My Granny was a master seamstress. When she was growing up in Crab Orchard during the great depression, she had to wear potato sacks to go to school. She caught Scarlett fever when she was 6. She could barely hear with hearing aids. She would cry as she told me about wearing potato sacks and how the kids made fun of her. I have always hated bullies.
She made shoes at a factory for a lot of years. The plant shut down and she got one of the industrial sewing machines that sewed leather together. Everything she wore was tailor made to fit. I still have a welding cap she made for my Pop. She made Pop’s billfolds. He lost his billfold once. It slipped out of his bib overalls when he was changing a power steering hose in a broke down friend’s car up by the Holiday Inn in Danville.
By the time he realized it, it was dark so he went looking for it. We went back up to the Holiday Inn. It wasn’t there. He was really upset about it. The next day someone came knocking on the door with his billfold. A random woman found it and just brought it back to him. He pulled out a $20 bill and handed it to her.
“Oh no Mr. Waits I couldn’t. You cut my Mawmaw’s grass for free.”
“Just you take it.”
If you searched Pop’s wallet you would have trouble finding the 20 $100 bills he kept in it in the secret compartment. He carried a lot of cash in case he needed to buy something on sale.
Mom had one of the first mediport models that came onto the market to get her chemo in. It was right in the center of her chest. Mom told me she was sick one night so I took her temperature and it was 99 degrees. Not unusual so I asked if she was having a White Castle attack? She didn’t want to eat. The next morning I go to check on her and I can tell something is wrong. I took her temp and it was 102.1 and she couldn’t breathe.
She hated going to the hospital but she knew something was up. So I load her up and go to the ER. That was the day I met Bonnie and Lissa. Her name was Clarissa but she went by Lissa. She was next to us in the ER. They brought Lissa in on a stretcher and she was crying in agony. She was just 7 years old. Bonnie was just in tears. The doctor wanted to stop Lissa from crying. She was LOUD.
The doctor asked Bonnie what happened?
“She was running around the couch with her brother and she fell and started screaming.”
‘Did she run into something?’
“No she was just playing and this happened.”
‘Well I’ve never seen a kid snap their femur like that before.’
His tone was accusatory. He ordered her some morphine. Her leg was just beyond contorted. It was gruesome.
The doctor paged an orthopedic surgeon and checked on mom. He ordered a chest X-ray. It took about ten minutes to get the machine set up. Mom had a huge infection around her mediport. They called in Dr. Aaron who put it in. While we waited, the orthopedic surgeon came in. I just remember him saying, ‘wow.’ Lissa wasn’t crying anymore but she was still awake.
“I’m gonna take real good care of you honey.” I noticed he pushed her to the OR.
Dr. Aaron came in just after and he saw the X-ray and said, “why isn’t she in the OR?” He was known to be a prick of the highest order but you wanted him to be your doctor because he did not put up with mediocrity.
When Dr. Aaron came out of the OR, he was covered in blood from mom. When he opened her up blood and pus sprayed all over him. She was really sick. He told me if we had waited any longer she’d be dead. To close the wound, he had to pack it. He asked me if I could get him a steak to go from Del Frisco’s, extra rare.
‘How can you eat?’
‘Surgery makes me hungry.’
There were 26 4×4 bandages in the wound. It was in the center of mom’s chest and it was just like a hole 6 inches wide and 6 inches deep. She was in intensive care for a week.
Dr. Aaron came in and goes, “do you think you can pack this wound every day?”
‘Well you can go home but don’t leave one in there or she’ll get sick again.’
Apparently, it was against hospital policy to release a patient from intensive care. There was some kind of kerfuffle at the nurses station when the entire floor heard,
“I don’t give a good goddamn what the hospital policy is. She’s my patient and she’s going home.”
He was a great doctor.
Pulling hospital duty is arduous work. I used to cut tobacco when it was 95+ degrees and I would rather do that than pull hospital duty, which is why I always did it. I wanted to keep the ‘practicing’ of medicine to a minimum.
The routine was mom would do 5 days of carboplatinol in the hospital once a month. I would read until my eyes went cross and then go play with the kids across the hall. I first did it out of boredom but I quickly learned how badly these kids needed stimuli of any kind.
I haven’t been in combat so that is the one caveat I give when I say the worst place in the world is any cancer ward for children. Few parents can handle it. Some can’t at all. You find out who people are in a crisis. You also learn to spot the good nurses. They run everything. I don’t know how they do it. I knew which ones who had done it the most because they are the most distant and cold. They have to be.
I hate the smell of the cancer ward. It smells like faint piss and fungicide chemicals. Mom would smell it and start barfing. The same with the awful food they served. Before mom could get into her room, I would have to go spray an entire can of glade so mom could get to her room without barfing. You get into a routine that even the nurses know when you do chemo for as long as mom did.
The next chemo session I walked in to spray the lavender scented Glade, I spotted Bonnie in the kids ward. She had extremely bright red hair. As I rounded the nurses station it hit me. I saw Lissa in the bed with her leg in some contraption suspended above the bed. I hoped for those few seconds that they were just out of beds, then it dawned on me. I went and got mom and carried the suitcase to our room.
There was another boy named Conrad there. I’d spent hours playing with him. He loved playing Uno. I hate Uno.
I was tearing up when my eyes met Bonnie’s. The chemo bags have this ultraviolet light cover on them. I glanced at her IV and saw that awful bag. Bonnie saw my tears and just hugged me.
‘Hi, I’m Thomas.”
‘I remember you from the night we came in.’
‘What kind is it?’ I knew before I asked.
I would have preferred being stabbed.
I don’t know what the mortality rate for osteosarcoma in 1989 was but I knew death was certain and a painful one at that. Conrad had leukemia. This wasn’t my first rodeo with sick kids. My little sister had AML leukemia when she was 16. That’s the worst kind. She was on the kids ward for almost 2 years doing 6 days of chemo stints. She would fall asleep because her blood counts were often zero. She was doing the strongest chemo there was at that time.
Bonnie was wearing a Waffle House uniform. I could tell she came from work to sit with Lissa. I told her to go home. I’d look after her. Hospital duty is stressfully tedious. The things that matter to the patients are the little things. Changing the channel. Sometimes calling the nurse takes more strength than they have. A cup of ice cream, getting a coke and wanting a sprite. An ice cap or anything is amplified that much more when you can’t do something for yourself and you don’t want to impose on a busy nurse.
She was one of those little girls who put a twinkle in your eye. One of the tumors she had was in her femur. The orthopedic surgeon opened her leg and saw what he was dealing with. He called in another oncological surgeon and there just wasn’t much they could do. For most cancer patients, having a surgical option gave you a much better result, usually. For Lissa, she only had radiation and chemo as an option.
Bonnie had no idea what she was in for. She had a son too, and rent. She’d find out soon enough. Radiation is the worst, especially for kids. It makes you so sick. You vomit out stuff that looks exactly like antifreeze. You think you can eat something and you get it down and ten minutes later you barf it back up. You barf so much that sometimes you get ulcers on your esophagus and the acid in your stomach causes you incredible pain.
Lyssa was bed bound. The radiation kept her femur from healing. She was always in pain but she would have good days. She liked playing shoots and ladders and watching the muppets. Bonnie worked. Came to the hospital. Went home. Cooked dinner. Went to bed and repeated. She would have been there every moment if she could.
About the 5th month, Lyssa was really tired from the chemo and radiation. She was more lethargic. I’d seen this before. Bonnie aged ten years in those months. When you have cancer or are caring for someone with it, every single day is a crisis because time is so precious.
It was a few days after her 8th birthday. She had a Strawberry Shortcake doll cake. Pop and Granny came down to check on mom. Keeping Pop away from cake was impossible. He always had peanut brittle, 2 cakes, cookies and hard candy at his house but he also used to bring us a ‘goodie sack’ full of candy. When he’d come to the hospital he’d walk into the kids’ ward and say, ‘Does anybody in heah like Reese’s cups?’ Then he’d empty the sack for the kids.
Lyssa had strawberry blonde hair but it had all fallen out. Granny bought some wigs for her. Lyssa had 8 candles to blow out. It took her a few tries to get them all out.
“This sure is awful good cake. Who’s got the birthday money?”
Bonnie had no idea what that meant but me and mom did.
Pop pulled out his billfold and unzipped the secret compartment. He counted out.
“One. Two. Three. Five. Oops. I miscounted. Let me start over.” He left the 4 bills and started again. He finally got to 8, all 20 $100 bills were on the table. He handed them to Bonnie.
“Now when you get out, your mama will have them waiting on you so you can get some candy.” Only Pop knew she wasn’t going to get out. Bonnie was in tears. Granny slipped her a check for $5000 more.
Three weeks later I walked in and she asked me to play shoots and ladders. She was so weak. I got out the board and she matter of factly said, “I’m not going to make it Thomas.” I froze for a moment and couldn’t look her in the eyes. My eyes were leaking. She patted me on the hand.
“Don’t be sad. I get to go to heaven.”
“I know angel, I know.”
I was fast asleep the next night when I heard this guttural and primal wailing coming from across the hall. It was Bonnie. It still haunts my nightmares from time to time, that sound. I wish I had a recording of it for whenever someone says we can’t afford healthcare but they’re ‘pro-life’ because none of them know what the hell they are talking about.