
It doesn't mean he's out of the woods. But it's the best of all possible outcomes at this stage of treatment.
And Tashi had good news, too — kind of.
On June 9, two letters arrived from the Arizona Department of Economic Security. The first letter was one she's been waiting for. The state of Arizona decreed that, since she left her job to take care of a family member, she "left work for a compelling personal reason not attributable to your employer."
What that means, in non-bureaucratese? She's eligible for unemployment benefits.
But then she opened the second envelope.
"I bet you $10 that it says I'm not eligible," she jokes.
"Oh, I'm sure it's just more information now that you do qualify," Kevin says hopefully.
The second letter has the same date, and comes from the same branch of state government.
"You are not eligible for unemployment insurance . . . unless eligibility conditions are met," it says.
A week later, Tashi is still stewing.
"Can you at least tell me if I'm going to get it or not?" she says, exasperated. "What the state of Arizona has told me so far, they seem to be wanting me to move and be somebody else's problem."
It's a blazingly hot day, and the first week of Kevin's chemo cycle. That means he takes the little poison pill every night. It also means, twice a week, Tashi drives him to Barrow for Aloxi, an anti-nausea infusion from an IV.
"It keeps him feeling almost human," Tashi explains. "We have two categories during chemo week. If I ask, 'How are you?' and he says, 'I'm still alive' — oh, that's not good. If he says, 'Almost human,' that's success."
Kevin is looking even paler than usual. He's moving very slowly as he slides on his Crocs and gets ready to go.
"I can keep up an act and pass as a normal human being for a couple hours," he says grimly.
They take the 202 into Phoenix. Traffic is light, but the heat is stifling. The air conditioner in their old Chevy Blazer is on the fritz, and even though they're moving quickly, 110 degrees is still 110 degrees.
"I consider being there 15 minutes early being on time," Tashi says cheerfully. The heat seems not to affect her. "It's a question of, 'Do I consider my time more valuable than their time?'" She pauses for a second. "I do occasionally consider his time more valuable, but he's got less of it."
"Scarcity does drive up demand," Kevin says.
Upstairs in the IV suite, nurse Maureen Boyle is handling Kevin's infusion. She's handled infusions for Kevin before, and she greets him warmly.
"Did you do the stand-up thing?" she asks.
"Oh, yeah," Tashi answers for him. "We've got the link up on YouTube. It went off great! Everybody laughed at the right place."
"That's a good thing," Kevin says.
"Some people there were heckling half the guys who went on before him," Tashi says. "They made not a peep during Kevin's routine."
Boyle ties a blue band around Kevin's upper arm. "Are you feeling good?"
"Well, I'm on chemo," Kevin says, "so feeling good is relative."
"Are you alive or almost human?" Tashi asks softly. She's not looking for an answer, and he doesn't give one.
At the end of the 20-minute infusion, Kevin sits quietly, sipping his can of lemon-lime sparking water. He's always a little dizzy after an infusion, and today is no exception.
But all things considered, this is a good day. The Aloxi helps. And there's still no recurrence of the cancer that will, in the end, probably kill him. He's got his wife. He's got his sense of humor, and he's got his marriage.
He does not look upset, sitting there in the chair. And when he stands up, Kevin Pratt does not stumble.
Boyle bids him goodbye for the day, promising to look up his comedy routine online. "I love YouTubes," she says. "It'll be fun." Then, ever the nurse, she asks, "Are you feeling okay?"
"As okay as I can," Kevin says. He and Tashi head to the elevator, holding hands.