The Rockies unfurled outside Kristen Yeckleyâs passenger window, but she kept her eyes on the speedometer.
No more than 5 mph over the limit, she urged her mother. Hands at 10 and 2.
She had stayed up past 3 a.m., sobbing, praying, plotting the route back to Pinellas Park. The drive meant committing a federal crime with her 5-year-old son in the backseat.
Kristen kept imagining handcuffs, the fear on Tylerâs trusting face. If they were pulled over, she would use his medical records to plead for sympathy.
She and her husband, Joe, had saved up for their dream home with a backyard pool. They had comfortable jobs, poker nights, a college fund in their sonâs name.
Then came Tylerâs diagnosis.
When doctors said he was out of options, Kristen and Joe vowed to do anything, even split up their family, to give Tyler a chance with a treatment Florida doesnât allow.
That brought Kristen here, to the sloping road out of Colorado last summer, 2,000 miles from home â with vials of liquid medical marijuana buried in her motherâs suitcase.
Worry first tugged at Kristen in the line to see Santa Claus.
âDo you think Tyler has a lazy eye?â her best friend had asked earlier that week in 2014. Kristen, then 30, said Tyler was just being a 4-year-old, making funny faces.
At Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg, Santa reached for Tyler in his argyle vest.
Kristen saw it. Something was wrong.
âOkay, Ty, look here, look here,â she called out, hoping his right eye would straighten.
But it stuck, turned inward. The left squinted. His mouth scrunched into a half-smile.
The day after Christmas, Joe, then 33, took Tyler to an eye doctor.
âI thought he was cross-eyed,â Joe said. âIt seemed to make sense.â
Hours later, an MRI revealed something far more worrisome. A lesion on Tylerâs brainstem.
Tyler had arrived on Super Bowl Sunday in 2010, soft with peach fuzz. Kristen and Joe watched the game from the hospital bed. As the winning quarterback lifted his blond-haired boy to the sky, Joe did the same, eyes welling.
Kristen and Joe met in their mid-20s. She taught elementary school. He worked in finance.
They married on Sunset Beach and bought their house two years later, on a woodsy lot with a tangerine tree. As they tore off wallpaper, 2-year-old Tyler played hide-and-seek in the cabinets.
Pictures of him filled their phones: blue-eyed Tyler picking daisies for girls at school; Tyler a statue in a sea of wiggly kids, mouthing the syllables on the vowel chart. He built train sets, dreamed of driving the Disney monorail, the horn playing When You Wish Upon a Star.
âIâve got a great idea,â he would tell his parents, before launching into a negotiation to sleep in their bed.
In mid-January of 2015, the family returned to Johns Hopkins All Childrenâs Hospital for another MRI.
Doctors now called the lesion a tumor. It was growing, fast, and they needed to operate.
Tyler hadnât yet started kindergarten or lost a tooth. He taught the days of the week to the stuffed animals piled on his bed.
Kristen had wanted him to grow up with friends who were like siblings. Most weekends, their home became the gathering place for a tight-knit group of couples and their kids, Tylerâs closest friends.
At the end of January, not long before Tylerâs fifth birthday, the Yeckleys rallied them for a âbravery party.â As his friends painted, Tylerâs parents sat him on their bed.
âTomorrow is probably going to be a bigger doctorâs appointment,â Kristen explained. âTheyâre going to try to fix your eye.â
She and Joe worried Tyler would emerge from surgery mute, paralyzed or tethered to a feeding tube, as the doctors had warned was possible. Tyler, upset he might miss a friendâs birthday party, started to cry.
Sullen, he joined the other kids and smeared a blob of blue paint on his paper.
âA monster,â he grunted, but then added a wobbly red smile.
Tyler awoke the day after surgery, hungry for mac and cheese. Surgeons had cut away about 30 percent of the tumor, but the rest reached like tentacles into his brain. They called it an anaplastic astrocytoma, a rare, aggressive cancer.
Doctors avoided the word âterminal,â but the message was clear: Donât waste the time you have left searching for solutions.
âStay off the computer,â Kristen recalled one doctor telling her, âAnd take your son to a park.â
Kristen stopped teaching. Joe would keep them afloat financially.
They had always balanced each other. Kristenâs spontaneity and raspy laugh complemented Joeâs analytical, level-headed way. They were like a canoe, Kristen joked. Joe kept them powering forward, âand I am totally the direction.â
That winter, Joe called name-brand hospitals for second opinions. Radiation therapy would hold the tumorâs growth in check for a few months, but then what?
Tyler was at an age Joe had long looked forward to. He envisioned tee-ball games, Tyler dribbling down the soccer field. He had feared becoming a father, but now it was life without Tyler that was terrifying.
Tyler watched as Kristen disappeared into her bedroom for hours at a time.
âWhy is Mommy crying?â he would ask.
âWithout Tyler, my husband will never love me,â Kristen said to herself. âHeâs just going to look at me and see Tyler, so how could he love me after this?â
The idea surfaced one poker night.
As the Yeckleysâ friends fumbled over what to say, one mentioned reading about cannabis killing cancer.
Kristen began printing articles, highlighting line after line.
Lab studies showed promise. Marijuanaâs chemical compounds had been shown to kill cancer cells in mice and rats, while protecting normal cells. Kristen noted two chemicals in particular: tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, responsible for the drugâs high; and cannabidiol, or CBD, which lacks psychoactive side effects.
One study said combining THC and CBD could make radiation therapy in human brain-cancer cells more effective.
But Kristen kept running into the same dead end. The federal government lumps marijuana with some of the most dangerous street drugs, making rigorous study prohibitive. It had never been seriously tested as a cancer treatment in U.S. patients.
âThereâs not a lot of evidence that it works, right?â said Dr. Peter Forsyth, chair of neuro-oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center. âBut the more accurate statement is it just hasnât been investigated thoroughly and properly to make a decision about whether it works or not.â
And it wasnât available in Florida, where voters had rejected a push for medical marijuana in 2014. A law granting some patients access to a low-THC strain of marijuana, nicknamed Charlotteâs Web, had been tied up in Tallahassee. It wouldnât become available for two years.
Meanwhile, Kristen read about Colorado, where voters had approved medical marijuana in 2000. Desperate families like hers were gathering there, calling themselves ârefugees.â
She and Joe supported marijuana legalization. Kristenâs own father smoked it to ease muscle pain caused by multiple sclerosis.
Looking at the paltry research, Joe hesitated. This was their son.
He asked the doctors he had been calling if they would warn against using it.
âI just need to know one thing,â Joe asked. âWould it hurt him?â
One by one, they told him, âNo.â
Weeks after surgery, as Kristen prayed to see Tylerâs smile again, she devoured stories of impossible recoveries made possible by medical marijuana.
There was Cash Hyde, the boy whose Stage 4 brain cancer went into remission after his parents snuck cannabis oil into his feeding tube.
There was the âmiracle babyâ with oil on his pacifier whose brain tumor vanished.
And there was Charlotte Figi, the 6-year-old namesake of Charlotteâs Web, whose 300 seizures a week dwindled to three a month with cannabis oil.
No scientific proof linked their recoveries to marijuana, but Kristen clung to the possibility, her stack of printed stories growing alongside her panic.
âIâm going to watch him suffer. Iâm going to watch him die,â she said.
âIâm going to see my child getting robbed of the person that he was.â
A few days before Valentineâs Day, she called Joe at work, the words spilling out.
âI just feel like renting a car and going right now,â she said. She needed to see what it was like in Denver. She needed to know they had tried everything.
âIf youâre the one that holds me back, Joe, I donât know if I could live with you.â
âGo,â he said. âAbsolutely, go.â
Kristen set off with her mother that night, leaving Tyler with Joe at home.
She was determined to give Tyler a trial run of cannabis with his upcoming radiation treatment. But getting the card Colorado requires to buy medical marijuana would take weeks.
A friendâs boyfriend who already had a card agreed to help. He visited dispensary after dispensary, asking, âWhat would you give a 5-year-old with a brain tumor?â
He walked out of one with $1,800 worth of golden cannabis oils in two dozen little bottles.
In the past two decades, 25 states have legalized medical marijuana, often by referendum. Critics call it âmedicine by popular vote.â
What has emerged is a patchwork of laws that sidestep the scientific vetting normally required to bring medicine to patients, even as marijuanaâs benefits and dangers remain cloudy. Many researchers clamor for more stringent study. The Drug Enforcement Administration vowed earlier this month to make researching marijuana easier, but significant bureaucratic and financial barriers remain.
Meanwhile families cling to anecdotes about a miracle cure for their children.
âTheir families are devastated and exhausted trying to care for them and trying to provide the best possible medicine,â said Dr. Larry Wolk, head of Coloradoâs health department, who estimates that several hundred out-of-state families have come hoping to help their children. âWe just have to be really careful that weâre not throwing the door wide open and saying this is medicine and that thereâs science to prove it, because itâs not either.â
It was a long shot, Kristen knew, but the oil in those vials gave her an antidote to her despair.
She mapped the quickest route home to Tyler, through six states that ban broad medical use.
First came Kansas, where authorities are fighting to stem the flow of pot from Colorado. Crossing the border, Kristen and her mom became drug traffickers, risking hundreds of thousands in fines and years in prison. They stuffed ski jackets in the backseat. Just a mother-daughter trip to the mountains.
As they drove, sleek, unmarked sport utility vehicles barrelled up the rural highway, then matched pace next to their car. They held their breath as cops scanned their faces, then sped away.
At home, unscathed, their clinical trial of one could begin.
Most kids are given anesthesia before radiation, but Tyler, now 5, said he didnât need it. âThat sounds easy,â he said.
When his playlist of pop anthems came on, Tyler knew not to wiggle under his pink PAW Patrol mask. As Katy Perry sang â I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire â Kristen watched on camera as he held perfectly still.
The Yeckleys had been the first family ever to approach Tylerâs radiation doctor at Florida Hospital Tampa about using medical marijuana.
âShe was very clear about what she wanted to accomplish for him, and that was okay with me,â said Dr. Harvey Greenberg.
Kristen wanted to make Tylerâs tumor disappear. Short of that, she hoped cannabis would curb the loss of appetite and nausea brought on by radiation.
At first, lethargic and dazed, Tyler vomited every day. Then Kristen started slipping drops of oil under his tongue.
Almost instantly, his nausea ceased.
It seemed like Tyler was back, teasing Kristen, playing with his trains, his eyes straighter.
âThereâs a peanut in my brain,â he would say. He called himself âShrinker,â for what he wanted to do to it.
Joe and Kristen couldnât know whether the cannabis oil was helping Tyler. Kristenâs gut told her it was, but their supply in Florida was temporary. Radiationâs benefits would be temporary.
So on the back porch with Joe in early March, she floated the idea of moving to Denver.
Joe didnât know how moving would work. Would he quit his job, its demands the one thing keeping him sane? Could he find a new job, with health insurance, that would pay well enough for them to afford Denver? Their friends and family, their support network, the life they had built together were all in Florida.
With so much about the coming months still uncertain, they decided Kristen would go to Denver with Tyler when radiation ended. Joe would fly out as often as he could. Neither knew how long they might be apart.
âI never want to look back and say, âWhat if?â â Kristen told Joe. âI will never forgive you if our son dies. Iâll always think about: âWhat if I had done this?â â
Kristen found a three-story walkup in Denverâs historic Capitol Hill neighborhood, the rent steeper than their mortgage. Tyler hung photos and played with his Disney monorail set. He and Kristen did art projects on the dining room table, like at home.
Here, after getting his drops, he crawled in bed with her each night.
Kristen filled their days with singalong sessions at the library, trips to the putt-putt course, museum visits. She taped words to the wall â âthe,â âto,â âMommy,â âDaddyâ â and taught Tyler lessons about animals and states.
At Tylerâs new hospital, she felt she could be honest about why they had come to Denver. Doctors at Childrenâs Hospital Colorado donât recommend medical marijuana, but neither do they discourage it.
âA lot of the families are frustrated because they donât have the time to wait,â said Dr. Katie Dorris, Tylerâs pediatric neuro-oncologist at Childrenâs. âWhen theyâre faced with a terminal diagnosis, they feel like they have to consider everything.â
Sometimes, though, a nagging anxiety crept in.
Am I being too selfish? Kristen worried. What if Iâm robbing Joe of this time with our son?
She was used to homemade dinners and three plates at the table. She was used to Joe bursting through the front door, to Tyler squealing âDaddy!â and hugging his legs. At home, she knew, Joe was opening the door to an empty house.
Tyler didnât understand why he had to be so far from his friends.
âIf Mommy has this medicine in Florida, Mommy could get arrested,â Kristen explained.
âBecause this medicine isnât allowed in Florida. Itâs a Colorado medicine.â
âI wonât tell anyone,â he promised.
On Motherâs Day, a couple of weeks after the move, Kristen strapped Tyler into the car and drove to a Denver CVS.
Tyler desperately wanted a sibling, a sister. Joe and Kristen didnât want to give that up. But this was not expected, not now.
Years before, they had been on vacation in Maryland when they realized Kristenâs inability to stomach a single blue crab heralded something else. When the pregnancy test came back positive, they rejoiced, terrified and elated.
This time, Kristen texted Joe a picture from across the country: Two lines on the pregnancy test. A yes.
Tyler asked a million questions. Joe and Kristen shared their joy over a long distance call.
Kristen bought Tyler a âROCKINâ BIG BROâ T-shirt and mirrored aviator sunglasses that covered his crossed eyes. They picked out a pink onesie and a blue skirt with tiny fabric flowers.
Each day afterward, Tyler put his hands on his motherâs belly.
âI hope youâre a girl,â he would say. âI canât wait to meet you.â
As the spring wore on, Kristen started having to carry Tyler up the stairs to their apartment. Instead of clambering out of the tub, he began reaching for her steadying hand.
How do I call Joe and say, âI think Tylerâs eye is turning in, I think heâs more lethargicâ? Kristen worried. She could barely admit his worsening condition to herself.
When graduation photos of Tylerâs pre-K classmates popped up online, rosy-cheeked in their caps and gowns, Kristen felt a renewed sense of isolation.
For all of Coloradoâs benefits, Kristen kept thinking, a parent shouldnât be forced to live this way.
Something had to change, Joe told Kristen on a visit to Denver in late May.
âWeâre doing one of two things,â he said. âEither youâre coming home, or Iâm coming out here. I donât want to be apart anymore.â
They weighed dozens of pros and cons in the days that followed, rehashing the sacrifices they were making, the risks of returning to Florida. They researched Denver real estate, jobs, neighborhoods, envisioning a life there.
Tyler listened to his parents talk.
He missed his friends at home, who were his safe ground, the ones who knew his new limits. Unlike some kids on the Denver playground, they would never ask him, âWhyâs your eye like that?â They were the ones who knew why his smile was gone.
He chimed in with his own idea.
âWell, you and Daddy can live here, but I want to go home,â Tyler said. âI really want to be with my friends.â
Tylerâs words weighed on Kristen.
In the back of her mind, she felt she wasnât done with Colorado. The doctors in Denver were making plans and gave her a sense that there were options. But she didnât have the will to keep telling her son no.
Theyâd return, she and Joe decided, when the apartment lease ran out in late June. Largely, though, theyâd finish out the time apart, Tyler still asking about his friends, Kristen still hoping for a miracle.
Kristen spent one day in early June trying to find a moment to call Joe with updates from Tylerâs latest MRI without Tyler eavesdropping. She decided on a trip to the playground, where he would be distracted.
She settled in as Tyler scurried around, playful but clumsy, his vision doubled. He reached for the firefightersâ pole, trying to wrap his legs around it, but his grip faltered. Kristen watched as her son crashed to the ground.
Tyler, who never complained, screamed out in pain.
Kristen rushed to him, scooping him up from where he had landed on his foot. They had walked to the park, leaving her wallet behind. Calling an ambulance would cost hundreds. She was pregnant. Tyler was sobbing.
All of the people she would have called for help were thousands of miles away.
Kristen stood in the living room and took it all in.
She and Tyler had flown to Florida for a planned visit in June. Raindrops streaked the windows. Lasagna bubbled in the oven. Tylerâs friends crashed through the room, raining foam bullets on their parents, shrieking, ducking and laughing.
Tyler knelt on the carpet in a blue cape, struggling to spring-load his Nerf gun. His foot was still healing after the playground fall, so he crawled like a toddler. âMommy, mommy,â he pleaded.
Kristen tussled with him and grinned. âYouâre T-Man, arenât you?â
Joe laughed, begging them not to get a bullet stuck on the skylight.
Tyler giggled. Kristen looked up. âAlready did.â
Later, the kids snuggled in a pile of blankets as Happy Feet splashed blue light on the walls. Kristen crouched beside Tyler, sleepy and faraway, and slipped the dropper under his tongue. Fourteen drops tonight.
She had needed to know that sheâd given her son every chance before coming home. Now she felt sure. And after all of her efforts to recreate home in Denver, here was the real thing.
Despite her late-night fears anticipating the trip home, Kristen, her mother and Tyler got through the white-knuckled drive undetected, their two-month Denver adventure come to an end. Along the way, Tyler tried on cowboy boots in Texas and collected rocks from each state, getting closer to his friends with each one.
Back in Florida, Joe often woke to Tyler by the bedside, clutching his blankie and stuffed puppy. Sometimes Tyler slept in the hallway outside their bedroom door until Joe acquiesced, sweeping his son into the bed with him and Kristen.
Tyler kept taking his drops. Their Colorado doctor was arranging a clinical trial to study the palliative effects of medical marijuana. Talk of the future spooled out, into August, September, Christmas, next year.
An early ultrasound showed the baby would be a boy, though Tyler still whispered his wish for a sister. Kristen and Joe chose the name Jayson, âthe healer.â
Tylerâs parents weaned him from his oil for a Make-A-Wish Foundation Disney cruise in early July, worried about bringing it into international waters. He vomited a few times, but still had the energy to ride the Aqua Duck water slide and hunt down a signature from Pluto.
The Yeckleys returned with a new family portrait: Kristenâs blond hair pinned behind one ear, Tyler kissing her round belly, Joe crouched beside his son â the four of them.
Tyler fell three times in the days after the cruise.
He tripped over his train tracks. He slurred, so tired he couldnât make it through the day without napping for hours. Favorite games like Sorry didnât interest him anymore. At night, his breathing became thick and raspy.
âItâs not going away,â Kristen said one morning in tears.
This canât be happening, Joe thought.
Kristen spent one night searching: How do you know when itâs the end?
They took him to the emergency room. The cancer had spread.
Tyler would have to go into surgery to relieve pressure in his brain. Kristen remembers the scans, splattered with tumors.
The hospital room was dark and still when Kristen woke early the day of her sonâs surgery. Tyler was already awake. Kristen nudged Joe.
âWhat if thereâs no tomorrow?â she asked. She needed this baby to know just how much Tyler was looking forward to his arrival.
Together, the three of them compiled a list on Joeâs laptop.
Why Tyler is excited to be a big brother.
The oxygen machine purred at the bedside. Curled in the sheets, Tyler dozed in blue Mickey Mouse pajamas, a buoy afloat in the expanse of his parentsâ bed. It was late July, seven months since the diagnosis. His small hand grasped Kristenâs finger.
With tired eyes, she bent close.
âDo you have to go potty? Thumbs up, thumbs down,â she asked, voice bright. âDo you want to walk? Thumbs up, thumbs down. Yes. Okay, letâs do it.â
She had been trying not to cry around Tyler, trying not to let him sense her grief and fear. The night before, after surgery, Tylerâs coughing had tilted into violent, unbearable rasping, his lungs straining to regain control.
âAre you ready, baby?â she said. âIf you get in a lot of pain, squeeze my hand hard. Okay?â
Joe eased Tyler from the bed. Shades muted the sharp afternoon sun, casting the room in a dim blue. He held Tyler by the underarms and tried to waddle him to the bathroom.
Trailing tubes, Tyler kept coughing wet, weary coughs.
âGood job. Nice and slow,â Kristen said. âLook at those feet moving.â
Kristen listened to her sonâs slow breathing.
He had been in hospice care a few days. The day before, he had said, âI love you.â
âAre you scared?â she had asked. He gave a thumbs down.
âAre you tired of hearing that youâre brave?â Thumbs up.
She and Joe held him in their bed and knew he was listening.
âWe want you to meet us in your dreams every night and ride the Aqua Duck, and if you get tired of that, you can meet us at the Disney campground,â they said. âIn heaven, there will be no more cancer.â
She and Joe promised that Mommy and Daddy would take care of each other, even when it was very hard.
âMommy canât make you better anymore,â she said. âItâs okay to go.â
Reminders found them everywhere in the strange, bruised months after Tyler died. The Nerf dart still stuck on the skylight. Wheeling the shopping cart past the Lunchables Tyler had always begged Kristen to buy.
Kristen kept the photos on her phone, each one a memory. Out west, Tyler had gotten to throw snowballs, ride trains and see the Rockies. He had curled up with his mom each night, had picked out the pink onesie for his dream of a sister.
In the chasm of her grief, Kristen took a small comfort in knowing she had tried everything. Even in her deepest moments of despair, she knew she wouldnât have done a single thing differently.
In mid-August, she and Joe went for a 20-week checkup on her pregnancy. They saw pictures of the new baby’s heart and spine. Kristen mentioned the boy on the way.
The ultrasound technician paused.
âNo, I donât think so,â the technician said. âI think itâs a girl.â
âAre you sure? Itâs a girl?â
âYou see those three lines right there? Thatâs a girl.â
One of Tylerâs great ideas come to pass.
Jayda Yeckley was born in December 2015 with fine blond hair and a button nose like her brotherâs. Kristen and Joe hope to give her a sibling.
More than a year after Tylerâs death, the law now allows dying patients in Florida access to some forms of medical marijuana, and broader medical use will again be on the November ballot. Kristen remains frustrated it wasnât an option for Tyler here.
And she isnât sure if she wants to teach again. For now, she wants to stay home with Jayda, knowing what all those small moments are worth.
The Yeckleys still invite Tylerâs friends over. Sometimes, when the kids are playing, Kristen walks into the back yard, into the dusk. She closes her eyes and listens to their giggles, pretending for a moment that Tyler is inside, that she can hear his voice amid the chorus of laughter.