It’s an hour after the Late Late Toy Show. A highlight in our calendar. I’m in bed, conked. There’s a knock on my door.
‘Mum, can I come in to talk to you?’
Since he’s been gone, nine weeks but who’s counting, there have been many changes. One is the embracing of the talks. The bedroom door is unlocked. There’s no real need for privacy any more, now is there? In they come one after the other to chat and see the dog who’s stuck to me. But they don’t wake me for a talk. They’re taking care of me. Not pushing beyond the reasonable.
‘Yeah so Mum, I have this stabbing pain, down here on the right’, marque 3 announces.
He’s accompanied by his older brothers. They have him diagnosed and on the way to a solution.
‘Right where the appendix is Mum’, marque 2 adds.
‘Will I call an ambulance?’ Marque 1 asks. The room begins to come into focus. I squint at marque 1.
‘A what now?’
‘An ambulance mum, it can be serious, you know, if it ruptures’.
They’re all staring down at me, trying to elicit a response. I cast my mind back to the evening. To the pizza, the Prosecco, the hot chocolate, the mince pies. To how they said they missed their father watching the show. Missed how they could have a great laugh with him when the kids are super precocious or too sad to handle. Missed how they could have jokes that would be otherwise frowned upon. How they hadn’t necessarily enjoyed being told to be quiet as they tried to get the jokes rolling, looking across at their mother with tears spilling into her Prosecco as she melted watching the gorgeous little boy with the brittle bones, the beautiful girl with her lost leg, the family of great readers who whooped for joy at the idea of a gift of endless books for a year.
How did we go from that to this? A little dramatic, don’t you think, I say to myself as the pillow lays bare beside me.
‘Take some painkillers and we’ll see how you get on’, is all I can come up with.
‘Wake me in the night if you need me’, I hear someone else say. Thank god for someone else. Marque 1.
The guilt kicks in a little. I’m up checking on him every so often. The pain which was at 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, reduces to a reassuring 6. Roll on the weekend.
But there’s no appetite. There’s a hell of a lot of dozing off. There are unsubtle hints from marque 2. He selects song mode for his voice to temper me.
‘You really need to do this, get him seen, something has to come out’.
A phone call to a nurse. A trip to nearest A&E. He’s quizzed and prodded. Bloods are drawn. Conclusions are thin on the ground. It might be the appendix. But then again, it might not. Hang on a second, is this a hospital we’re in? That’s like listening to myself in an echo chamber. I stare at him, this young doctor who smiles broadly – like one of those men on a bottle of hair dye, dazzling white teeth and twinkling eyes – and I don’t probe. What the hell do you mean it might be I want to say, but do not.
‘I’m not convinced’, he says.
You’re not what now? I look at my pale boy clutching his side, clearly in pain. Is it his job to convince you?
‘If it’s the appendix it will announce itself. If it does, you know if the symptoms get worse, go to the children’s hospital. They can give you an ultrasound to determine’.
Wait, what? Aren’t we in a hospital? Can’t you do that?
‘We don’t have an ultrasound scanner here – and he’s younger than what I usually deal with. So, yeah, the children’s hospital if it gets worse’.
I try not to think of the €100 I paid to get this excellent advice. Still, I tell myself, he’s a doctor. We’ve been thoroughly checked. Home. Saturday night. An episode of The Queen’s Gambit. Diet Coke. Yay.
Sunday evening. It’s getting worse. My sister, also a doctor – and in our social bubble – calls by to check him. I’m upstairs in the bedroom chatting to someone an eight hour plane ride away. The door is locked. We’re planning his great return. There’s knocking. The knocking doesn’t stop. Three of them come in and lay it bare for me. We juggle with the logistics. If we go in tonight, who will get marque 5 to school and to to his dental appointment in the morning? Still, if we go in tonight we could be home in a few hours with the appendix ruled out by ultrasound. Let’s do it.
We catapult ourselves back ten, twelve years. Sitting in the familiar waiting room from when they were smallies. It hasn’t changed. What has changed is that he’s six feet tall and looks somewhat out of place amongst the crying babies and toddlers. The cold night air whips in the open windows. A Covid ventilation system.
People stare at us, blank bored stares. I’m reading. He’s dozing. In between we chat. We are not a good fit for this place the stares seem to say. Oh well.
A surgical doctor assesses at eight o’clock the next morning. She is a no-nonsense shoot from the hip type with a northern accent and marque 3 is enamoured. She makes a clinical diagnosis. She tells us that an ultrasound or even CT scan are not helpful in diagnosing this.
‘It’s very unlikely to be anything else, where the pain is, especially in a boy, and how he’s presenting. The surgical Professor will examine and will, most likely, operate today. Any questions?’
‘No’, marque 3 says. ‘That’s very concise. Thank you’.
‘Is that a general anaesthetic?’
The surgical Professor whips in with a team of students. He presses. Prods. Palpates.
‘We’ll operate today in a couple of hours. 90 percent of the time in a case like this it’s the appendix.’ Wow. Just like that.
Maybe a hundred but I’m stunned and don’t ask. Another surgical doctor comes in afterwards and explains the entire thing to us. Then I’m asked to sign my name. To consent. I feel a little nauseous with a stabbing pain myself now. Consenting with the other person so far away. Marque 3 has to sign it too. Another little stab seeing him do that.
Marque 3 maintains his sunny optimism and I do my best to mimic him.
‘I’m not worried at all. They’re excellent. I’m in safe hands’. Yes, darling.
Before we have a chance to get out of the emergency department and on to a ward he’s gowned up and taken off. Wheeled to theatre with me beside him. Out of somewhere I conjure up a lovely calm reassuring self. Especially when I see it. That little bit of fear dancing in his eyes as we wait at the theatre check in spot and it becomes very real.
‘I’m feeling a little nervous now actually’, he says.
I think it must be him from thousands of miles away, here with me now, keeping that smile going, the tears at bay, whispering reassurances. Because I’m not one for this. He is. When marque 3 needed an op at 18 months, he was selected as the person to carry him to theatre. To watch him go under. Long blond curls bounced and his little face beamed as he waved a yellow gowned blue elephant arm at me on his way. I dove onto his bed and bawled. Now, I kiss the top of his lovely head through my Covid mask and tell him it will all be fine. That’s it’s a standard procedure, that they do this all the time, that I’ll see him in an hour. I watch him go. Then I turn my back on him and wait for the real me to return.
Back in the trenches marque 1 has taken over as parent. He gets marque 5 to his dental appointment and treats him to his first ever real coffee. He organises the food for all. I’ve nothing to worry about except the real thing. Which is out of my hands now. I do the only thing I can. I send a message to the most significant others. The message says ‘Now’. Now get those prayers or thoughts or lights or whatever works going. He’s gone in.
I’m shown to his room on the ward to wait. I’m close to passing out. The adrenaline has been pumping away good-o but but it seems to hit me now all at once. No sleep. No food. Worry. Exhaustion. But then a mirage of a ward nurse manager hovers in the doorway, shimmering at me, saying she’ll see if there’s any lunch left. Would I like a little lunch if there is any? There might be a bit of chicken pie. And a cup of tea. These two quite ordinary things sound and seem utterly exquisite. Within seconds steaming creamy chicken and mushroom pie, flecked with black pepper in a golden puff pastry is delivered before me. An oasis. It is the most delicious thing I’ve ever had. As I hoover away and marvel at how taste buds are surprising things I wonder. How can I eat when my baby is upstairs, under, being cut and cauterised, poked and singed. What have I turned into? Nope. Not a morsel of guilt. The phone calls begin. I natter. Ninety to the dozen. I try not to read the faces of serious doctors walking past. If they’re looking for me, they’ll have to try harder. I’m no longer present.
A ghost child is wheeled back. Paler than pale. Lips the colour of his face. It went well, I’m told. A congested appendix. Histology will tell how infected it was. A good call. Still. Just look at him. What have you done to him?
He dozes. He cannot speak. They ask if I’d like some dinner. Plonk a plate of carbonara pasta with chips. I laugh to myself. The idea of eating pasta and chips together. And me on that low carb health kick these last few months. It’s hilarious. I’m full on rocking with laughter, stuffed with chicken pie, as I tell myself that I’ll just taste a piece of pasta and push it away. As the saltiness and the msg kick in they sing to me to try some more. To go on ahead and dip the deep fried chips right on into the carbonara sauce as it begins to compete with the chicken pie and I think that’s it. I stare at my sleeping post op baby and hoover away until every last trace is gone. I could almost lick the plate. That’s it. I must’ve gone completely off my rocker. Finally.
He begins to come around. The full blast of what he’s been through evident in every little movement. In his soft voice and bloodshot eyes. He starts to vomit. This is not going to be straight forward. He’s checked every 15 minutes. His blood pressure and heart rates are worryingly low. He’s in a lot of pain. I consented to this. The guilt begins to creep back in. Good. I’m coming back. I’ll kip here beside him. Keep a good watchful eye. Attend to his every need. They hand me a pillow and some blankets. I pull out the chair. Make it into a bed. Check in with them all at home. Talk about them making their school lunches. Organising their uniform bits. Setting alarms. I’m not coming home. Marque 5 texts.
‘I’m enjoying fending for myself. It feels really nice’. A silver lining moment.
My head hits the pillow and I remember little else. Vague moments of sporadically asking him if he’s okay but otherwise I’m comatose. I must be drugged. I can’t wake up properly. If he says he’s not okay, then what do I do? I can’t move a muscle. He was given morphine which he says had no effect whatsoever on the pain so now I wonder if I was drugged by osmosis. Did the morphine go into me instead? Or have I ingested some of his general anaesthetic?
I wake to the sound of a young child screaming next door. He doesn’t want a cannula put in. He’s very sure about it. It’s five o’clock in the morning. Marque 3 is smiling.
‘Oh, you’re awake now. You were really deeply asleep Mum. Nurses coming in all night giving me stuff, and you were there sleeping right through it. Snoring’.
‘Jesus, snoring? I wasn’t was I?’
‘Yep. All night and I was really surprised because you never snore’.
That’s what chicken pie, creamy pasta and chips can do to a person. Throw them into a coma. Strip them of all their worldly concerns. Take note. It’s better than morphine.
‘God, I wasn’t much use to you so’.
‘No. You kept me awake actually’.
Brilliant. Well done you. We laugh about it.
He rings. He of the thousands of miles. Tentatively. He’s been imagining me propped on the corner of our child’s hospital bed, bolt upright, fighting sleep with hyper vigilance as he fans off the heat of a foreign land. An image I’d quite like him to keep until marque 3 spills the beans and he breathes easily and they joke and they laugh and the relief fills the room.
The end is in sight after all.