(Excerpt from novel)
by Robin Skelhorn
We were finding one hundred things to put in a jar. This was Lula’s project for school and she was carefully counting out buttons, acorns, and beads before dropping them into a large pickle jar.
Suddenly she slid off her chair, walked out of the kitchen, and disappeared down the hall. I assumed she had gone to find more objects for her jar, but when she didn’t come back, I went to look for her. I found her lying on her bed, curled up on her side with her purple fairy wings sticking out behind her. Her eyes were open and appeared to be staring at the crayon drawings on the wall, but her focus was inward and far away. She was perfectly still.
In our four years together I had seen Lula blowing, blooming, squirming, and humming, and I had often said, “Be still, won’t you?” But she never would. She never could.
A moment later I heard myself saying, in a kind of sing song voice, “Whatcha doing, Lulabelle?”
“Just resting,” she answered, in a voice I had never heard before—quiet, alone, receding not reaching—old—not like a little girl who needed her mother.
Some realizations come on so quickly that your body can’t follow you into them. It cannot breathe, or move, or dial 911. But when you are a mother, you turn around and you grab your body and you drag it out the door and down the hall even if you are crying the whole time. Even if you are a walking ocean struggling for form.
By the time I reached the stairs that would take me up to my attic bedroom, there were no longer any edges in my world. Working against gravity I poured myself up the thirty-seven steps, washed into my bedroom, and blinked my way through the blur to find the numbers on the phone that would connect me to my friend Wendi. I sat down at my dressing table and waited for her to pick up.
“Wend? It’s me.”
“Well, she’s just…lying there, on her bed, and her eyes look so….oh my God…I can’t… what if…?”
“What if…what?” Wendi asked.
I tried to take a deep breath. “Well, you know how there have been a lot of little things going wrong with her lately and the doctor said it was all just normal kid stuff and I wanted to believe her, so I did, but that word kept coming to me….and now….Leo’s out on a long distance run and I’m really scared… Wendi she’s not moving… what if it’s the word?!
“Take her to Sick Kids Hospital,” Wendi said. “They’re really good; I used to take Nathan there all the time.”
“I can’t stop crying. I don’t want Lula to see me like this,” I told her.
Wendi went into the slow, firm, careful, soothing voice she used for hysterical friends and uncooperative bank tellers. “You’re an actress,” she said, “so…be somebody else. Who could handle this?”
“Uh…Susan Sarandon.” I said. “There was that movie—she was a mom, who knew she was dying, and she still made that magician cape for her son…I think, maybe, Susan Sarandon could probably get her kid to the hospital without bawling.”
“Yes, she probably could,” Wendi said in her slow, firm, careful, soothing voice. “So, be Susan Sarandon.”
Susan Sarandon began getting dressed. Then she began putting on makeup. Wait. Susan Sarandon would never sit there putting on makeup while her child lay curled up sick on her bed…“What is wrong with you? You have to get your child to the hospital NOW!” Susan shouted at me.
As my shaking hand flicked the mascara wand over my wet lashes, it occurred to me that Susan Sarandon was right—something was definitely wrong with me. Then mercifully Susan Sarandon took over completely.
Susan Sarandon picked up the phone and she called Finn to come and take her and Lula to The Hospital for Sick Children. Then she went downstairs and gathered Lula up in her arms and waited for the car.
In the Emergency screening room at the Hospital for Sick Children, Susan Sarandon told the nurse with the blunt cut blond hair all the things that she was concerned about: the yellowish tinge to Lula’s skin; the fatigue; the little bruises on her arms and legs; the scrape on her knee that had never healed properly; the urinary tract infection, the diarrhea accident at school; and finally the terrifying stillness. The nurse listened with a hyper-aware and quiet look on her face and Susan thought, “Oh my God she doesn’t think this is nothing, she thinks this is something.”
Then the nurse looked intently at Lula. “I see you have your fairy wings on today,” she said.
“I’m a earth fairy,” Lula said, “I just take care of all the animals and make paper.”
The nurse smiled. “Mom tells me you’re not feeling well?”
“Well, I can’t fly.” Lula told her.
The nurse nodded sympathetically. Then she led Lula and Finn and Susan Sarandon into a small green room with a hospital bed, a table, a sink, and one chair.
“The doctor will be along shortly,” she said, “and I’ll just see if I can find you another chair.”
While we were waiting for the doctor, a quick moving nurse with short red hair and an interested air came to take Lula’s temperature and vital signs. “I’m going to need a vial of her blood for testing,” she informed us.
“Who are you?” Lula asked.
“My name is Debbie,” the nurse answered.
When Nurse Debbie approached Lula with the needle, Lula screamed and scrambled into Susan’s arms, clinging to her, her limbs rigid with fear—like those monkeys you see on television where the little one clings to its mother in the cage while a human in a lab coat tries to pry the baby away to use for some “cruel but necessary” scientific experiment.
“Now, Lula,” Susan said, rocking her, “we have to let Nurse Debbie take some blood so we can find out what is making you sick.”
“You can stay on your mother’s lap if you want to, Lula,” Nurse Debbie offered.
“I will hold you,” Susan said, “and you just keep looking at me and it will all be over before you know it!”
Lula whimpered, her body limp against Susan’s chest. Susan gently pried one of Lula’s arms from around her neck and held it firmly. “It will be all right, Lula, I promise,” she said calmly and nodded at Nurse Debbie.
Nurse Debbie sprang into action. “Can you make a fist for me, Lula?”
Susan closed Lula’s fingers into a fist and held her arm still.
“There!” Nurse Debbie said, when it was over, “that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Lula opened one eye to glare at her.
Nurse Debbie applied a Sleeping Beauty band aid over the blood-letting site and brought Lula a box of stickers. This seemed to appease her for the time being.
Finn went out to get coffees (with a sticker of a fish on his forehead) and came back with a stuffed marmalade kitten for Lula.
Nurse Christa came in wheeling a portable entertainment unit. Nurse Christa had wisps of pale blonde hair and willowy limbs that moved gently, independently from her core—a stem of strength supporting a fragile bloom.
“Which movie would you like, Lula?” Nurse Christa asked. “We have Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Snow White, or A Bugs Life?”
“I would like Fantasia,” Lula told her.
“I’ll just go see if I can find that one,” Nurse Christa said.
“What is your cat’s name?” Nurse Debbie asked.
Lula was still mad about the blood Nurse Debbie had taken and didn’t answer her.
“He doesn’t have a name yet,” Susan Sarandon volunteered, “Lula’s uncle just got him for her.”
“Would you mind if I named him then?” Nurse Debbie asked. “I have a cat at home that looks just like your cat and his name is Riley. Riley likes to sit on my head and watch television.”
Lula raised her eyebrow but said nothing.
After a while Susan left to get some juice for Lula. When she returned, the cat was sitting on Lula’s head and they were watching Fantasia.
“Did you get Riley some juice, too?” Lula asked.
“I thought the two of you could share,” Susan Sarandon said, holding up two straws.
Lula turned back to her movie.
At three forty-five p.m. Finn went out for more coffee.
At three forty-seven p.m. the doctor came in. She moved into the room carefully, all rounded calves on comfortable footwear. Her eyes were looking down and to the side at something she was holding in her mind.
Susan watched the doctor’s mouth, waiting for her to speak. Her lipstick looked expensive, like it might be called Tea Rose. The doctor was thinking and nodding and searching—for the protocol she had been trained in, perhaps? For the exact words she would use? She was holding a clipboard in the crook of her elbow, and she was wearing the white lab coat and stethoscope combination that entitled her to say pretty much anything that needed saying, no matter how devastating it might be for people.
Her long brown hair had been curled with a curling iron and Susan wondered, admiringly, where she found the time? This doctor was sure of herself, and she was sure of her information, but she was unsure of Susan Sarandon. Finally she said, “Is your husband coming back?”
“He’s not my husband,” Susan replied, not taking her eyes off the doctor, “he’s my brother.” As she spoke, Susan realized that she was enabling this carefully treading doctor to tell her the one thing that she did not want to hear.
The doctor nodded and came further into the room and looked sideways and then she said, “The blood tests have come in.” Now she was looking at Susan carefully, firmly, and she was gathering. She gathered all the air in the room to her Tea Rose lips and then she breathed, “Your daughter has leukemia.”
Susan Sarandon nodded her head. Then she was gone. Leaving me alone with THE WORD.
The word blows through my fingers—an elusive wind. I close my hand too late and am left standing like a child who doesn’t understand the adult conversation around her.
My neck is stiff; the air is pressing down on my head. I am aware of a black hole that has opened up behind me on my left. I can see Lula’s curly head like a golden ball behind me on my right.
I am afraid to turn around in case I see in her eyes that she is leaving me, that we are losing each other forever. I sink into this feeling for a moment and the black hole moves in, greedy for my grief. Out of the corner of my eye I see Mickey Mouse in a wizard’s hat frantically trying to sweep away the water that threatens to drown us all.
Then some kind of ore from the ground beneath the dingy green tiles of the hospital floor climbs up into my body and I make a decision. NEVER. NEVER, LULA. I WILL NEVER ENTER A MORNING THAT DOES NOT HOLD YOUR FACE.
All the while my head is bobbing up and down on the stick where my neck used to be.
The doctor is watching me.
“So, what do we do now?” I ask her.
The doctor smiles and nods encouragingly. She is relieved there will not be a scene, for Lula’s sake as well as her own, I think. I imagine she comes from a large family and they all get together on holidays and eat a lot of lovingly prepared food, and talk in an effusive language like Greek or Portuguese or possibly Italian, and laugh loudly and avoid confrontation. I stare at her mouth as it forms geometrical shapes and I wonder what language she might be speaking?
“We will begin treatment immediately. We are going to get Lula a room on the Eighth Floor. She will be given a blood transfusion—you may have noticed the peticulae, the little red marks, on her face? They indicate that her platelets are low, so we’ll need to give her some of those. We will start her on chemotherapy tonight. More tests will be done to determine what kind of leukemia Lula has and then we’ll have a better idea of…” she hesitates… “the prognosis.”
A child has no defense against most adult barrages. A word storm might whip up suddenly and a child is at its mercy—always. There is an uncomfortable residue sticking to me from this doctor’s insinuations, and spelling of things, and mouthing them over my head while I wait for something good to happen. For someone to take me to the corner store for an orange popsicle.
Finn arrives with more coffees on a tray. His head and shoulders precede him as he enters the room. He walks like our father, unwilling to claim his true height. His forehead is high like our mother’s, and his hair is fair like mine, but his hands are his own—like a young boy’s, still finding their way in the world. He is so familiar. Nothing else is.
“It’s leukemia,” I tell Finn.
He turns white and nods his head. He does not want to look helpless standing there with his tray of coffees, so he moves past the doctor, his green eyes darting back and forth, searching for a suitable place to set down his tray.
I turn to Lula, who is lying on her side, with Riley on her head, looking at me with eyes that know something is broken, that our world is changed today, that there is a black nightmare howling behind us, waiting for us to give in and let it take us.
It is a terrible bond —soul to body, child to parent —at once clinging and repelling.
I do not pull away from her in fear. No, something has shifted and I move in closer, connecting with her, filling her with my life force. I retract the outstretched arm with the flat palm and the big dreams that once shouted “I’m more than just a mother, you know!” In my mind I hear Lula’s reply, for the first time, “What’s more than a mother?”
“I saw they had croissants when we comed in.” Lula says. “And I haven’t had my second brea’fast or even my lunch. Do they have macaroni and cheese here?” she asks sadly.
“It’s all right for her to eat now,” Nurse Christa says smiling.
“Oh!” I gather my parental wits and look around for my purse.
Finn offers to go, but I think I would like a break from the astringent, clinically lit room with the peeling wallpaper border of blissfully oblivious princesses.
I pick up the macaroni and cheese for Lula’s lunch in the cafeteria, and a croissant at the coffee shop, but when I arrive back in Lula’s room, she is lying on her side, listlessly staring at the television monitor. I set the white bag with her croissant next to her and she wraps her arm around it, but makes no move to eat it.
“Don’t you want to eat your second breakfast, Lula? I ask.
“I’m just saving my hunger for later, Mama,” she says.
I stroke Lula’s fat cheek. My fingers get caught in the matted halo around her head.
“My hair has a mind of it’s own,” she says, patting at it. Her eyes are searching mine. “I see me in your eyes, Mama.”
“Do you, Lula?” I smile at her as my heart moves down to my womb. “Everything is going to be all right,” I tell her. “You have been sick for a long time and we did not know what it was. But now we do! And Mama is so happy that we know because now we can start to make you better. I am here with you, and I will take care of you.”
Nurse Debbie tells me that they are going to have to put an I.V. in Lula’s hand to prepare her for her transfusion.
“How do you think she will be with that?” she asks me.
I shake my head-on-a-stick numbly.
Nurse Debbie nods. “I’ll get someone from Child Life to come in,” she says.
Ten minutes later, an impossibly cheerful young woman, wearing a bottle of bubbles around her neck, comes into the room. “My name is Darla,” she says, plunking herself down on the chair beside Lula. “What is your name?”
Lula looks at her suspiciously then holds up her wrist so Darla can read her hospital bracelet.
“Lula! What a pretty name,” Darla says. “Would you like to blow some bubbles with me Lula?” Lula takes the plastic yellow wand from Darla and blows, all the while watching Nurse Debbie as she gathers the things she’ll need to hook Lula up to the I.V.
When Nurse Debbie approaches with her pink kidney shaped tray full of gauze, tape, scissors, and butterfly needles, Lula tries to stand up on the bed. Her ruby shoes, with the lace ruffle straps and the silver heart buckles, scramble to find their balance as her fairy wings threaten to pull her backwards. She is so weak, yet she manages to lock her arms around my neck and hang there with surprising tenacity. “Oh Mama, oh Mama,” she cries, “I’m only four years old; I’m just a little girl,” she says, pressing her cheek against mine.
“It’s o.k. Lula,” I say, lying her gently back down on the bed and wrapping my arms around her. “This will be very quick, I promise. You just look at Mama and everything will be all right.” I manage to get her to stay lying down on her side, and I keep my one arm around her and stroke her forehead with the other.
As Nurse Debbie takes her hand, she tells me to hold her very still. Lula begins to scream and cry and struggle again. “Lula,” I say, “just lie very still and it will be over very quick.”
“You’ll feel just a little prick now, Lula…” Nurse Debbie tells her.
“A quick prick?” Lula says.
Nurse Debbie laughs, “That’s right, ‘a quick prick.’ Now you tell me when you’re ready, o.k.?”
Lula is looking at me with absolute terror in her eyes. She is repeating “quick prick” over and over again like a mantra. Bubbles float across the air as Darla waves her plastic wand over our heads.
“Can you count to three Lula?” Nurse Debbie asks.
“I can count to a hundred,” Lula tells her.
“Let’s all count to ten,” Nurse Christa suggests.
“Oh Mama,” Lula says to me with such pleading that I feel myself sink down into the floor, while bits of me escape into the room, in little wisps—like bats.
“1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9…” Every body in the room is counting, and then I begin singing, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.” I keep singing and stroking Lula’s head and holding her gaze, until it is all over and she is lying there crumpled and exhausted.
“What’s lu…keem…ya, Mama?” Lula asks.
I set down my most prized illusion, my child will outlive me, like a suitcase on the road. I look into my daughter’s eyes. Someone has betrayed her. Is it me? I will travel slowly now. Empty- handed and surprised.
“It is just a word, Lula….just a word,” I tell her.
I pick my head up off the floor, tuck it under my arm, and follow Nurse Debbie and Nurse Christa; Darla and her bubbles and Finn and his coffees as they wheel Lula, with Riley the marmalade cat on her head, out of Emergency and toward the Glass Elevators that will take us to the Eighth Floor.