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Home  >  Family and Community  >  Family Collections  >  Clark
The Hospital Game
By Bob Clark
Genre: Fiction

This short story appeared in the Fall '97 Ontario Review.

I'm dumping Legos to the floor when Lacy comes out of the bathroom, naked and dripping wet, breaking into the sealed and sterile package of a syringe she found under the bathroom sink. We have a surplus, and she is right to feel all the medical supplies belong to her. I've stopped trying to keep her out of the stuff. I hate having it around, but we may find ourselves giving shots to bolster low blood counts again. We could. Lacy's doctors have made the odds of it very clear to me.

"Let me have it," I say to her, like any good parent. "Let me have the hypodermic needle honey." I remove the sterile syringe from the package and the needle from the syringe. I give her the harmless end and she takes it back to her bath. I follow her to the bathroom and watch her as she climbs back into the tub, swinging her skinny leg over the side.

Bob and Nora Clark

She has a long thin scar across her abdomen from the first surgery, a nephrectomy. A small round indention on her chest, the healed exit site of the central line catheter that had become like a part of her anatomy for nine months, an open, artificial vein that we had to flush every night while she watched Winnie the Pooh and Cat in the Hat videos.

And a more recent and pink scar across the side of her rib cage, under her arm, where her surgeons removed a small piece of lung for a biopsy. A surgery that was the result of a tiny spot her doctors kept viewing on CAT-scans and discussing and watching until finally they couldn't stand it anymore and they had to go in after it. A tiny spot that was nothing as it turned out, nothing but tremendous worry. After every surgery she was brought back to the room puffy and angelic, in a terrible deep sleep, unaware of me bringing my face right down to hers, or of what had been done to her, or why.

But this morning is good. This moment this morning. She's happy in her bath, discovering she can wash the hair that is finally growing back on her head. She's not afraid to dunk her face right down in the water. No bandages, no catheters, no restrictions. And I'm ready to build with Legos and blocks. I'm looking forward to it.

I've cleared the living room floor. No cajoling, no struggles, the morning is rolling along. And I've found good music for us to listen to, music my four-year-old daughter and I agree on. Because of the cartoon Beatles on the CD cover, and the title song, Lacy is convinced that The Yellow Submarine is one of her CDs. Woody's 20 Grow Big Songs ; Peter, Paul, and Mommy ; Winnie the Pooh ; and The Yellow Submarine. We even sing along in places. "One, two, three, four can I have a little more...." The music jumps and it feels like a good time. My parents loved this music. I grew up with it. "One two three, may I bring my friend to tea?"

I watch her use the syringe to produce a long arcing spray of water against the shower tile. She has the fine motor skills of an adult. She draws more water into the syringe and shoots the plastic animals floating around her, sinking them as quickly as they bob back to the surface.

The CD in the living room plays on without us, "Some kind of innocence is measured out in years...," but Lacy sings her own spontaneous lyric about being at home and in her bathtub, squirting at all the animals floating around her.

After her bath, as she so often does, Lacy turns our Legos and blocks into medical equipment. She transforms our entire living room into a fully operational children's hospital, and I have to tell her, once again, that I'm tired of the hospital game. But my daughter, she likes to pretend, and though I know this is on some level healthy and normal four-year-old behavior, I want to be through with hospital stays, chemotherapy and radiation. Real or imagined.

One of Lacy's stuffed animals, a Beagle named Dog-on-a-pole, is our baby and we have to sleep next to it in the hospital. Other mothers in this imagined ward room are snoring and Lacy calls the nurse with the call button. "We have to sleep," she says under her breath, imitating me, words she heard me utter under my breath countless times, perturbed, numb.

I am trying to forget. Since we've been home I've been trying to make our lives seem normal. For as long as possible I would like our lives to be normal. I would forget most of her third year if I could. Doctors gave me numbers, cure rates, but Lacy's survival is one hundred percent or zero. Those are the real and accurate numbers. CAT-scans during and after her treatment have revealed no new tumors developing, but her doctors like to get right in my face, close their office door and get somber and talk about our options if something develops. They cannot allow a moment's denial. "There are new protocols," they like to say. "There are other avenues."

While I try to forget details, Lacy is demanding authenticity as she builds ultra-sound imaging devices with the Legos and examines more than a dozen stuffed animals. They wait their turn, all in a row on the couch. CAT-scan machines are fashioned out of empty milk cartons, and we slide the same animals through repeatedly while making whirring noises and softly giving them our support: "Oh you're doing so well. You're such a big girl!"

Lacy ties knots and lovely bows with a length of yarn around her baby doll's plastic arms, thumping precisely where she believes she'll find a decent vein.

"The red button is for the nurse and the gray button is for the TV," she recalls for me.

"I'm tired of the hospital game," I tell her. "Let's play restaurant." I appear to have a pen and pad in my hand. "May I take your order?" I ask her. "Please."

She tells a nurse who has arrived that we need a private room, her puppy's blood counts are low, and we need to sleep.

"We don't want to pretend a nurse is here," I tell Lacy. "We don't want to play at that."

She ignores me. We will play the hospital game, and I will remember details. There was a baby we often shared a hospital room with when we were in for treatments, or recovering from treatments. Jesse, I think, less than a year old. She would quit breathing once or twice every night. The radiation she'd been receiving had caused her throat to swell; so she would stop breathing, and alarms would ring. There were monitors attached to her tiny fingers and toes. Her parents had stopped staying nights, because they couldn't sleep next to her, they couldn't deal with it. They were reasonable people. Jesse's mother was already pregnant again. They were already starting over. A sequence of buttons would clear her monitors and quiet the room. I could have stirred her myself, woke her and made her cry and breathe. But I would lay awake and wait for the nurses to rush into the room. I would leave it to the professionals.

Lacy could sleep through the persistent alarms. She could sleep through the snoring of one or two parents. She could sleep through adjustments to her own I-V lines, or to the changing of all the diapers she would wet during her thousand CCs of hydration each night. Lacy could sleep through anything but a subcutaneous injection.

I leave Lacy to her hospital game. As I move clothes from the washing machine to the dryer I try to imagine her on the floor in the middle of the living room like she is, but playing some normal four-year-old game. While she has time. A tea party. Any normal four-year-old game.

I do not want to play that anyone has low blood counts. I do not want to reenact that ritual of pleading for a private room, desperate for sleep by the third night in the hospital, fourth or fifth round of chemotherapy, my little girl patchy bald and confused, her new friends all bald too and alternately sick as hell. I don't even want to look at the pictures, even though there are, occasionally, smiling faces. Lacy talks to her friends, to all of her hospital friends, on her plastic telephone. She calls them up and talks. "How are you? When will you be going home?" Walks all over the house and talks to them. "Oh yes. Are you getting platelets?"

I do not talk, or even pretend to talk, to the parents I met, my hospital friends. I don't need bad news. Not from anyone. Three and four-year-olds with cancer. Parents with desperate strategies. Lacy's little friend Mellisa would tell her that the tea her father made her drink fed the good horses in her blood and that feeding them would make her well. He was always standing over her with a cup of cold tea, or a Chinese alternative medicine called Haelin 851, fermented soy that smelled like burned rubber. That man was always reading, taking notes, and had little Mellisa visualizing her recovery. I don't have the energy for that, and anyway, his Mellisa had leukemia. Lacy had a tumor, and surgery took care of that, it was removed, gone. Chemotherapy was to ensure she stay cured. Radiation too. Her hair fell out, she was vomiting regularly, she couldn't eat, but she was not sick.

"We have a room but we are waiting for a bed," Lacy informs me when I join her in the living room.

"Let's play picnic. Please, sugar, let's play picnic. Or get more of your animals and we'll have a tea party."

"Tea parties are for little kids. I'm a doctor." She is attending to Dog-on-a-pole's grave needs. She named the stuffed Beagle Dog-on-a-pole because she had to name the stuffed animals as fast as they rolled in from friends and family and people who, for their own reasons, send stuffed animals to children in hospitals. We unwrapped Dog-on-a-pole and he found himself riding on top her IV pole. Dog on a pole. It was his place for the entire five days of the sixth round of chemotherapy. Lacy would be attached to her IV pole for five straight days with each treatment. Carboplatinum pumped into her body. I.C.E. her oncologists called her protocol. Straight into her central line catheter, straight into her chest. One horror rather than a thousand bloody pokes. They could draw blood right from her beating heart, or give a transfusion when her counts were dangerously low, or platelets, or deliver chemotherapy. Itoposide, Ephosomide. Dexemethesone and Ondansidron. The nurses wore safety goggles when they hooked chemo drugs up to Lacy's I.V.

She's pulled a plastic stethoscope from her Jr. Doctor Medical Kit and, focused, she is listening for Dog-on-a-pole's bowel tones. "Sounds good," she tells me, over the top of his head. She pats him tenderly.

"Lacy, I do not want to play the hospital game. Do you understand?"

"We have to. You are the mommy and I am the daddy and we have to sleep with our baby." She's pulling equipment from her Jr. Dr. Medical Kit. "Dog-on-a-pole's going to get a shot now."

She draws air from a plastic container into her needle-less syringe. Holds it to the morning light pouring through our living room window and flips at the imagined air bubbles with her little fingers.

She is expert, precise, and I can't watch. I go to the kitchen and fill the sink of dirty dishes with hot, sudsy water. I glance at the clock hoping it's time for Sesame Street, or even Barney.

"Let's play the letter game," I call to her. She won't climb on the furniture or jump from the couch to the floor like a lot of four-year-olds, but she's beginning to spell. She's a smart girl.

"What does Lacy start with?" I call to her from the kitchen. I'm sinking my hands into very hot water and it feels good. I'm searching the bottom of the sink for a scrubber.

"L !" she yells back. "What does dog start with?"

She doesn't want me to answer, and she's already got it. "Du, du, du, Dee! What does shot start with?"

"That's a hard one Lacy, pick another one." I can hear her sounding out the word, "Shhh, shhh."

"Should we make cookies?"

"No."

"Come on Lacy. Let's make something in the kitchen. You want to help me make banana bread?"

"The doctors are on rounds."

"We're not playing the hospital game Lacy."

"We have to. Dog-on-a-pole needs his shot and you have to hold him down while he cries about it."

"Lacy."

"We have to do it."

"I have to wash dishes and make lunch. Do you want to help me?"

"No."

She is sitting on the floor in the living room with medical supplies all around her. Everything to give Dog-on-a-pole an injection. The syringe, alcohol pads, sterile gauze. She pretends to draw medicine into the syringe, wiping the vial with alcohol before inserting the needle.

"You have to help me," she says.

I step back into the living room and stand over her. "And after this we're done?"

"Okay."

"I mean it."

"You hold Dog-on-a-pole down while I give him his poke."

"This is the last time."

I used to think this was healthy, but I'm not sure anymore. I sit with her and lay my weight on poor Dog-on-a-pole. I hold his leg out and start making him kick, and I have to supply whimpering dog noises. I cry "No no!" for him. Lacy loves this part. She laughs so hard she has trouble swabbing a spot on his leg with the alcohol pad. I make his entire body bounce and struggle against Lacy and she giggles. Pure joy. I thrash Dog-on-a-pole enough to make it a challenge for her. We twist him in ways he is not meant to twist and both tell him it is for his own good.

He is very still while Lacy uses a sterile gauze to wipe away the alcohol on his leg. The injection stings less when you wipe the alcohol away first. When she sinks the supposed needle into his leg I start him kicking and thrashing again. Lacy is laughing.

"Owwwww," we howl for Dog-on-a-pole.

"All done," Lacy tells Dog-on-a-pole. "Oh you did good!" She pats his head and gives him a hug.

I turn on the television and sit on the couch to wait for Sesame Street. Lacy and Dog-on-a-pole join me. She continues to console him.

"Dog-on-a-pole is three," she tells me.

"Uh huh."

"I was one and then two and then three and now I'm four," she says.

"Yes."

"And on my next birthday I will be five and then six and seven, eight, nine, ten."

"Will you be?"

"Yes, and then eleven, twelve, fifteen, eighteen."

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