New Year’s Eve—Sacred Heart Hospital, the pediatric unit.
Tonight the whole world is celebrating. I can already hear firecrackers in the distance. But on the third floor, the women in my life are gathered around a sick baby. My sister’s daughter, Lucy, was born ten days ago. She was dainty, tranquil, and she smelled like all babies do. But last night, she was admitted into the hospital with viral meningitis. Doctors fitted her with an IV in her scalp, an oxygen nose piece, and they’re monitoring her heart. So, while a big ball drops in Times Square, my sister holds Lucy. My sister has cried a lot today. And I wish there were something I could do to make her feel better, but I‘m just a big brother. Big brothers can’t do much but ask the lady in the cafeteria, “More fries, please?”
A gentle knock on the door.
The nurse enters. She’s got a sunny personality. She checks monitors, administers a blood gas, she is smiling a lot. She refers to my sister as “Mama.” That word. My sister is a wife and a mother of two, but when I look at her I still see pigtails. To me, she’s the girl who watched cartoons on Saturdays, eating Captain Crunch. The girl who ran barefoot. The teenager who worked at Chik-fil-A, who let me use her employee discount.I remember when I was sixteen, she was a child. She awoke one night screaming. She clutched her side and howled, writhing on the floor. “What’s wrong?” I shouted, “I’m dying!” she said.
My mother came running. She touched my sister’s belly. She thought my sister might be suffering from severe constipation. “Are you eating plenty of fiber?” my mother asked. “I’m dying!” my sister shouted. “Wait here while I get the castor oil.” My mother always suspected her children were victims of bowel blockage. In fact, she believed society’s problems could be blamed on this issue. As a young man, I was afraid to bring female prospects near our house for fear that my mother would ask them highly personal questions about digestion. That night, I loaded my sister into the car, we sped across town to the hospital. The emergency room was packed, and I’ll never forget it. We sat in a waiting room. My sister curled beside me, moaning. I was helpless. I was barely old enough to drive, but to my sister I was the only man she knew. And I tried to pretend I was a grown-up. “It’s gonna be okay,” I said. Because that’s what big brothers say. I didn’t know if it were true. “I’m scared,” she said, holding her belly. “You’re gonna be okay.” “How do you know?”
“Because,” as if that explained everything. “I know.” But it was false. I didn’t know if she would be all right. The girl crawled into my lap. I touched her silky hair. I was so worried I was shaking. That night, the doctor welcomed us into the exam room. His first words were, “Good news, your sister’s gonna be just fine. It’s just a vestigial organ problem.” “A what?” I said. “Her appendix,” he said. “All we gotta do is cut it out, easiest thing in the world.” I’d never felt so relieved. I didn’t know whether to laugh or break dance. I looked my sister in the eye. “Did you hear that?” I said. “You’re gonna be okay.” She sniffed her nose. “For real?” “Yes,” said the doctor. “As long as you keep eating plenty of fiber, I don’t see why you shouldn’t live well into your forties.”
Her appendectomy took a few minutes. She was back in the recovery room with stitches in her belly, eating two ice cream cones at once. “Guess what!” my sister said when the nurses wheeled her in. “I didn’t even FEEL it!” She smiled big. “You were right, I’m okay!” I stayed the night in the hospital, and I fell asleep in the vinyl chair beside beside her. That was a long time ago, but in some ways, I am still that sixteen-year-old fool. And in some ways she is still that pig-tailed girl. And one day, when Lucy grows up to be big and strong, perhaps when my life is over, she will read this. Time will have moved on without me, and I will be just a memory. But she will see these sentences, and I hope she knows that when the clock struck midnight tonight, I was thinking about how much everyone loves her. And how she’s going to be okay.
Happy 2019 to you and yours.
And whatever you do this year, please eat plenty of fiber. Update on Baby Lucy: On Jan. 2, my niece, Lucy, was hereby pronounced “okay” by doctors and sent back home. Hallelujah.
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