“Stacy, hon. Daddy, Valerie and I have to go into New York again. The doctor wants another look at her leg.”
No questions asked; no further explanation needed. I wondered briefly about my mother; how would she have handled this? But she was not there for me: not to rely upon or to babysit, to cry with me or to advise. I told Stacy we’d be back later that day and would pick her up at our friend Phyllis’s house. She’d play with Johnny, Phyllis’s son. He was a year older than Stacy but they had fun together.
It was early Friday morning, four days after our first visit to Babies. I walked out to the curb with Stacy, kissed her goodbye and watched as she boarded the bus to kindergarten. Reluctant to face the day yet too cold to stand outside any longer, I ran into the house and called out to Valerie, “Come on, Pussy Cat. Let’s get you dressed.” I had already told Val about our return to Babies and her impending biopsy. I didn’t know how much she understood.
Ed and I spoke little during the hour and a half trip, our anxieties carefully hiddden from each other. With Valerie asleep in the back, the ride was strangely quiet.
Once at the hospital, we checked into the ninth floor’s pre-surgery unit where an aide walked us to a small room for one and in the room, I slipped Val into the hospital gown given to me earlier. Ed sat down on the bed next to Valerie. Space was limited. I leaned against the bed’s foot rail.
“Let’s color this sketch of a donkey, Val,” I said. “Here are the crayons. I’ll do the top hat in black, Daddy will do the legs in brown, and you’ll do the body in . . . what color do you want, sweetheart?” After a while, a resident came in to give Valerie a mild anesthetic.
Although the injection was over quickly, Val’s tears outlasted the pain by far. She was not a big eater and had not missed either the food or drink withheld per surgical instructions. But now, poor little thing, she was clearly disoriented by the unfamiliar surroundings and kept repeating the word ‘home’ in between teary hiccups. A nurse peeked into the room. She said, with annoyance in her voice, “You’re not allowed to sit on the bed, Mr. Goldstein. It’s a hospital rule.” Her tone added to our edginess.
Too quickly, a male attendant came by to take Val into surgery. Ed and I hugged and kissed her; our daughter too drowsy now to protest. The attendant pushed a gurney into the room, transferred Valerie onto it and began to wheel her out the door. We backed away but followed close behind until we saw Val and her bed move through the double doors. Then, she was gone.
Those doors look too banged up, the windows near the top foggy with scratches. Why can’t we go with her, for a little while anyway? Okay. She’s having a biopsy, not major surgery. It’s just a little cut into her leg. They’ll find out what’s wrong and fix it.
A different nurse urged us toward the elevator. She told us about a waiting room off the hospital’s main lobby. “You’ll see it,” she said. “It’s right downstairs.” However, it wasn’t until we stopped several people along the way that we found it.
The waiting room, compared to the reception area at the Atchley, had table lamps that cast drab shadows. The bright lights that had hurt my eyes were missing here. Can’t please you, Sue! The waiting room’s furnishings were battered-looking, the sofas and chairs upholstered in dark navy. A large, squat table marred by an ugly cigarette burn was stranded uselessly in the middle of a lackluster carpeted floor. Two windows on the far wall gave a close-up view of the neighboring building and its scruffy exterior.
The half dozen people in the room were silent except for a petite, elderly woman who sat in the far corner muffling sobs that broke the strained silence. No one made eye contact. One man, ensuring no interaction with strangers, stood in front of the windows, his back to the room, his body rigid as he faced the dirty glass.
We waited once more.
“Okay, hon,” I said to Ed. “Tell me. How long can a biopsy of a little kid’s leg take. She’s so small.” No answer from my husband. But then, I didn’t expect one.
Unable to sit still, I wandered around until I saw the ladies’ room. I walked in. The bathroom was as cheerless as the waiting room, but it was clean and active. The in-and-out flow of humanity, with its different sounds and shapes, was an acceptable change of scenery for me. I made the trip three times in the hour and a half since we last saw Val.
Once more, I walked back to the waiting room, sat down on a couch and tried reading my book, Mary Renault’s “The King Must Die”. My thoughts pushed in. What if it’s malignant, if she has a big hole in her bone? It doesn’t make sense. She’s too young. Never heard anything like this.
The sentences in my book turned into a kaleidoscope of madly shifting pictures: Val and Stacy running through the house, Val chasing Stacy, Stacy chasing Val, both skipping, hopping, jumping, laughing.
Ed moved about as well but his walks took him in a circle round the main lobby. Meeting back in the waiting room after one brief trip, he said to me, “You’re smoking a lot. You hungry? Want something to drink?”
“No thanks.” I stubbed out my Winston, got up and walked away. I wanted some water.
After I had a sip at the water fountain, I returned to the waiting room and rested against the doorway to people-watch. It was then that I saw Dr. Gagnon stepping out of the elevator, easily recognizable in a long, white lab coat that outlined his chunky body. A rusty red tone darkened his face, suggesting a recent sun-drenched vacation. The doctor’s walk was rushed and inattentive, head tilted forward and hands clasped behind his back. Val’s surgery was over.
I didn’t have to hear the words.
Ed had seen him, too, and was now standing beside me. The doctor looked up, nodded, said to us, “Please come with me.” He motioned us to a room several doors away. It was a children’s playroom with a low round table surrounded by four scaled-down chairs. We both sat down but Ed quickly stood back up. The doctor remained standing and though not tall, at that moment he towered over me. He said, “I’m sorry to say that the bone tissue I removed from Valerie’s leg is malignant.”
I sat immobile in the child’s chair, my arms around my knees, unable to take a deep breath. I stared at the floor, at the dirt spots on the linoleum, at the scuffed legs of another small chair nearby, at a pair of highly polished brown loafers. The doctor had small feet.
Ed, his face white, asked Gagnon some questions. I tried to listen but the sounds melted into the air.
“I can’t hear you, Eddie.” Struggling to my feet, I shoved the mini-chair away. “I want to see Valerie. Now please.” Ed and I followed the doctor as he led the way to our daughter.
My chin started to quiver in the elevator. And then my teeth joined in, top and bottom banging against each other. I squeezed my lips shut, but I still heard those teeth banging in my ears; I was sure everyone else heard them too. Or maybe the sound was simply buried deep in my brain, their clattering solely for me to hear.
I had no tears, only the quivering chin and the banging teeth. I raised one hand to block the lower part of my face, hoping to stifle the sound and hide the weirdness, the betrayal of control. Ed nervously cracked every one of his knuckles, a dissonance I normally complained about. He and I stood side by side in the elevator, yet I felt alone, intent on curbing my body’s unfamiliar sensations. I didn’t think to reach for my husband’s hand or to move closer to him. He didn’t reach out to me either. We did not speak. We just stood there cut off from each other as the elevator inched upward.
I concentrated on the floor numbers above the elevator doors as they lighted one by one in tireless sequence. My mind chaotic, I wondered why the damned elevator diligently stopped on each floor whether or not anyone got on or off. Why not just shoot straight up through the clouds? Away from here, away from the desperate pain that I sensed would be with me forever.
On five, one woman plunged through the sliding doors as if certain they would close before she plunged through. Again on six a young couple raced out. On nine, we did the same.
The ninth floor—Valerie’s floor—was U-shaped and bright, with fluorescent lights running the length of the ceiling. We passed the nurses’ station and moved fast into the post-surgical ward, a room narrow but long and packed with youngsters of all sizes. They were dressed alike in striped hospital gowns and sitting or lying inside identical, oversized metal cribs. White bedding and blue blankets covered the mattresses. Filling most of the floor space, the cribs were each an exactly measured distance away from its neighbor.
As the young patients visited with their families or slept or moaned, all evidence hinted at medical trauma: bandaged limbs, transfusion bags, oxygen masks.
Valerie saw us approaching and stood up in her crib. “Sit down, sit down. You know you’re not supposed to stand on that leg, There’s a new cast on it!” a nearby nurse exclaimed. She firmly sat Val back down. Pride assaulted, my daughter’s face crinkled and tears tumbled down her cheeks. Her arms shot out to me in the familiar, demanding pose that, this time and forever more, sent tears to my eyes. I began to run to her. I needed to hold my child as much as she needed to be held. I grabbed her, remembering at the last minute to be gentle. Ed pressed in beside me and got his own piece of her. Even the doctor tried for a kiss. He was greeted with considerably less enthusiasm.
Ed and I each held one teeny hand. I talked to her, my words a puzzle even to me. “We’re going to get you some new toys to play with while you’re in the hospital, sweetheart. You’ll be here for a few—no, no, honey, you can’t stand up. The nurse told you that. There’s a playroom you can go to, with clay and finger paints, and—no, you can’t have any juice. Not right now. You can suck on some ice chips though. You like that.”
I don’t know how long she’ll be hospitalized or what kind of cancer it is. And that word, Prognosis! It’s so harsh sounding. Can’t ask that. Don’t really want to know. How is my three-year-old going to handle this? How am I going to handle this?
I turned my mind’s switch to off and gave my daughter a big, mushy kiss. She wiped the wet away from her face and I laughed. But what would we tell her? How would she understand being left here among strangers, strangers like that nurse who hollered at her. Ohmygod!
Worn out from the surgery and its aftermath, Val fell asleep before visiting hours were over. One weary-looking nurse told us, “Hospital policy doesn’t allow parents to stay overnight with their sick kids. There isn’t any place for them to sleep.”
“Besides,” she added, “the staff needs room to move around easily without any interference from others, and the children are more upset when the parents are here.” Really?Upset? That’s nuts!
It wasn’t right. She was a baby, confused, uncomfortable and away from her family for the first time. I knew it wasn’t right. But the hospital had its policy.
Ed and I each kissed Valerie gently on the cheek and whispered “So long, sweetheart, we’ll see you in the morning.”
On the way home, we stopped at a diner for something to eat. I thought that sitting down and eating might help ease our way into talking. We ordered and before I knew it I was crying, the tears coming down my cheeks in torrents. Ed looked at me in astonishment. With thinned lips he said, “Stop crying, Sue. You’re in a restaurant!” And I stopped. Just like that—the final nail in my coffin of tears.
Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein