Posted By Suzann on April 17, 2017
Eleven years after that jarring night in March when I learned my mother had died, my wonderful brother Stan was gone. He was killed in an automobile accident on the Henry Hudson Parkway in Riverdale, New York. Stan was twenty-six. I still miss him.
One year later, determined to build a new life for myself, I left home and moved into a Manhattan apartment with college friends. I soon met Ed and seven months after our first date we married—truly a new life.
Ed and I called a second floor walk-up in Plainfield, New Jersey our new home for one and a half years and then moved into a single family bi-level in North Plainfield. With the advent of two beautiful daughters born two years apart, Stacy in 1964 and Valerie in 1966, our family was complete. In short order, I had become a wife, mother and contented home-maker—a far cry from the single career woman I had planned to be.
The sense of being different, that lonely feeling of being unique, faded into the background although it never entirely disappeared.
I had a loving husband and two happy little kids who romped noisily through each day. Once in a while, though, the noise would abate and an easy quiet would fall on our home.
Like that one Sunday afternoon.
Stacy lounged at the end of our king-sized bed watching TV, belly down, one bare foot swaying casually in the air. Ed and I had our backs propped against the bed’s headboard, discards from The New York Times strewn haphazardly over the bedroom floor. Valerie, the baby of our family, napped in her room down the hall . . . or so I thought.
“Listen,” I said. “Val’s crying again. Not a lot, but . . .” My quiet Sunday vanished.
I put the Book Review down, slid off the bed and glanced back at Ed whose eyes never left the Business section. Stacy remained focused on her cartoons.
Valerie’s cry sounded whiny rather than urgent. I hurried anyway. At three, she was filled with sunlight and self-esteem, leaped rather than raced to the next adventure, adored her more sedate, five-year-old sister and attempted at every turn to rule her family.
Today’s wake-up cry was a repeat of the day before. Once more, Valerie was fretfully bouncing up and down on her bed whimpering “MommyMommyMommy.” Silky-fine baby hair lay limp and sweaty on her forehead. Face flushed, arms outstretched, she waited for me, intent on instant comfort.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart? Bad dream? Something hurt?” Sniffling, she leaned into me and poked at her right leg. I folded my arms around her and kissed one of the two cutest noses on the planet.
“It must be pins and needles,” I said. That’s what I told her. That’s what I believed.
Comfort administered and accepted, Valerie jumped off the bed, ran to the door and promptly fell down, her head just missing the doorjamb. A brief howl and she was up and heading for our bedroom, her sister and the TV. On the way, she fell again sprawling face-forward on the hall carpet.
“Slow down, Val, and you won’t fall,” I called out, following her along the hallway. But the motion advisory was ignored. My littlest girl had places to go and things to do.
In our room at last and on the bed lying close to Stacy, a sib-skirmish erupted requiring Daddy’s authority. “Stop it, girls.” And for a second time, there was quiet. Ed raised an eyebrow my way silently boasting of father power.
Sundays with the children could be such fun. But not that Sunday.
For the rest of that day, Valerie continued falling until I sat her down on my lap, read her a story and tucked her in with a mushy kiss for good luck. She giggled, closed her eyes and welcomed sleep.
It wasn’t important, that falling-down. I knew it. But it wasn’t pins and needles either. Valerie might have smashed into something sharp and bruised her leg. Yet there was no bruise and if she had bunked her leg badly enough to cry about it now, why didn’t I know it when it happened?
Valerie slept through the night although the frequent falling began again the next morning. I started creating various scenarios: She was at my friend Jill’s house when it happened and Jill forgot to tell me; She tumbled down the stairs and the babysitter didn’t want to tell me; She banged into the sandbox at nursery school but didn’t want to stop playing long enough to tell anyone.
On and on my mind strained to make sense of what was happening but all the scenarios self-destructed.
Unnerved by her falls, I called our orthopedist and described our problem. His receptionist made an immediate appointment for us. I sent Stacy off to a neighbor’s house and moving fast strapped Valerie into the back seat of my Mustang. Once at his office in Plainfield Dr. Reesman asked three questions,
- “Did she fall from a height?”
- “Is she favoring her leg when she walks?
- “Has she been irritable?”
With a shake of my head, I said, “No,” then immediately thought about my various, now totally irrelevant, scenarios.
Bending down to hold her hand and at the same time noting her gait the doctor led Valerie up and down a long corridor and discussed, as they walked, the differences between ‘Miss Piggy’ and the ‘Cookie Monster.’ Despite my worry, I couldn’t help smiling until a nurse whisked Val away for X-rays before I could give her a hug and kiss. Valerie didn’t appear frightened or upset but I was. My smile vanished as I watched the two of them disappear behind a closed door.
And at that moment, I remembered that Val had been cranky. Isn’t that the same as irritable? Of course it is: stupid me. But why couldn’t I have gone in with her? How would they keep her motionless on that hard table and under that big scary machine? My poor baby.
After the X-rays were taken, Valerie and I sat in the waiting room eating Captain Crunch and Apple Jacks out of plastic baggies. I read her favorite Dr. Seuss book, The Foot Book, three times before we were brought back into Reesman’s office. Once there, Val clung to my leg, my hand resting on her head. We were both nervous.
The doctor pointed to six X-rays hanging on two rows of lighted view boxes. “These show an irregularly defined shadow on the tibia—see it? That’s the larger bone of your daughter’s lower right leg and probably the source of her pain. There are three possible diagnoses: a bone infection, an old break that never healed properly, or a bone tumor.” He couldn’t or wouldn’t tell which, but he did say that she was limping. Limping? I hadn’t seen that. How could I not see that? Limping? What else did I miss?
My anxiety increased when he recommended a consultation with a pediatric orthopedist in either Philadelphia or New York City.
I called Ed at work, told him about the X-rays and said I’d take them to our pediatrician that afternoon but would first drop Val off at a friend’s house.
After examining the X-rays, the pediatrician said he’d make an appointment for us at Columbia Presbyterian’s Babies and Children’s Hospital. I began to pin my hopes on an old break. An orthopedist can take care of that by simply resetting her leg, right?
Two days later Ed and I headed into New York with Valerie, her stroller, the X-rays, a beloved toy monkey with lumpy stuffing—Val had named it Monkey—a few of her books and baggies filled with snacks. Stacy would be dropped off with neighbors on our street.
We arrived at the Dana Atchley Pavilion, part of Columbia Presbyterian’s huge complex, and checked in with the receptionist on the fifth floor. The pediatric orthopedist, Dr. René Gagnon, would see us immediately. Surprised and pleased that there would be no down time, the three of us were led into the doctor’s office but had to stand by awkwardly while he sat at his desk and finished a long phone conversation.
After introductions, Ed handed over the X-rays. We watched without a word as they were clipped to the view boxes on the wall. I saw again the negative images of Valerie’s leg with that nasty shadow drawn in gloomy blacks and grays. It looked like a Rorschach splotch.
All business, the doctor scrutinized each X-ray while we waited. Fighting the urge to smoke a cigarette, I glanced at Ed as he tried to pull down his tie. It had begun the day too short, resisted all attempts to lengthen it and remained fixed in place three inches above his belt despite all the fidgeting.
Craving that smoke and no longer interested in the tie, I turned to the window. The scene was late December dreary with snow predicted. Val, in her stroller, was settled in peacefully, thumb in mouth when without a word, the doctor quickly removed every X-ray but two. He examined those for a second time while Ed and I anxiously looked on. Why don’t I just snatch them away and shout, “What? What do you see? Say something, for crying out loud!” I kept my mouth shut.
When finished with the X-rays, Gagnon sat Valerie on the examining table and probed both legs. Finally, he lifted Val to the floor and asked her to walk across the room. Not noted for her obedience, my daughter galloped wildly about the office, waving her arms, laughing and whooping, in her version, I suspect, of free will. Responding quickly, three adult voices shouted as one, “Slow down, Valerie!”
And she did, limping slightly. Following two self-important turns round the doctor’s desk Val came to a halt at my chair. I hauled her onto my lap and waited.
After a long pause, he turned to us, “Here are written orders for some blood tests and X-rays.” Scribbling his name on the bottom of two prescription forms, the doctor handed them to Ed and said, “I’ll talk to you after I get the results back. Don’t worry, the technicians will move fast. I’ll see you later.”
We were offered no new information yet a chill prickled my skin. Ed’s eyes remained on the doctor a moment longer. Val climbed back into her stroller and Ed wheeled her out. I squeezed through the doorway alongside them and put one hand on the stroller’s handlebar. I needed to keep physical contact with my daughter and my husband. I also needed to erase the memory of those X-rays.
Babies and Children’s Hospital was an immense old high-rise a few blocks down from the Atchley Pavillion. We walked a short distance up the block, pushed open the swinging doors that led into a massive two-story lobby and entered a world jammed with people. They all seemed headed in assorted directions as fast as possible.
The hospital staff, too, was on the move. Green-jacketed aides sped by pushing patients in wheelchairs while doctors, residents, and nurses walked briskly back and forth. Feeling out of my element, I expected—I wanted—to have Valerie diagnosed and then returned to the personal care of our local doctors. They’d be able to handle an old break or even a bone infection. I turned to Ed, “I hate this place.” He shrugged, a gesture I decided meant agreement.
The lab for blood work was on the fourth floor. It was a small, cramped space filled with chairs that looked like old fashioned school desks. Several long narrow tables lined the walls, their tops covered with microscopes, open texts and sterile packets of glass slides.
I held Valerie on my lap in one of the chairs while Ed and I took turns reading aloud from “The Foot Book.” I knew it by heart. So did he. So did she. But while the medical technician cleaned an area of her forearm with an alcohol swab, found a vein and inserted the needle, Ed and I read together, noisily I might add, “Feet in the day! Feet in the night! Wet foot! Dry foot!” It was an overly dramatic and unsuccessful attempt to distract Val.
Unprepared for the sudden jab, Val glared up at me accusingly, then began to cry as if her heart had broken. I held her close, her head to my chest, wanting to cry with her. I kept repeating, “Almost done, honey, almost done.”
When enough blood had been taken, the needle was withdrawn. Mollified by her choice of lollipops and a large Band-Aid over the tiny puncture wound as proof of a true boo-boo, Valerie calmed down.
The X-ray department on three was much larger and newer than the blood lab. It had a roomy reception area near a hallway lined with doors on both sides. Some were open and revealed wide, elongated tables and intricate overhead equipment. Most doors, however, were closed. These had signs hanging from a hook, ATTENTION. PLEASE DO NOT ENTER WHEN DOOR IS CLOSED. Young children are inside those rooms lying on huge, rock-hard tables. Must be awful scary for them.
The receptionist wrote Valerie’s name on a sheet of paper and waved us to some nearby chairs. We were tired although the day was only half over. Val was tired too. She looked up at me, head lolling to one side, her eyes droopy, one hand barely hanging on to Monkey.
After the X-rays were taken, with Val asleep in her stroller, we returned to the Atchley Pavilion, signed in at the receptionist’s desk, sat and waited some more. Trying to avoid any thought of test results and our upcoming talk with the doctor, I inspected our surroundings.
People were scattered about: relatives and friends huddled together in distinct units, individuals waiting alone, groups and singles deliberately separated as if to protect against contagion. Those who spoke whispered. We too sat by ourselves, whispered as well, and waited.
“What do you think will show up on those X-rays?” I said quietly. “Anything?”
“We’ll have to wait and see,” said my husband.
“Of course. More waiting. Waiting for blood tests; waiting for X-rays, waiting for the doctor. It’s ridiculous. This is awful.” I was clearly talking to myself. Ed didn’t respond and, thankfully, my little one was sound asleep, Monkey still hanging on.
Twenty minutes later, we were brought into the doctor’s office. Gagnon was again sitting at his desk and without preamble gestured to a new set of X-rays.
“Valerie will need a biopsy, a bone biopsy. It’s a simple surgical procedure and the only way we’ll know for sure what we’re dealing with.”
I couldn’t take in what he was saying although he continued talking.
“I’ll remove some bone tissue, send it to pathology, they’ll analyze it and the results will tell us where to go from there.”
He told us the biopsy shouldn’t take long but Val would need general anesthesia,
“I’ll be cutting into her bone; don’t know what I’ll find. It looks badly damaged. Badly damaged? Good God! The doctor continued, “She’ll spend the night in the hospital. Everything depends on what the biopsy shows. At that point, we can start thinking about treatment.”
“What kind of treatment?” I said, my voice a bit louder than normal.
He frowned. “I have no idea, Mrs. Goldstein; that’s why I’m doing a biopsy. Hopefully, we’ll find out what’s wrong. Then we’ll devise a treatment.” Hopefully? What’s going on here? Eddie’s so quiet. What else should I ask? I’ve annoyed Gagnon and I sure don’t want to do that again, not when he’s going to be operating on Val. Ohgod. What will I tell her about the overnight? Ohgod, Ohgod. Slow down, Sue, just slow down.
On the way home, Val slept in her car seat while Ed and I talked disjointedly. I was, trying to make sense of the day. It was useless.
“I can’t believe this is happening. She’s so healthy. What could have caused it. What’s IT?”
“She’ll be okay,” said Ed. “I liked the doctor.”
“You did? He’s not very talkative, but I guess it doesn’t matter as long as he’s good. He was annoyed with me, made me uncomfortable . . . in fact, I felt like an idiot. He said her bone is badly damaged. Oh boy, my heart skipped a beat after that! Maybe he was overreacting. Doctors tell you the worst possibilities.”
“He didn’t want to say anything until he’d done the biopsy.”
“I know that,” I said, getting annoyed with him.
“Look at this traffic. What a mess. We need gas but I’ll wait till we get to New Jersey.”
“Get it now. How much is left?”
“Don’t worry. There’s plenty. And gas is twenty cents a gallon cheaper in New Jersey.”
“Eddie, for crying out loud—”
As we reached the Holland Tunnel, the car began to sputter and slow down without any help from the brake pedal. Oh yes—the gas tank was empty!
But Eddie was too busy wrestling the car off the highway to answer me. No longer just annoyed, I was full-blown angry. I wanted to get home, make Valerie comfortable and hug Stacy. Eyes fixed on my husband, I waited for his comment. Did he seem sheepish, distressed, chagrined? No. And what did he say? Certainly not, “I’m sorry, honey.” Instead, I heard, “There’s a gas station up ahead. I know exactly where it is. You stay in the car with Val. I’ll be right back.”
The slam of the car door shocked Valerie awake and ratcheted up my anger. I offered her two Oreo cookies from my handbag, one for each hand; Oreos were always available for child-soothing purposes. Contented, Val’s face smeared with chocolate, the two of us sang “Old McDonald had a farm E-I-E-I-O . . .” and when she got bored I pulled out a sheet of paper and two pencils and we played tic tac toe until Ed came back with a metal can holding the gas: just enough to get us back to the station.
I looked out the passenger side window and muttered to myself. It was satisfying: “What a day. So lousylousylousy!”
The rest of the trip was made in silence. Glad that Val had fallen asleep again, I sat as far away from my husband as I could. I understood it had been a grueling day for all three of us but the worst of it was over. Val’s leg would be treated properly and she would mend. In any event, kids heal quickly. That’s what everyone says. And that’s what will happen.