When I was six, shortly before Halloween, our family doctor, who lived down the road from us and around the corner, stopped by our house and told my parents in his usual blunt way, “Well, your boy has leukemia.” He’d made this grim determination upon viewing the results of blood tests I’d been given after a strange rash had broken out on my arms.
I spent the next ten days in a hospital in Fresno, where my fingers were pricked every few hours and I was fed some of the strangest food I’d eaten in my short lifetime — scrambled eggs that were not eggs, and dry roast with mint jelly stand out — and otherwise treated kindly by the nurses of the children’s ward, located on the fifth floor. The boy in the bed next to mine was named George. After all these years of not being able to remember, his name just sprang to mind. Or at least I think it was George, but now that I repeat it a time or two, I feel less sure. What did he look like? I don’t know.
A few days into my stay, which was much harder on my parents than on me, it was determined by the doctor assigned to my case that I didn’t have leukemia. Instead, as I understand it, I needed a massive platelet transfusion. And so I was rolled down the hall and into a gleaming, antiseptic room, where I was given a painless shot in my hip, a few minutes after which the doctor administered a long, drawn out shot in my arm. During that time, I remember him saying once, “More pressure.” The nurses were holding me down. I felt their grip on my arms tighten a little. Finally the needle was withdrawn and I was taken back to my room.
Halloween came. We kids were given colorful paper, scissors, and glue, and the nurses helped us decorate the bright, sunny window in our room. The staff gave us hand-puppets. Mine was a piece of cloth, to the top of which was fastened, of all things, the plastic head of a skeleton. My grandparents brought me a lunchbox-sized shaving set, decorated with the face of Mr. Wilson from the TV show, “Dennis the Menace.” A few days later, I was well enough to go home.
What had happened was this: as was the fashion of the day, our family doctor had given me a new antibiotic, for what, I don’t know. I was allergic to the medication. A few years later, after many similar cases of blood counts gone awry, frightened parents, and mystified local doctors, the drug was withdrawn from use.
There’s a recurring nightmare associated with this. Several times, during the weeks and months that followed, I had a dream in which George and I were shooting marbles, as kids our age did back then. It always began with us having a good time. Then the atmosphere suddenly changed, and I found myself shooting marbles with a skeleton. Poor George. Frightened as I was, I felt sorry for him. I think his time in the hospital might have been harder than mine.
I remember, too, on the first day of my hospital stay, the surprise and fear I felt when my parents told me that they were leaving for home and would be back the following morning. In my little boy’s mind, I’d assumed my mother would be with me. At the time, that wasn’t allowed. And so I cried myself into a new dimension of understanding, the upset from which I was distracted by kindness, my parents’ daily visits, and the sights and sounds of the regular hospital routine. It was all like a dream. It still is.
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Tags: Blood, Childhood, Dreams, Fear, Halloween, Leukemia, Marbles, Memory, My Father, My Grandfather, My Grandmother, My Mother, Nightmares, Puppets, Scrambled Eggs, Skeletons