She stepped into the elevator directly after we did, a bible in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Her bright blue t-shirt shouting HAPPY! HAPPY! HAPPY! in multi-colored letters. I wasn’t sure if her shirt’s message was meant for me or a reminder for her. We were in a children’s hospital, after all, and this could be a damning place in which to be happy.
My daughter was laughing over the names we had just made up for ourselves, names that couldn’t be spelled with letters – they were simply sounds. How do you spell that farting noise that you make with your mouth? Or the loud, popping noise that emanates from your lips? We giggled as we “called” each other by our new noisy names as I watched the HAPPY! HAPPY! HAPPY! lady from the corner of my eye. Her breath kept catching as she attempted to squelch her tears. She was holding it together pretty well, as I think I was the only one in the crowded elevator who noticed she was struggling. She anxiously tapped her long, manicured nail against her bible as she tried to distract herself from breaking down entirely.
I make it a habit to note which floor people are going to so I can know a little bit about their backstory. Understand this: I’m just nosy when it comes down to it. Anyway, the second floor is the surgical unit. Seventh floor is the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders (AKA Ben’s floor.) HAPPY! was headed to the eighth floor, which is generally dedicated to patients with a variety of ailments but usually have a shorter stay. This woman’s story could be anything. I didn’t know what to do about her threatening tears, so I did nothing at all. We bailed out at the seventh floor to tend to our own sad story, leaving HAPPY! on her own.
We were heading to clinic for blood work and then we were going to visit our good friend, Justin, who was inpatient. After we finished our business in the clinic, we headed down the hall to see Ben’s good buddy. There are two wings on the seventh floor for patients. One side is like most other floors but the side Justin was on was for the bone marrow transplant kids. You have to wash your hands for an hour before heading in. Oh, okay, maybe not that long, but there are more steps to take before entering this unit. Ben hid his phone in his pants while Madeline and I put our stuff in a locker. Really, you’re not supposed to take anything in that isn’t scrubbed down and I didn’t know that Ben was sneaking in contraband until we got to Justin’s room.
Before knocking on his door, I put on my “HEY! LIFE IS AWESOME!” face, while Madeline was secretly wondering if she was going to have to go back to school and Ben was frozen like a rock. The soft knock on the door prompted Lori to tell us to come in. At first glance, Justin looked great. He was laying in bed with all sorts of monitors attached to him. At some point, he was going to be receiving an infusion of precious stem cells to help his body heal from all the treatment he’s had to endure over the last eight years. But I could tell despite physically looking okay he wasn’t emotionally thrilled to be stuck in the hospital again.
Justin and Ben chatted for a few minutes while Madeline stuck to me like glue. This poor child has been raised in a hospital setting, so I don’t think it’s an uncomfortable feeling she had about the environment. I believe she has an innate ability to understand when things aren’t quite right. And I believe she understood that our dear friend is fighting his biggest battle yet. Usually, Ben and Justin will chat for a while about Legos and video games – the two things that our kids are experts at because that’s all they can do in the hospital. But today, Justin wasn’t up to it. He seemed cranky. He seemed mad. Actually, I believe the better word is “pissed.” He didn’t want to chat much. He didn’t want visitors. He just wanted to be left alone. Ben retreated to a corner to play on his phone.
We didn’t stay long. Lori swore she didn’t need anything, but at that moment I just wanted to give her something. The fifty-seven cents I had in my pocket. The ability to browbeat a doctor into finding a cure immediately while holding him over a toilet bowl threatening to give him another swirly. To whisk her away to a private island I bought for her… a place where cancer couldn’t get to her son. Or, more realistically, to hold her as she simply broke down. But I knew she wouldn’t do that. Not in front of Justin, anyway.
As we were walking down the hall toward the elevators, I dared Madeline to press her nose against the glass of a door where a bunch of important people were having a meeting. She considered it but didn’t take me up on it. I started to cry a little because I thought that her silliness would somehow make my heart not break. Oh, dear God! When will this end? And can it please end without another child having to die?
I don’t know how to stop the hurt.
And as we pushed the button and laid our bets on which of the four elevators would arrive first, I wondered about “Happy.” I hoped that this was just a brief encounter for her, that her child would get out soon and they’d never have to come back. And even though I wished that normalcy for her, I couldn’t help but be just a little bit jealous.
We’ve been dealt an impossible task. And I’ve spent almost the last year of my life doing two things: taking care of my children and hiding from the rest of the world. My computer gives me an outlet to share my feelings or to be “social” but the reality of it is that I’m hiding here, wishing for something that will never come.
I haven’t lost hope but I understand that we have already lost so much.