FIGHTING BACK: One Mother’s Story–Chapter 9
One week after our talk with Dr. Wolff about Val’s amputation, we were back in the hospital. Surgery was scheduled for the next morning.
The children had been told only that Valerie had to stay at Babies for a few days. Ed said, “The bad cells in your leg aren’t completely gone, sweetheart. You need more treatment.” Val’s tears came immediately. Stacy turned to me and patting her little sister’s back asked that perennial question, “Why, Mommy?”
“She’ll be fine, Stacy,” I said, “Her leg just needs more treatment.” She was puzzled, and worse, disheartened as her world turned upside down once more.
At the hospital the night before Val’s operation, Dr. Dorn, the orthopedic surgeon who would do the amputation, told me he’d like to talk to his patient without me in the room. “It would be better,” the doctor counseled, if he spoke to her about the surgery. “Just the two of us,” he said. “She’ll be angry with me, Mrs. Goldstein, not you.” I listened to him. He was the expert.
I slipped out of the room but lingered close to the open doorway. Ed was down the hall at the nurses’ station.
I knew Val wouldn’t be angry with me, wouldn’t blame me for the amputation. I didn’t worry about that. I worried, instead, about me. How would I handle it? I’ve never been up close to an amputated leg before, never knew anything about it. Ohgod. What would I do? No one had told us what to do . . . we weren’t told anything! I was afloat, cast away from all that I understood, all that I knew about motherhood.
What do I really know about it? About my mother? I wanted her, to talk to her, to ask her what to do, how to handle this. How could I have ever forgotten what she was like, what she had said to me, what she meant to me?
I felt as if I were coming apart, surrounded by darkness, danger, impermanence. Oh, stop being so histrionic, Sue, said Suzann. It’s not you that it’s happening to, it’s Valerie. You need to help her, take care of her. And you will.
My poor baby. Would she wonder why I left her hospital room? And why had I? I simply obeyed the doctor. I should have held her close while Dr. Dorn explained the surgery. Would Val understand what he said without me beside her? Exactly how was a little kid supposed to comprehend what was so incomprehensible to an adult?
I worried, then, about Ed. Since I’d be at the hospital with Val, he would be the one to explain the surgery to Stacy. She was a bright youngster yet . . . What would he tell her? What would she think?
Poor Ed. Not only would he talk to Stacy about the amputation, he’d have to phone my dad, his siblings, his mom. Ed would do that by himself, making all the calls, contending with the distress of others as well as his own. At least I’d be with Val, holding on to her, comforting her, helping her cope with the pain and the shock. I looked down at my two good legs. Godallmighty. Interrupting my thoughts, Dr. Dorn appeared at my side saying, “See you tomorrow.” He didn’t say a word about his discussion with Valerie. And I didn’t ask. What’s wrong with me?
In a hurry, the good doctor rushed away but not before Ed, moving toward me, called out, “Get a good night’s sleep, doctor.” There was no humor in my husband’s voice. The doctor, head down, continued walking but said loud enough for us to hear, “I will.”
I wondered, on a different note, did Ed worry about what he’d say to Stacy? Probably, but we didn’t discuss it. So many things not to discuss! And I knew that it wasn’t right, but what to do? It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other. We did. It was more simply . . . avoidance. He avoided and I followed suit.
Back in Valerie’s room Ed and I sat down, one parent on either side of her bed. I laid my hand against my daughter’s cheek and asked, “How was your talk with the doctor, pussy cat?”
“Okay,” she said. “Mommy, will you change the channel?” I reached over her bed to grab the remote, glancing sideways at Ed at the same time. He was just as stymied by Val’s response as I was. Did she know what was to come? My husband made no comment and I didn’t push for more conversation. Maybe Val would say something about the surgery after she had absorbed the doctor’s words.
The loudspeaker announced that visiting hours were over but Ed and I stayed much longer. Everything was in place for Valerie. The TV was on, Snoopy was in bed beside her and the nurses promised to look in on her frequently. They assured me they would do that each of the many times I asked. At last, after countless irate looks from the floor staff, we kissed and hugged Val goodnight and told her we’d be back early the next morning.
Ed and I threw more kisses to her on our way out of the room, competing to see whose flying smooches would be the loudest. Valerie managed a lopsided smile and a small wave.
We couldn’t look at each other, but we held hands walking toward the elevator. It was our way. Holding hands. Holding tight. Keeping close despite the emotional upheavals, reminding us that we were not as isolated as we felt. We had each other.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t sleep either. As I often did, I lay in bed wondering where we were headed. Now, the same questions kept coming back: what would happen to my wonderful children, to my husband, to me? All the questions that didn’t have answers.
The next morning, Ed and I were back at Babies. Valerie was groggy from the pre-surgical meds, and when an attendant pulled her bed from the hospital room she barely noticed. The IV pole and a surgical nurse took up one side of the bed. On the opposite side Ed gripped Val’s ankle while I held her hand. Neither one of us could let go. “Mrs. Goldstein, we have to take her in now. Please, say goodbye to her. Mr. Goldstein? You’ll be told when she’s back in her room. She’ll be okay. She’s a trouper.”
Great. She’s a trouper. So what? Will that protect her? Keep her safe during the operation and afterwards? Guess what, Dr. Dorn, I’m the angry one here.
We headed down to the main waiting room at the end of the hospital’s large lobby. I had hated it since our first visit there three years earlier. Hate. What an awful word. I use it too much.
Long and narrow, the waiting room was shabbier than ever and the lamplight appeared gloomier. While eyes turned away easily in the waiting room, the sounds were heard clearly: someone crying in the back of the room; a voice whispering indistinctly near the doorway, the panic pronounced; or the discord of a lightning-like discussion in an unfamiliar language. Of course, we also heard the silence, a foreboding silence.
Conversation eventually developed. A nod of the head, a grimace, a tentative smile broke the ice. Simple questions and more complex answers sometimes followed. A young mother began, “How old is your child? Is it a girl or a boy?” A father responded, “My son is ten. He has a hole in his heart. He can’t play ball like the other kids. The doctors are operating to try to close it.”
A shy, older woman, after a long pause said, “My daughter’s leg has to be fixed. She broke it when she fell off a horse. I told my husband I didn’t want her to ride but he wouldn’t listen to me. Anyway, it healed wrong and now the surgeons are trying to correct it. I’m not certain how. I don’t understand what they’re doing. They talk too fast.”
Neither Ed nor I chimed in. But we listened, paid attention to the pitch, accent and agitation of the families and shared in their pain.
Intermittently, a doctor would appear and interrupt the murmur of conversation, or the silence, and beckon to one or two parents, a sister or a grandmother who would then leave the room hastily to be seen no more. It was no surprise: hospital waiting rooms witnessed the briefest of relationships.
Ed and I sat, our eyes fixed on the doorway, impatient for Dr. Dorn to materialize. Two and one-half hours later, when he did, we searched his face for signs that all was well with Valerie. Greeting us with a raised hand, the doctor said that the surgery was over and she was fine. Valerie would be upstairs in her room in about two hours. He’d look in on her in the afternoon.
Grateful that she was okay after the operation, I leaned back against the sofa, relieved but then wondered what the next few days, or months, would bring. Is the cancer gone now that her leg is? Will she be able to handle the crutches, the prosthesis? She was so little. I wondered, mutely to Suzann, Did we do the right thing?
True to the doctor’s word, Val was back on the eleventh floor by ten a.m. Ed and I were exhausted. Not Valerie. She was wide awake, in pain and waiting impatiently for us. Her thigh was heavily bandaged, raised atop several large pillows and covered by a sheet pulled up to her chest. The sheet prevented us from looking at what was no longer there.
Ed and I never talked about how we’d feel at the first glimpse of Valerie’s truncated limb. But then, we rarely discussed anything about feelings. Furthermore, we hadn’t discussed what we’d say to her or what she might say to us, but we’d soon find out. That’s how we did things. Not good, I thought. And I’d get so mad at Ed, at me—at the world! But before I got too carried away with my angst Val’s pain had to be controlled.
I pushed the call button, and before Val could fret again a nurse walked into the room with a hypodermic needle, administered a pain killer through the IV in her arm and walked out. Valerie whimpered half-heartedly but fell asleep within minutes. The rest of the day dragged by in similar fashion. She’d wake up, want something to drink, I’d give her a little ice, caress her arm, she’d fuss a little and fall back to sleep. I’d get up from time to time and nervously walk around the room. Pace, more like it.
Ed and I also took turns slouching against a nearby wall or sitting in an armless vinyl chair squeezed in between Val’s bed and a large dingy window. For dinner, while Val slept, we ate, or rather picked at, sandwiches from the cafeteria. Our makeshift table was the window’s twelve-inch marble sill. That sill, when it wasn’t a dining table held books, a few games, iced tea and Mallomars. The Goldsteins had moved back in.
Ed, his face drawn, left shortly after eating. At home, he would tell Stacy of the operation her sister had endured that morning. I had no idea how he would approach that or how she would respond. But he and I were partners who split a lot of the family and business chores, whatever they were—whether we talked about them or not.
A few hours after Ed left, a nurse poked her head into the room. “Mrs. Goldstein, you have a phone call. I think it’s your husband.” I glanced at Val, fast asleep from the pain killers and tiptoed out to the hall.
The one public telephone across from the elevators was on a narrow wall connecting an office and the parents’ waiting room. Not a good place for lengthy or private conversations. The black receiver was dangling on its cord. I reached down and picked it up. It was Ed; he sounded rattled, on edge. “How’s Val? Has she awakened yet? Has she talked at all?” Then he said, “Oh, Sue, Stacy’s pretty upset. I told her about the amputation, said Val had to have her leg removed because of the bad cells. But she wants to speak to you. I don’t know how to calm her.” Before I could answer, I heard him say, “Here’s Mommy, hon.”
All at once, Stacy was on the phone shouting, “Mommy, how could you let them do that to Valerie? Why? She has only one leg now. How will she run or play?” I took a deep breath, trying to prepare for a calm, thoughtful response, but Stacy wasn’t finished. “What does it look like, Mommy? How can I look at it? Does it hurt her? Mommy, why?” Out of questions, Stacy suddenly stopped. She could no longer vent her alarm and cry at the same time.
I was stunned by the onslaught. I had assumed there might be confusion or an inability to understand all the issues. But my children had proven me wrong in the past. This was another of those times. Stacy had grasped what Ed had told her and instantly pictured the plight our family faced. Her young voice articulated the questions her tongue-tied parents had resisted.
I stammered a reply. “Stacy, sweetheart. We had no choice. The doctors told us that we had to amputate. We should have told you before . . . let you get accustomed to the idea, be there with you.” And how does she get accustomed to that, Sue, said Suzann? “I know that now. I’m so sorry.” I talked to her for a while but did no better than her father. I needed to end the call and get back to Valerie. “I love you, honey bun. I love you so much. I’ll speak to you tomorrow. Put Daddy back on the phone. I love you.” Over and over, I told her I loved her. Ed came back on the line. “I’m so sorry, Sue. I didn’t think she’d scream like that. She’s so upset.” “It’s okay, Eddie,” I said. “It’s okay. We’ll both take care of her. Tomorrow. You take care of her tonight.”
Did I soothe Stacy? What could I, should I, have said to her? What would my mother have said? I had no idea. I only knew that Stacy, as well as the rest of us, would be feeling the repercussions of Val’s illness forever.
And I thought to myself, could I comfort my loved ones, could I encourage them to walk along new paths, paths strewn with good things to come? There would be bumps, naturally, but wasn’t that my job, to smooth the way? Of course it’s my job but—can I do it?
I hung up the phone and ran back to Val’s room, unable to do much besides stare at her and then look out the darkened window. I spent the night on high alert, sitting in the vinyl chair close to the bed, a pillow behind my back, a blue hospital blanket over my legs.
I awakened in the morning, when first light broke through the window, stood up, stretched and sat back down to continue watching over my daughter. I worried about her pain though I was confident the nurses would take care of that. More worrisome to me was her reaction to the surgery. I would be the one to respond to that: to her questions, her bewilderment, her fright. My mind was in a muddle trying to concoct various scenarios, to work through them and to come up with just the right way to explain to my little girl what had happened to her.
Valerie woke a short while later as a nurse was adjusting her IV. Animated and seemingly without pain, my daughter threw me a beam of her personal sunshine. Smiling, she said, “Hi, Mommy.” “Hi, my little pussy cat,” I smiled in return. “Know what, Mommy? The doctor told me he was going to operate and take away my whole leg. But he didn’t. He left me a little leg!”
What? A little leg? What is she talking about? Ohmygod. Her thigh. Did she awaken in the middle of the night and look? How?
But it didn’t matter. Only that I was proven wrong once again. I grinned, my eyes burnt with unspent tears. With Val’s hand on my arm, she raised her right thigh—her little leg!—and introduced me, once more, to her own resilient, very magical, slant on life.