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Nebraska assistant dealing with 'brutal' situation with son

Chris Harriman (Scott Bruhn, Nebraska Athletics)
Nebraska assistant Chris Harriman and his son, Avery, before a game. (Scott Bruhn, Nebraska Athletics)

Chris Harriman answered the phone early Thursday like he always does -- with enthusiasm in his voice that's laced with an Australian accent. You wouldn't have known anything was wrong unless you knew everything is wrong. But I knew everything is wrong, despite what the happy clip posted a day earlier on YouTube suggested. So I quickly asked a simple question about his 7-year-old son, Avery, who is battling leukemia for the third time, and Harriman, a Nebraska assistant, provided a simple and honest answer to that question.

"There's no way to sugarcoat it," Harriman said. "It's a bad deal."

You might've seen the video by now.

It's 22 seconds and features Chris Harriman telling Avery Harriman that, after 23 days of intensive chemotherapy treatments in the hospital, they are finally going home. Avery screams a scream of joy. He raises both his arms in the air. He jumps on his bed. He hugs and kisses relatives. Then the video concludes with Avery yelling, "I'm going home!"

It's all really sweet.

And it's all completely true.

Avery was indeed allowed to go home Wednesday, and he's at home right now. But what nobody said in that video is that Avery will only be home for three or four days. This time next week, he'll be right back at the same hospital having another bone-marrow biopsy.

"So he won't be home long," Chris Harriman said.

If the cancer is gone, Avery will have another bone-marrow transplant. If not, it's another round of chemotherapy. In other words, the Harrimans are now basically reduced to dealing with a bad situation or a really bad situation. Like Chris said, there's no way to sugarcoat it.

This is reality when a 55-pound, 7-year-old has relapsed for a second time.

"The best-case scenario is he has to go through another transplant, and we know he might not get through it," Chris Harriman said. "So even the best-case scenario is scary as sh-t."

Chris paused for a moment after those words.

"It's just brutal, man," he added. "You know how it is. You've got little boys."

I do have little boys, by the way. Their names are Aiden and Oliver. The first is 11 years old, the second is 8 months old. And unless you're a parent you can't possibly understand what it must be like to know there's a very real chance your child is dying before your eyes. Thankfully, my wife and I have never dealt with this in any real way. But there was a time, when Aiden was 2, when a doctor told us he might have a brain tumor, and there was a week in between the time the doctor told us that and the time we were able to get a brainscan performed to either confirm the diagnosis or ease our minds.

Luckily, there was no brain tumor.

Aiden is now a healthy sixth-grader.

But I remember that week vividly -- how nervous and scared and helpless I felt. Suddenly, all the cliches became true. I was genuinely trying to make deals with higher-powers, telling them to just give me the brain tumor and let my little boy be OK. It was, I think, the scariest week of my life, and I wouldn't wish that level of uncertainty and fear on anybody.

Now think about this: Chris Harriman has been living that week for five years.

Avery was first diagnosed with leukemia during the 2009 Final Four.

He was 2 years old.

The cancer eventually went into remission and stayed that way until Avery relapsed in October 2012. From there, the next step was a bone-marrow transplant that was deemed successful. The donor, the Harrimans learned a year later, was a stranger from California named Andrew Cussen, who was considered a perfect match for Avery. Like absolutely perfect. Avery was subsequently cancer-free for 18 months.

He went on a Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World.

He participated in a youth basketball camp at Nebraska.

"They tell you that once you get 100 days post-transplant, that's a big milestone," Chris Harriman said. "Well, we were like 400 days post-transplant. Life was good."

And then, just like that, it wasn't.

Avery relapsed for a second time late last month.

And now doctors are starting to prepare the Harrimans for the worst.

"So we got home yesterday, and everybody was, 'Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,'" Chris Harriman said. "And I'm like, 'Listen, it's good to be home for a few days. But we're still scared to death because we might get to a point where they tell us they're running out of options.' We've never had those conversations before, but we're starting to have them, and it's just brutal. ... All you want is for your son to have a normal life. I mean, he's 7. He should be in school [messing] around with his friends. But instead we're just trying to keep him alive."

The good news is that Avery is in great spirits. ("He's been doing this so long," Chris Harriman said, "he doesn't even know it's not normal.") The better news is that Andrew Cussen is now a family friend, and he's already promised the Harrimans that he'll be there for them again, if they need him again. ("Andrew told me, 'Chris, if you need me, I'm on the next flight to Nebraska. I will be there,'" Chris Harriman said. "So the doctors are excited that we still have him as a donor, if we need him.")

So, yeah, that's the good news.

But "good news" is a relative term here.

Once upon a time, the odds were in Avery's favor. Now they're not. There's no guarantee the cancer will go away again, and, even if it does, there's no guarantee Avery can handle another transplant. It was risky the first time. It would be riskier a second time.

"He's 55 pounds," Chris Harriman said. "How much can his body take?"

Nobody on the planet can accurately answer that question.

So the Harrimans will spend the next few days living with uncertainty -- hoping and praying and dreaming of beating the odds that they realize are heavily stacked against them. They're at home right now, and Avery is just as happy as he seemed in that video. But the coming weeks and months are going to be hard on everybody involved, undeniably.

"We're only home for a few days," Chris Harriman said. "Then we're going to go back to the hospital and just, you know, try to figure out the next step."

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