FIGHTING BACK: One Mother’s Story–chapter 13
The months passed peacefully or, at least, relatively so. Ed, Val and I would go back to Babies Hospital every three months for Valerie’s oncology checkups. That was always a bit of an upheaval as that trip had us all on edge. But Valerie was seven by then and maturing. Somewhat behind emotionally but the nurse psychiatrist said that was normal for a young child with cancer.
Valerie bounced around on her prosthetic leg as if it were flesh and blood and as long there were no shots she didn’t mind the trip into New York. Once Dr. Wolff’s exam was over she’d run to the little room next to his office to watch television while we adults talked.
This time, though, something was different. I didn’t like the way Wolff looked when he brought Val down from the examining table. He walked to his desk, a frown on his face, and finally said, “The X-rays that you took earlier today showed something in her right lung. I’d like Valerie to take a few more X-rays. Here’s the prescription. Go upstairs and take them before you leave Babies today and I’ll call you with the results.”
I hadn’t noticed anything. What was he talking about? She seemed fine: no unusual fatigue or coughing. Nothing! What was the problem? Wolff never minced words—wouldn’t be so terrible if he did on occasion—so something was wrong.
We had Val’s X-rays taken, drove home and anxiously waited for his call. When it came, we were told that Valerie’s bone cancer had spread to the right lung; a small lesion was found on the part called the lower or basal lobe and that the lobe had to be removed surgically or the cancer would continue to spread. My hand shook as I hung up the phone. Ohmygod, my poor little girl.
More tests were taken. The Ewing’s was nowhere else, thank goodness. Surgery was scheduled yet again.
We prepared Val as best we could the day before. It was not our finest hour, I’m afraid. Ed and I were unable to present the surgery in a way that would be comforting to our seven-year-old or for her nine-year-old sister, Stacy. We did the best we could. Val cried. Stacy ran off to her bedroom. Ed and I held our little daughter tight. It was simply awful. As usual.
The day of surgery came and we were relegated once more to the lobby’s waiting room—it had not changed. As we had learned from our past experiences, the anticipation was dreadful and so, my mind, in an attempt to avoid thinking about the surgery focused on sleeping over with Val.
What did the staff do before we parents were allowed to stay over with our children? How did they manage? All the running around that we did, that all the moms did day and night, for the bedpans, the cold juices, the clean gowns and, yet, I remember clearly what they told me almost five years ago, “Parents can’t stay overnight. They would be in the way and the children would be too hard to manage.” Sure. Rethink that, nurses, why don’t you!
At last Dr. Corona, the pediatric thoracic surgeon, appeared in the waiting room doorway. We hurried toward him. “Valerie is out of surgery. She’s fine and is now up on nine in the ICU,” he said. “You can go up and see her for a short period of time or until the nurses tell you to leave.” How is that possible—she’s fine and in the ICU? My nerves have gone into overtime; I’m close to tears here. What are they doing to my daughter? What are we doing?
Ed grabbed my hand and the two of us rushed to the elevator and up to the ninth floor only to be told, once we were there, that we had to wait until the doctors finished rounds.
We stayed with Valerie for the rest of that day depending, of course, on the nursing staff. Val was very pale and attached to all kinds of monitors and IV’s. She cried when she saw us and wouldn’t let go of my hand until she fell asleep and we had to leave.
Valerie seemed to sleep a lot which meant that we had to leave her a lot. “That’s typical, Mrs. Goldstein. She’s fine,” one nurse said. I heard that again and again.
After dinner, when Ed left to go home to Stacy, I remained with Valerie—when the nurses let me. When she slept, I was forced to go up to the eleventh floor waiting room to try and relax on one of the sofas. I wanted to be with her throughout the night and had pleaded with the nurses to let me stay but the ICU staff was rigid. I was allowed in only when my daughter was awake but when she fell asleep I had to leave. No exceptions.
Valerie tried not to cry—crying hurt—but she wasn’t very successful. So, it was with relief on both our parts when after two days in the ICU the monitors were removed and Valerie was brought up to the eleventh floor. Strange, isn’t it, the things I’m grateful for?
Valerie was more comfortable on eleven and we passed the days, when she wasn’t sleeping, playing the card game, GO FISH, or I would read to her. Ed joined us after work, stopping first at the cafeteria to buy dinner for the two of us: Valerie ate the hospital food when she ate at all.
Ed now slept over as well and we alternated nights since one of us had to be with Stacy. At Babies, one or the other of us dozed in an old, lumpy club chair pushed close as possible to Val’s bed.
We had only one car in New York—Ed’s. We left my car at home since I was at the hospital most of the time. One of Ed’s two brothers would drive me back to New Jersey so I could be with my older daughter and attempt to make up for lost time. I’d often get home late, around ten p.m., but that would have to do. Time is driving me crazy; no, I’m driving me crazy. What’s the better way? Tel me that!
It had become routine to rush home from the hospital, tuck Stacy into bed if she wasn’t already asleep and send her off to school the next morning with a huge hug and several dozen kisses.
Valerie’s cancer had become a race between the precious moments stolen from one child and given to the other. Nobody won.
Since I was there most of the time, the hospital schedule did give me scattered periods of socializing. Friendships blossomed but were often short-lived though intense and rarely forgotten. One lovely couple, whose daughter, hospitalized for observation, spent an overnight in the room with Valerie and left their portable TV set for Val to use. We had their address but they never asked for our telephone number or where we lived; they simply trusted us to get it back to them when Val was discharged. Ed returned the set as soon as we got home to New Jersey.
And then there was Caroline. Unfortunate Caroline. She was fourteen years old and in the room to the right of us. Caroline was hospitalized at Babies with countless seizures of unknown origin and her doctors were stumped.
Passing each other in the hallway Elaine, Caroline’s mother, and I began to nod and volunteer troubled smiles—happy smiles were rare in that hospital. A few times later, we moved on to “How are you today?” “Just terrific,” one of us would answer, “and you?” Soon, with grins covering sadness, our hospital friendship was launched.
Elaine wore high heels all day long, was overly made-up and had shoulder length, bleached blond, immaculately-groomed hair. She dressed as if she were going out to dinner instead of shlumping around the hospital’s 11th floor.
Differences existed. I wore green, rubber-soled clogs with black wool socks, blue jeans and Macy’s cotton turtlenecks. The color of my turtlenecks changed daily to deflect attention, hopefully, from the absence of any makeup. My hair was short, dark and neat. Most of the time.
She worked. I did not.
Well, granted, I did work, but at home as the bookkeeper in our family business. That didn’t count in the outside world or to me since salary was not an option. Am I becoming too focused on the salary part? Maybe. Who cares?
There were other differences as well. Although I had relocated to New Jersey once Ed and I married I was born and raised in Connecticut, a New England Yankee through and through. Elaine, in contrast, was a true New Yorker, accent and all and, more recently, a resident of Yonkers.
Nonetheless, the hospital environment and our daughters’ health pushed the differences aside. “We’re going home Saturday and I can’t wait,” I said, one day. “I hate this place.” Elaine nodded, looking morose and said, “Well, we’ll be here for a while longer. I sit in the room most of the day and count Caroline’s seizures. She seems to have a million a day but the doctors can’t find the cause.” I didn’t know who to feel sorrier for, Elaine, Caroline, Valerie or me.
In the hush of the late hospital nights I would doze in the chair next to Val’s bed and, in between naps, my mind would spin with worries about my daughter and her well-being. On occasion, I’d think of Elaine. She, too, was probably in a chair next to Caroline’s bed dozing in spurts and worrying, just as I did.
My thoughts also focused on Elaine’s spectacular appearance. Like the other moms staying with their hospitalized children, she paced the eleventh floor at all hours, running errands dictated by her child. Unlike the other moms, however, she seemed a worldly sophisticate in sexy four-inch heels and jazzy outfits.
And that bouffant hairdo! Poufy and flipped at the ends, Elaine’s hair was always perfectly combed. How did she do it? “Why do you look so good all the time?” I demanded one night as we passed each other. She shrugged. While I had resolved to look good at all times for Valerie, I was no match for Elaine. At the end of the day, I felt like a wreck and looked it. Most of the floor moms looked even worse. But Elaine? She remained a beauty.
Early one morning, before Val woke up, I peeked into Caroline’s room to see how she had weathered the last few nighttime hours and saw a white Styrofoam form vaguely shaped like a human head. It sat regally under the window on the gray marble ledge used for everything imaginable: food, books, games. And, resting on top of that Styrofoam form was a bright blond, neatly coiffed, flip-ended wig.
Haggard-looking, eyes red-rimmed and with matted, reddish-brown hair, Elaine, minus her make-up and elaborate clothing, stood next to Caroline’s bed a rumpled blanket in her hands. Seeing me at the door, she grinned, wiggled her shoulders and said, “Surprise! It’s plain old me, in all my unadorned splendor.” And for one stunning instant, my eyes beheld Elaine looking like every other mom on eleven. Sonofagun!
As the days passed, I learned more about her, her wig only a momentary glitch. Elaine had one child, Caroline. She said, “I also own, board and train large dogs in a kennel near my home.” I knew she worked but owner of a dog kennel? This over-the-top clotheshorse with her spike heels and glossy make-up? Inconceivable.
The more I knew about Elaine, though, the more I liked her.
“How do you do it,” I said, “Take care of your daughter and manage a dog kennel, all at the same time? Sounds like a lot.”
But her daughter’s illness, in fact, left no time for managing the business, properly. During one of our talks, she mentioned a nine-month-old puppy named Buster, a multicolored Shih Tzu. A small dog, he lived with all large ones, a rather uncomfortable arrangement for the fancy, nine-pound purebred. Still, Buster was strong and holding his own.
Then, one day, Elaine said, “Sue, do you have any pets at home?” “No,” I said happily, “none, zip, not one, no dogs, cats, gerbils, fish, or anything but humans at home.”
Quickly seizing the chance to fill a pet gap in my family, she walked into Val’s room and told her about the puppy, letting my daughter know that Buster was ours if we were interested.your house away from the big bullying dogs and, Valerie, you and Stacy would have a wonderful new buddy.” According to Elaine, it was the perfect solution to an unfortunate problem.
Elaine also acknowledged, off-handedly, that Buster’s tongue was quite long. It didn’t fit well in his mouth. As a matter of fact, it hung out. All the time. She rounded out the discussion by ignoring any further questions and said, “He would be a gift from me to you.”
Valerie was beside herself. She grabbed my hand. “Please, Mommy. Please, please, pleeeeese.” Mommy, mum for too long, was suddenly aware that the situation had become critical. Ignoring my scowl, Val picked up the bedside phone, called Stacy and soon, joyous sounds filled the antiseptic air.
Could I refuse Elaine’s offer? You bet! “What?” I said. On guard at last, I shook my head vigorously back and forth. Trying to slow my racing heart and struggling to keep from shouting, I emphasized, “No, I can’t handle it. A dog? God, no. Thanks anyway, Elaine. Sorry, Valerie, but no, honey. We can’t.”
They overrode my protests easily, all four of them: Valerie, Stacy, Ed, and Elaine. Val and Stacy were delirious. Ed was pleased that his daughters were happy. As was Elaine. “Buster is saved,” she chortled.
“But you don’t like animals, Ed. No animals–Not one,” I protested. My darling husband Ed was not an animal lover of any sort. What happened? Well. He just couldn’t resist catering to his girls.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “We’ll come get him when Valerie’s recuperated.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, hon,” Elaine cooed. “You told me that Val’ll be discharged on Saturday. My husband will bring Buster to the hospital Saturday morning and drop him off at your car; he and Ed can make the arrangements. You all can go home together. It’ll save you the trip to Yonkers.” Yikes!
The Shih Tzu, a breed unknown to me just a few short days before, was ours. Without further debate, Ed, Val, and I drove back to New Jersey with a newly-shorn Buster who shivered, whimpered and cowered in the back seat of our car for the entire trip home. To my surprise, Val was no longer interested in him. She was still too miserable from the lung surgery.
And, with that thought in mind, I continued to worry about my child and the Ewing’s that didn’t seem to go away. Once she’s home, I said to myself, she’ll eat better, relax and get her strength back. She’ll be fine.
Okay, okay. I’ll take care of my sick child as well as my healthy child, my husband, my house, my work. Did I miss anything? Oh, yes, and this poor, forlorn creature. Why does he look so miserable? Why does his tongue stick out like that? Hope nothing’s wrong with him. He is kind of cute.
Yes. It was that quick.
For the fourth time in my life, I fell in love counting one husband, two kids and now a sorry-looking purebred who promptly became an indispensable member of our household despite his dangling tongue and the never-before-stated, but definitely benighted, bathroom manners.
“I don’t remember being told he wasn’t housebroken. At nine months? Val, Ed, do you remember Elaine saying anything about that?” Neither one answered me. OK, guys. If that’s the way you want it.
But never mind all that. Valerie recuperated just fine from lung surgery and the cancer seemed to be gone. On a separate note, Buster—now beautifully long-haired for the moment, with a tongue that stuck out and the house-broken part of him never repaired—had become an integral and loving member of the Goldstein clan.