Growing up, I had it good; middle class life, nice suburb to live in, lots of friends etc. Also, I'd never had any sort of major trauma in my life - no deaths of someone close, no horrible accidents, and no major medical problems.
Well, that would change in a single month!
November of '74, it was cold in Arlington, Massachusetts, and we were getting ready for Thanksgiving. This was back in the day when kids were allowed to celebrate that "exploitive" and "oppressive" holiday. It was seen as a celebration of cooperation between the early settlers and the Indians (yes, we were allowed to use that term!). Ah, such an un-enlightened age, eh?
One morning, I came downstairs to find my Dad in the kitchen, which was fairly shocking. Generally, he was gone either before I got up, or soon after, and he never made me breakfast. Today, he made me breakfast, and then he stayed with me while I ate my Cream of Wheat.
He had something to tell me.
I wondered why Mom wasn't there, and he told me - she'd been in an accident the night before - a drunk driver had slammed into her as she was coming home from a party. This being the era that is was, there were no mandatory seatbelt laws, no airbags, and the concept of drinking and driving being a crime was practically a joke. I mean, hey, everyone did it; so where was the harm?
To me, an accident was something like falling down and skinning my knee; Mom put a band aid on it, and that was it. So, I asked where she was.
The fourth floor of Mount Auburn Hospital, in the Intensive Care Unit; she had two broken arms, a broken foot, a crushed chest, and so on. Now he'd finally used a term I could relate to - broken arm. I'd had one as a little kid, and had to wear a cast for several weeks. I naturally figured that's why she was at the hospital, to get a cast put on, and then she'd come home. So, that was my next question: when would she be home? Dad's answer shocked me.
He didn't know!
Now, you have to understand, this was a different era from today. Back then, kids were generally raised to believe in the infallibility of their parents - and other adults - they knew everything! It was kind of like that old movie "It's a Wonderful Life". At one point, young George is unsure what to do about an important matter, and he sees a sign on the wall that says he should "ask Dad". That's the way it was for me - Mom and Dad, my teacher at school - they always had the answers to everything.
But, Dad didn't know when Mom was coming home.
I asked if I could go see her. No, I couldn't. Again, this was a different world; little kids were not allowed in certain areas of a hospital. Until Mom was moved to a private room - I would not see her. If anything... went wrong; I'd never see her again. Not the sort of thing a little boy wants to hear about his mother. For the next several weeks, my pillow got awfully wet each night, and I said an awful lot of prayers. Unfortunately, Dad being the stoic, old New Englander that he was, he was hardly a "bundle of warmth" and comfort.
Finally came the day that I could go see her. She was not the woman I was used to seeing. Where once there was a pillar of strength, I saw weakness. Where there had been love and gentleness, now there was pain and despair. I wanted to offer some words of comfort, but had no idea what to say, and I frankly didn't want to touch her. That may sound cold and distant, but I'd never seen such injuries - they looked scary and icky - and no one was giving me any hint as to what I should be doing. Here again, there were no hospital counselors or school therapists, or anyone else for that matter, to guide me through this period.
So, I just talked to her a bit, and went home. After that, we'd visit her each day, and I felt worse and worse about not being able to do something to help her. Eventually, I felt so bad that I got a stomachache. But, as it seemed unimportant - compared to what Mom was going through - I kept it to myself.
Finally, the pain got so severe, I just couldn't keep silent, and I told my Dad and brothers at dinner one night. I was surprised when Dad got very worried; he said it might be my appendix. I had no idea what that was, but everyone else sure did, and wanted me to get to the doctor quickly.
So, the next morning, he took me in to see my nice lady doctor (can't remember her name). She was always so nice to me during my yearly physicals - she knew how ticklish I was - and was always gentle. She wasn't sure if it was my appendix, but decided to send me over to the Boston Children's Hospital to have them check me. Dad drove me over, and they did a bunch of tests, some rather... invasive (to put it mildly!). You must remember, this was before the days of CAT scans, MRI'S, PET scans, ultrasounds, and so forth. Doctors had x-rays to look inside you, and that was it!
It took a while, but they finally decided - yes, I had a hot appendix. A nurse came in and told me, and said they were going to take me up to the operating room, and cut it out. With that, she left, and I was alone in the exam room.
I was completely and utterly terrified.
They were going to cut me open? I was going to have a scar? They were going to... open up my body? I laid there and sobbed. Yet another drawback to that time period; little was done to re-assure children facing surgery. To make matters worse, the nurse had turned the lights down low in the room; so I felt very cold and alone. At that moment, I wanted my Mom more than I ever had in my entire life!
And then, oddly enough, I heard her voice inside my head. She was reading me a story - a rather odd story, at least for a boy to hear - it was one of the Madeline stories. They were a series of books - written in rhyme - about a school with twelve little girls in it; "the smallest one was Madeline". I remembered that my Mom had read me a story where Madeline had to go to the hospital to get her appendix out, and she had been okay. At that moment, my tears ended, and I wasn't afraid any more; I was going to be all right, because Mom was with me.
Then the nurse came back, and said they had to run an IV into my arm. That didn't sound very good, but my opinion was not asked for. She put a tight band around my upper left arm, and pulled out a needle about three feet long - at least that's how it looked to me! She jabbed it into my arm - I jumped - and she got upset; she'd missed the vein.
She tried again - and missed - and tried again, still nothing. She called in another nurse, and she tried to do it down on the back of my hand - no good there either. After another try, they called in the Head Nurse. While the first two held me - tight - she tried between my knuckles - nothing there either - I didn't seem to have very good veins, and from the way they were talking, you'd have thought it was my fault! Gee, it wasn't like I was deliberately squeezing down my blood vessels; I barely knew what they were. Now she was desperate. She put two bands around my upper arm, put on a BP cuff and pumped it up tight, and waited.
A tiny bump formed at the hollow of my elbow; she lunged at it, and stabbed the needle in - success! After that, they wrapped the needle and plastic IV tube up - they practically mummified my arm, and then rolled my gurney into the operating room. The doctors and nurses moved around me, but never said a word to me. Again, not the most enlightened age when it came to comforting a sick and scared child. Of course, for me, the worst part was when they took off my underwear - without so much as a word of warning! Not the sort of thing a young child is generally comfortable with.
I closed my eyes and thought of Mom, and just listened to her read me that story. Before I knew it, darkness embraced me, and then I woke up in recovery. Gee, I thought I was supposed to count backwards from ten or a hundred or something, but they'd slipped the anesthesia in my IV without even telling me.
After a few hours, I was moved to a semi-private room on the fourth floor with two other boys. One was in because his appendix had ruptured, which is what would have happened to me, had Dad not caught mine in time. The doctors had to put a tube down his nose and drain all this black icky... stuff out of his stomach - yuck! We would talk, and the nurses were very nice about bringing me things to drink (he couldn't, because he was sicker). That was the one real plus - I could have all the juice and soda and chocolate shakes I wanted! The nurse would come in just about every hour and ask if I wanted another - as if she had to ask?
The little table next to my bed soon had row after row of paper cups. I had them arranged by drink - apple juice, Coke, shake etc - and by amount; the fullest ones were farthest away - so I could focus on emptying the little ones. Of course, all that drinking meant I had to pee a lot, and that was the big drawback - I couldn't get out of bed - I had to use that stupid... "pee bottle".
Finally, on the second day, I was allowed to get up and walk - very slowly! I felt like a newborn baby learning to walk all over again. Still, as long as I leaned on my IV pole, I could make it to the bathroom, and I was never so grateful for that.
By the third day, I was cruising the hall, walking around - albeit slowly - checking out the doctors and nurses, the drug cart, and the other patients. There wasn't a playroom or TV, so finding something to do was tough. As it was early in December, they were decorating for Christmas; so one of the nurses got me some paint, and I painted one of the windows in the hall (other kids were doing the others).
Dad did a great job of visiting every day, and my doctor asked him how he was doing. After all, he was racing from one hospital to the other every day to see my Mom and me, and then going to work. He joked that pretty soon he was going to need a hospital bed!
After four days in the hospital, I got to go home. It would be nearly a week before I could get back to school, but my teacher - ugh - sent homework home; at my Dad's request. How could he be so cruel?
And then, Christmas morning, we got the best gift of all - Mom came home from the hospital. She looked much better, and her arms were free of their casts, but she still had the one on her foot. As far as I was concerned, it didn't matter what she looked like - she was better, she was home, and she was going to be okay. Truly, the best Christmas even.
To this day, she still doesn't know how she helped me get through that scary and difficult time.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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