by Shirley Palmerton
Have you ever felt yourself struggling to wake up and then find you are awake, the nightmare is true? I felt this way one hot summer’s day in the pediatrician’s office when the doctor examined our six-year-old son and told me to take him to Children’s Hospital for further tests.
“What’s wrong?” I asked in a shrill tone. He didn’t answer right away, just stood looking at the other pediatricians that had come in. A chill crept over me and I held Craig tight as if they were going to take him from me. Louder I asked, “What’s wrong? You know, tell me.”
“We think he either has a brain tumor or a blood clot.”
All I could think was ‘Oh no, not Craig. He’s so beautiful, almost too pretty to be a boy.’ Many nights I had stood over his bed watching him sleep and thought ‘how could someone so ordinary looking as my husband and I have such a beautiful child.’ We had another boy, aged twelve, but he was average looking and a little girl too, who would win no beauty prizes, but they were loved and wanted as much as Craig.
The doctor’s voice shook me back to reality, “Do you know any neurosurgeons?”
‘Just Ben Casey,’ I thought. ‘Oh my God, that’s not funny.’
Out loud, I replied, “No. Get the best. Money’s no object.” Even if we had to mortgage our home, it didn’t matter. Money was the last thing on my mind. I told them I wanted to stay with Craig, so get a private room for us.
They made a few phone calls and told me to get right over to Children’s. They were waiting for us.
I left Craig at a friend’s house and headed home to pack our bags. When I got home, I washed a few dishes, straightened a few pillows, folded some clothes, and looked out of the window. I was jarred back to reality when the phone rang. It was my sister asking how Craig was. In a monotone, I told her.
“What can I do? What can I do?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied and hung up.
I arranged for the other children, picked up my husband at the office, and we went to the hospital. They were waiting for us and the neurosurgeon turned out to be a quiet, short man with wavy hair. His manner, made us put our complete confidence in him.
The next day, after the tests were taken and Craig was watching television, Bill and I went to the dining room for a sandwich. We had just sat down when the doctor joined us at our table. He told us he was sure Craig had a brain tumor and he was going to operate in the morning. “Be ready,” he said, “It’s going to be a long one.”
“Do you think it’s malignant?” I asked, hardly able to get the words out.
Quietly he replied, “Yes. Ninety percent of the brain tumors in the back of the brain are malignant and we’re sure this is in the back of the brain.”
“What if it’s malignant,” I whispered again.
Quietly he said, “It’s fatal.”
I found myself in the hall sobbing in a corner and some lady was patting me on the back saying, “There, there, it can’t be so bad.”
Silently I screamed, ‘You don’t know. You don’t know.’
That night when Craig was asleep, I sat by his bed and watched him and I thought of all the things I had wanted to do with our children and never had.
We lived on the outskirts of a small town, many neighbors and a sub-division was growing up behind us. The children had many, many friends to play with and it seemed they were always eating and running off to someone’s house to play. There were open fields and dirt piles, baseball games and supervised play at the school. In this way, the days flew by.
As I sat there I thought, ‘I’ve never laid in the field with them to watch the clouds roll by in shapes of animals, people we knew or as ghosts or goblins. I’ve never taken long walks with a picnic lunch or had we watched things born or leaned over a country bridge and watched the fish or leaves float by – or – or,’ the list went on and on.
Sleep was impossible that night and I sat and held Craig’s hand. In his sleep, his fingers curled around mine. The thought of tomorrow was too much.
The morning came too soon. My sister, Bill’s brother, and the minister came in to be with us. The nurse gave Craig a shot and asked me to read to him until he went to sleep. With tears streaming down my face, I read The Three Bears. When he finally was asleep, I laid my head down on the pillow next to his until they came to get him. Silently I kept asking, ‘Why, why us’ and the answer came back, ‘Why not you?’
My husband, was suffering as I was but his arms were always open to me when I needed a haven. He said the right things at the right time to keep me from falling apart completely.
Craig was in the operating room eight and one-half hours. The first encouraging news we had was when they called up after a couple of hours that they had found the tumor in the front of the brain and our baby was doing well. Every hour was like a day itself. I walked and walked that day, oblivious to all. My every thought was a prayer. Night came and suddenly he was back. His head completely covered with bandages. The doctor explained the tumor was the size of a tennis ball with a cist growing on it that was filled with water. In addition, because of the size of the tumor he might be paralyzed on his right side with his speech slurred. Or he might be in a coma for a few weeks – or – or – or. Again, the list went on. It was still unbelievable.
The joy of seeing him alive was overwhelming. When we were alone, I leaned down and put my arms around him. I put my cheek next to his.
“Mom, you’re hurting my head,” he said rather disgustedly.
We couldn’t believe our ears. I ran down the hall shouting to the nurses, “He’s talking. He’s talking.” They couldn’t believe me until we went back to the room and they heard for themselves.
The next morning, when I walked down the hall, heads popped from rooms, telephone booths, and elevators. “How’s your son?” they asked.
“How did you know?”
“We prayed for him all day yesterday, you suffered so.”
In my grief and despair, I wasn’t aware of them, but they were aware of us.
That day the doctor told us he didn’t think it was malignant but we had to wait for the pathologist’s report. Sure enough, when the report came back, the tumor wasn’t malignant. However, Craig had to have radium treatments, as it was the type that might regrow.
Craig steadily improved and ate hotdogs the third day, took a bath the fourth, and went for a ride in a wheelchair on the fifth.
We took him home ten days after the operation and that was a day that didn’t let up. Our eldest son, while going shopping with his grandmother, got his finger caught in the local grocery market door, and broke the bone in his little finger. After that was taken care of, I called my sister and asked her to bring Sissy home, as I couldn’t wait to see her. They were both white as they drove in. Sis had been run over by a horse. She had been taken to another hospital where they x-rayed her, but was found only to have multiple bruises of the chest. Two days later taking Craig in for his radium treatment, I got caught in a radar trap and was arrested for speeding. I was in court two days getting it settled. Life was not dull.
After things settled down, Bill and I talked long into the nights. We found out you can never go back. You must do things with your children now. There’s never another chance to live a day or hour over. The only way we felt this could be accomplished was to buy a house way out in the country where’d there’d be only us, thus forcing us to do things together.
We looked a full year before we found a rather new house on a side hill with ninety acres of hills, valleys, and Christmas trees, planted by a previous owner.
We moved three days before Christmas on a snowy day. The next day, I watched out one of the back picture windows as Bill and the boys dragged a newly cut Christmas tree over the field covered with snow. I realized our daughter was awfully quiet. She had locked herself in the bathroom. When I finally got the door unlocked, I found she had devoured a whole bottle of baby aspirin that I thought I had safely hid. Back to the hospital, again we went to have her stomach pumped.
That spring we started taking long walks with the children. We slid down the sides of ravines in the leaves, followed streams and swung on grapevines, and sat and listened to the sounds of the woods. Each walk we seemed to end up laying in the pine needles under two pine trees that were so large, that if Bill and I clasped hands we could just reach around them. One day we were all stretched on a cushion of pine needles completely relaxed when we heard organ music drifting down through the valley. It was an unforgettable, unbelievable time, a moment of sacred closeness I would have hated to miss.
Later, we bought an old tractor and trailer, so on Saturdays and Sundays we loaded it up with a folding table and picnic lunch, and all in different parts of the woods and explored the area.
That winter we put an advertisement in the local paper that said, “Christmas trees, cut your own.” People came in droves with their families to revive that feeling of togetherness. The boys helped sell the trees or watched the small children who were too little to go to the woods. Our Christmas spirit lasted for weeks.
Since then, we’ve built a small barn and we’ve watched eggs hatch and kittens born. We’ve gotten up in the night to see a colt newly born and watched in trembling excitement as it took its first steps. The boys raised pigs to show at the fair and felt pride at the first blue ribbon. We’ve gathered wild berries and when we got home, I made a pie. We ate it while it was still warm. Each day there is a feeling of togetherness I’m sure the children won’t easily forget.
Of all the wonderful times, we’ve had together; I think there’s one that’s outstanding in my mind. One late November day, we were on the back hill cutting Christmas trees. We worked in pairs, one cutting and one dragging. Sissy picked out the ones she thought were special. We tired and lay in a mossy area on the side hill tickling each other’s faces with dried grass to see who could keep a straight face the longest without moving. A thought crossed my mind and tears streamed down my face. Silently I said, “Dear God, thank you. We’ve found our place in the sun.”
Six years later the tumor came back and again there was surgery and radiation. There were several nights spent in the hospital and one night Craig stopped talking to me.
“Tell me what you want and I’ll do it.”
“I want to go home and never come back.”
“Okay.” I called Bill told him to come get us.
Never again did we stay in the hospital. When things got bad, we hired private duty nurses and they were with him 24 hours a day with all of us there.
I didn’t think I had the strength to go through that, but I did. I know where the strength comes from – thank you God.
About the Author:
Shirley Palmerton writes from her heart and readers find themselves laughing or shedding a tear. As she approaches 90, she is finally sharing her stories with more than her friends and family. Her “My View” columns in the Buffalo News have reached people far away. After she read this story at her writer’s group she was encouraged to submit it to Adelaide. It was written decades ago and recently found.