Charlie

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We’re walking in the sunshine. It’s deceiving. I can’t believe what a beautiful day God made for this. I call that cruel. If you decorated my house with balloons and streamers today… So this morning we’ve got seventy degrees with sunshine, three puffball clouds, and the lightest breeze. What do you call that? 

Indifference, maybe.

Sheri parked the car. She told me to walk in with him. I get it. Nobody says it. Nobody has to.

“What time do the Yankees play tonight?”

I look at my son. Really look at him, as hard as I can. The sun is glowing through his brown, whispy hair. It still feels recent that he has hair again. We took him for a haircut two days ago. I tried not to think “last haircut.” You know what happens when you try not to think about something. Everything could be the last. And “could be” is optimistic.

“7:05, I think. Wanna go?”

He looks at me, all hope and faith. Shit. He gets sarcasm, he uses it too much, but oh, my God, I’m stupid sometimes. 

“Sorry, Buddy, I’m hoping we can watch some of it when you wake up. There should be a TV in the recovery room.”

“I didn’t mean tonight,” he says, ducking his head apologetically. “I just want to go sometime this year.”

There aren’t words for this, but I can’t be silent, either. I’m stuck. Unbelievably stupid. 

“I will get us tickets for any game you want to see, as soon as we get out of here. You kick this thing’s butt, and we are there. Front row, first base line.”

Empty promises. Those are useful. They’ll make me feel a lot better, later, when I remember all the things I didn’t do while I had time. It’s hard to choose, but pre-emptive guilt may be my favorite thing about parenting

Yes, that was sarcasm.

We’re through the door. Children’s Hospitals always smell antiseptic like hospitals, but a little better. I can’t say it smells cheerful, but close. They’re lighter than other hospitals. People care a little more, or maybe we just pay better attention to who’s around us, because there’s always a child right next to us who has it worse than we do.

Except maybe that’s not true today.

We check in at the reception desk and the woman looks at us with the hugest, most sympathetic smile.

“Hi, Guys! I think we can get you straight back. Just let me have one minute to make sure we’re ready for you.” I stand waiting for the buzzer thing that tells us it’s our turn. It always reminds me of the old Simon game. That’s when I know I’m old.

“I don’t think you’ll need one today,” the receptionist says, reading my mind. “Like I say, one minute. Or less.”

She reaches for her phone. We go to sit down.

“Charlie? We’re all ready for you now,” the woman calls. I had just turned my head to look at the magazine selection. Do people still read them, or do they just sit on their devices? I glance around the room to see three adults reading Good Housekeeping, Sports Illustrated, and Business Day. Answers that. 

“My wife will be here in a second,” I say as Charlie and I pass the desk to enter the catacombs. I always think that one way you can divide humanity is between the people who have walked into the oncology department of a Children’s Hospital and everyone else. Of course, you can take that two ways. The positive is the people who have the privilege of a Children’s Hospital oncology department when they need it and everyone else.

That wasn’t sarcasm.

Charlie perches up on the table without being asked. Routine. A nurse walks in right after us. This is the quickest we’ve ever gotten back here. That doesn’t reassure me.

“Hi, Charlie. My name is ‘Charlotte.’ I go by ‘Charlie,’ too! Isn’t that funny? Charlie and Charlie. But I think let’s call me ‘Charlotte’ today, just to avoid confusing each other. Unless you’d prefer to be ‘Charles’ today?”

“I’m not ‘Charles,’ I’m Charlie,” my son responds. I nod. Not really the time to start being Charles.

“Does anyone call you Charles?” she asks, reaching for his elbow. He doesn’t glance down. I look at his Calvin-thin arm, the four hundred marks where they’ve pushed needles in, then up to his eyes to see if he wants me to explain.

“My given name is ‘Charlie,’” he tells her. “’Charlie Chaplin McCarthy O’Brien.’”  

That stops her. She looks up from the blood pressure cuff she’d expertly secured around his tricep.

“Wow. Really?” she asks.

“No,” he grins. She laughs hard and real, not the required polite chuckle.

He loves doing that with nurses. They’re trained to be kind and gentle with the children who enter their care. Charlie looks like a cherub with a hint of bangs. We need to update his joke, as I’m sure there are some nurses too young to get it. But Charlie is ten and he gets it. He made it up. It’s become his standard greeting/test for his nurses. When he doesn’t feel well enough, he expects me to deliver it, though it comes across differently when I try. I started to explain that to him, but then changed my mind: who cares if a nurse thinks I’m strange, compared with cheering my son by pulling his favorite gag? When he feels that bad, everything else becomes a distant second. I mean “distant” as in beyond the horizon, out of sight.

“You had me,” she tells him, removing the blood pressure cuff and taking his temperature. I love how much easier taking temperatures is now. I wish they could make a comparable advance with blood samples.

“Okay, I know you know the right answers, but I have to ask: when was the last time you ate anything solid?”

“Eight PM,” Charlie responds automatically.

“Liquids?”

“Ten.”

“Clear liquids?”

“This morning at, I think, like…six?” He looks at me to verify. I nod.

“Good job! I knew you’d have that down. You’re a pro.”

He grins again, pleased at the affirmation. I’m glad he isn’t cynical yet. Yeah, he’s a pro…

Nurses save lives and we’ve had only good experiences with our nurses at Children’s. I’d say with one or two exceptions, I’d call them anomalies, we’ve had all good experiences with Charlies’ nurses. That’s pretty impressive. I’ve probably had my life saved by them once or twice. So if one’s cheeriness offends my cynicism, that’s my problem, not theirs. 

Not that I always remember this.

“Charlie, the anesthesiologist will be here in a few minutes. Do you need anything?”

Charlie shakes his head.

“Good. I’m going to need you to change into your gown now. You ready to do that?”

“Sure,” he tells her, grabbing it and hopping down in the same motion.

Would a sick kid do that? I learned to stop asking myself this about a million years ago, although obviously I haven’t really learned. I’ve stopped letting the answer carry any weight. 

“He’s feeling better lately?” Charlotte asks me as the bathroom door clicks, semi-reading my mind in her nursely way.

“I mean, he hasn’t done a treatment for five—almost six weeks now. He’s got his energy back. It’s normal, right?”

She nods and gives me the sad eyes.

“Of course.”

I consider it a kindness that she doesn’t explain. She’s read through his chart. We’re all pros here.

Charlie comes out again, blessedly too young to feel self-conscious in his hospital gown. I’m not a glass half full of silver linings guy, but I do think this would be tougher if he were two years older.

Then again, if he were we would for sure have had those two years.

“I’ll be back soon, Charlie, and then we’ll head in together. Do either of you have any questions right now?”

Ha.

“No, not really. Do you, Buddy?”

Charlie shakes his head, then asks an obvious one.

“Where’s Mom?”

“She was parking the car.”

“I’m sure she’ll be here in a minute,” Charlotte reassures him. “If you do think of a question, be sure to ask me when I return. Sometimes it can help to get any concerns out before we go in.” 

Charlie nods, but now he’s staring at me. He really wants an answer to the one he’s already asked.

I pull my phone out and call Sheri. Straight to voicemail. Her battery might be dead. I text, just in case it isn’t.

You close?

Charlotte finishes her preparations, then pats my shoulder once as she walks past me. I lift the sides of my mouth at her while clenching my teeth. The black hole is much closer to the surface than I realized.

“Daddy, where’s Mom? Why isn’t she back yet?”

“I don’t know, Son. You want me to go check?” I need to be here when the anesthesiologist comes in. Have to. Plus, I’m not losing any of these minutes. I could be very angry at her in two tenths of a second for costing me even one moment. But where is she? Did someone blindside her in the parking lot? There’s no reasonable explanation. There’s no way she’d be losing these minutes, either. 

Except she is.

The door opens. I whip my head around. 

“Sher–”

But it’s the anesthesiologist. Now I really can’t go. 

“Hi, Charlie. I’m Doctor Brennan. I’ll be administering your anesthesia today. Looks like you’ve gone through a few of these already, so I’m sure you remember. I need to tell you about it, anyway, because that’s my job, but don’t think that means I’m treating you like a little kid. You’re not. I’d have to explain it all to your dad, too.” Doctor Brennan winks at both of us.

“Dad?”

Charlie has one concern right now, and it isn’t what gas they’ll use to make him sleep.

“Hon, we need to hear this, because as Dr. Brennan said, it’s his job to make sure we understand. I’ll go as soon as we’re done.” My ten-year-old’s eyes relax exactly none.

Dr. Brennan looks from me to Charlie and back. Anesthesiologists are not nurses, in my experience. They don’t accommodate.

“We’re going into a longer surgery today. Dr. Kisack anticipates we’ll need about six hours to complete this one. That means we’ll need a lot of anesthesia to keep you comfortable. You haven’t had anything to eat or drink, right?”

Charlie shakes his head, once, hard.

“No,” he adds, to prevent being misunderstood.

“Good. Not even water for the last two hours, correct?”

“Correct,” I affirm. 

“Three,” Charlie says. He has put his hand on my wrist. He’s squeezing. We taught him this because he used to interrupt doctors all the time. Not your fault, I told him, sometimes they talk too much, but let’s just have you give one of us a squeeze, instead. If my boy were bigger, I’d have a broken wrist now. 

“Excellent. Then remember, when you get in there, I’ll be waiting, and when the other doctors are all ready, I’ll hold the mask and have you start counting back from one hundred. Do you know what flavor you want?”

“Root beer,” Charlie says, letting his eyes dart to the doctor’s face for a split-second before burning into mine again.

“Fine choice. I think that’s all. Do you have any questions for me, Mr….O’Brien?” Very brief pause. Hardly any points off at all, if I still kept score. I don’t. It doesn’t matter. None of it may matter after this. And where the hell is my wife? I text again.

SHERI? Trouble?!?

“No, thank you, I think we’re set. Set as we can be.” With fingernails digging into my wrist bone, that is.

“Good. We’re going to do our very best for you, Charlie. I’ll see you in there. I’ll have a mask on, but just look at my eyes. It’ll still be me.”

Charlie has yet to look at this man’s eyes, but he takes a full moment to glance at him. That’s a smart line, there. Charlie could tell me what color they are, now.

“Dad, where’s Mom?” he asks, before Dr. Brennan can get halfway to the door.

“I don’t know, Hon. You want me to—you okay to wait alone while I go look?”

I know the answer to the first—he couldn’t make that more obvious—but I hate asking him the second. I hate that I’m making him make that choice; I hate and I mean hate that I’m about to go sprinting out to the parking lot and leave him here by himself. Of all times to do this. What if they’ve taken him when I get back? 

And where is she? 

Charlie pulls me by the wrist he hasn’t let go of and gives me a big hug.  

“Yes, please,” he says. I lay my other hand on his shaved head and kiss him just just above his left ear.

“Okay. I’ll be back as fast as I can.”

I used to be an athlete, loosely speaking, before trips to the gym and running on courts were devoured by trips to the hospital and running to pharmacies. I always take the stairs when we’re in the hospital because it’s my only form of exercise other than clenching my stomach.

I’m running now. Hospital people stare. I guess if I had a lab coat I’d look normal, but we civilians aren’t supposed to run.

I slam through the door under the “exit” sign and hit the staircase without breaking stride. God, I hope no one is coming up. I grasp the railing to keep from falling, a controlled plunge more than a measured descent. I’m out the door and have to pull up hard to keep from plowing over two middle-aged women—okay, my age, but not looking like they’ve sprinted through a hospital in some time. I more imagine than see their expressions of affront, shading to pity. After all, why would a parent run through Children’s? Maybe to celebrate good news…but probably not.

I’m stutter-stepping to keep from hitting the automatic exit doors. They swing grudgingly, maddeningly. Open! Get out of my way!

I shove them the last bit to get through.

The parking lot is huge. This is Children’s Hospital. What was I thinking, that I could race out here and find our car in six seconds? Where the bloody hell is she? 

They have six levels for parking. They carved the hospital into a hill and cut and blacktopped all the way up. Like raised flowerbeds, my brain offers. I’m freaking out. 

Okay, think: either she’s already with Charlie right now or something went wrong. Really wrong. There aren’t any other options. Possibilities, I mean.

Are there?  

I’m still running but trying to calm down enough to focus. How long do I have? Normally, I’d say forty-five minutes from anesthesiologist to wheeling him back, but they got us in faster than I’ve ever seen before. Judging by that, I have ten. If that. And that’s just to get back to say—no, notto say “Goodbye,” to see him off, to say something before he goes, to lay my hand on his head and pray, pray something. As if I haven’t been begging God this whole time and here we are. But maybe for Charlie to hear the prayer. I don’t know. It’s a ludicrous question, an evil question: What are the last words you say to your child before…in case…you don’t get more?

Screw this.

My side aches like I’m a teenager back at basketball practice, sucking wind during sprints—“suicides,” we called them. My God. I’ve run a long way out here but I’m also in crappy shape and I have to get back. Now

Sheri? Sheri!” 

Then I stop. Because I know. I’ve never had a premonition in my life, or a word from God, or whatever this is. Until now.

She’s not in his room. She’s not in this parking structure. She didn’t get hit or have a crisis.

She’s gone.

I don’t waste a moment puzzling how I know, how she could do that, how anyone could do that. None of it matters. Less than the trash in the parking lot. It’s done. It is and it’s done. 

At least now I’m running a straight line, the shortest route back to pre-op.

Oh, Lord, don’t let him be gone yet. It can’t go that way. You can’t let it. 

Yeah, now you’re praying.

We’ve had sixty-one hospital trips and sixteen surgeries with Charlie. It’s stupid that I count, but I can’t help myself. Those numbers ricochet around my head as I pound back up the stairs. I’m in the surgery hall now, making wide eyes and pointing as I blow past the receptionist. She nods vigorously. Thanks

Oh, please…

Charlie jerks his head up. He’s been crying.

“I’m sorry, Buddy, I—”

“Aw, Dad, thanks for going. Is she coming?”

My son—our son—looks at me. I see a tiny patch I missed the last time I shaved his head for him, now longer than the rest. He likes it all or nothing. He doesn’t want his hair growing in a little bit. If it’s gone, he’s going to choose that it’s all gone. 

But I still lie to him.

“Oh, Hon, I don’t think she’s going to make it before you have to go in. Something really…really difficult came up, you know she’d be here otherwise, but she’ll be waiting when you come out.”

He nods. I put my arms around him. He looks tiny, swallowed up in his blue gown, his brown eyes so huge as he tries not to cry again. Ten is hard. At eight, he could just cry freely. At ten, I can see him telling himself not to.

“I’m sorry,” I repeat, and try to hold him tighter without hurting him. “Charlie, I love you so much, Buddy. You’re gonna roll in there, inhale some root beer, count down, and then you’ll wake up to my ugly mug again. Just like every other time. I couldn’t be more proud of you, Brave Boy. I love you.”

“Love you, Daddy.” He pushes his head into my jaw. “You’re not ugly.”

Charlotte comes back in.

“Okay, Fellas, it’s time for us to take Charlie back now.” She hands me the black disc that will buzz and vibrate and flash when they want me. I made it by about four minutes.

She can tell Charlie’s been crying, but that’s got to be normal and expected here.

I want to tell her that Charlie has never cried going into surgery before. He really is the bravest kid God ever made, not just because he’s mine. But I’m guessing this isn’t the time to explain to Charlotte what’s different about today. And I—we—tried to help Charlie understand this surgery without terrifying him. Try that balancing act sometime.

No, I take that back. I hope you don’t have to.

They’ve got Charlie’s bed ready to roll out. Another nurse guides his IV poll. I take his hand and walk alongside until we reach the surgery doors. Our seventeenth separation at doors like these. I lean over to kiss him.

“You can walk in with him. Here, just put a mask on.” Charlotte reaches out her hand. I grab the blue mask, attempt a smile but manage a grateful grimace, then pull the strap behind my ears. She just nods.

They’ve never let me do this before.

But Charlie smiles at me. He looks tiny, already lying on the operating table, surrounded by gowned, masked grown-ups and tables of silver devices I hope he can’t see. But his eyes are on me. Thank you, God, for this small mercy. 

Dr. Brennan steps in next to me and looks around at the doctors and nurses standing by. Dr. Kisack nods. They’re ready.

“Hi, Charlie. Remember what we talked about. I’m glad your dad can be here to help us get started.”

“You ready, Buddy?” I ask. My voice sounds weird through the mask.

Charlie grips my hand harder but turns his head to look up at Doctor Brennan.

“I’m ready.”

“That’s marvelous. You’re a very courageous young man. One hundred, remember?”  

“One hundred…”

Dr. Brennan places the gas mask over Charlie’s nose and mouth.

“Ninety-nine…” Charlie’s voice comes through, muffled but strong. He’s locked on my eyes again.

Charlie breathes in.

“Nine–”

Then Charlie’s eyes roll back in his head. He’s out. His hand goes limp in mine. I set it down softly by his side.

Charlotte appears at my elbow, gently removing me from the circle, one hand on my back, the other on my forearm. Almost as if she expects resistance. I wonder if some dad sometime got hit by too much clarity and lost it, right here. Thought maybe he could protect his child by staying close. Or didn’t think at all. Just reacted.

“I didn’t say ‘I love you’ one more time.” It hit me too fast to hold in. I didn’t mean to say it to her. We’re alone in the hall.

“You said it. I heard you say it when I walked in. And you let him know when you had his hand.”

“He’d never cried before a surgery,” I told her.

“This one is different,” she answered, barely loud enough for me to hear. “I need to get back now. I promise we’re going to–”

“Of course you will,” I cut her off. “Thank you, Charlotte. I’ll see you afterward. I’ll stay close.”

She smiles a little.

“You’re a pro,” she nods, then trots back toward Charlie.

Oh, Jesus. 

*

To be continued…

9 thoughts on “Charlie

  1. Sarah Ternes

    Gut punched. WTH friend. Excellent writing. But man, I did not have the bandwidth to start this today. Guess that’s a testament to how good the writing is…couldn’t stop reading.

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