What the Smoke Revealed

When my mother asked me why I was limping, of course I blamed my brothers. We had been practicing karate kicks after watching Bruce Lee movies at Grandma Campbell’s and I surely was on the receiving end of those inexpert but earnestly aimed whacks. But there was more to it than my limp – I had taken to falling back asleep on the couch after breakfast, my eyes were crusting up overnight and I didn’t really care about food – not even fresh gooey buns. After a week of watching me hitch along, Mom decided that any play fight injury that she hadn’t immediately heard about would have gone away and she took me to the doctor.

Doctor Moody sent me out to Squamish for X-Rays and the results came back quickly; I had Langheran’s Cell Histiocytosis which is a blood disease wherein one produces an excess of white blood cells that clump together and attack the organs, bones or central nervous system, or presumably all of these. The histiocytes attacked my left pelvic bone, causing me to limp – so much for my karate kid story.  We were referred to a specialist in Vancouver and probably made a few trips out to see him but my memory of those days has faded. I have no recollection of travelling to St. Paul’s hospital or of any conversations in waiting rooms or at home – perhaps the sleepiness was a good thing.

I do have several memories from my two month hospital stay, though: counting backwards from one hundred and thinking that was a lot to expect from an eight year old sticks in my mind as cloyingly as the smell of the anesthesia which kept me out of my uncle’s similar smelling laundromat ever after, even though he brought Alpha-Bits on visits and paid for me to have a television.

After my first surgery I was incredulous that Mom couldn’t figure out that my hands waving around like a conductor’s were obviously creating a giant cat’s cradle out of the red wool no one else but me could see. The moaning sounds that originated several doors down from my room came from a boy who had vomited while having surgery to alter the “cauliflower ears” that had made him a target for bullies. He suffered irreparable brain damage yet his body clearly felt the pain of the healing process as his hands were bandaged in giant boxer mitts to protect his ears from his attempts to scratch – sadly, I do not think he was imagining a cat’s cradle or any other kind of string game.

There was a second surgery because the growth on my pelvis was larger than they had realized. I cried a lot before that operation since I now knew it would hurt. I also did not want to wake up – or not wake up – like the boy with the bandaged hands. To say I understood my own mortality would be wrong but the kid who faced the second surgery was not the same as the one who floated out of consciousness proud of being able to count backwards for what seemed like a long time. This time I knew there would be pain after the foray into the cold blank world that clamped down on me as the anesthesia did its job. I also knew I would be prodded by many doctors and nurses and examined by strangers who were learning from my doctors about this rare disease and its treatment.

When I came home from hospital, my parents did not know what to expect for my future – apparently they asked about restricting my activities and were told that the hystiocytes could attack more bones and eventually cripple me so they should just let me be a kid for whatever time I might have. I went back to chasing calves and riding my horse and running about the farm oblivious to any future threats to my mobility. 

Mom and I travelled out to the city for x-rays and bone marrow biopsies every few months and apart from dreading the biopsies, which I equated with more painful operations although they didn’t really hurt that much, I loved those trips:  we stayed in the Devonshire hotel where they served boiled eggs in fancy silver egg cups; we shopped in Woodward’s; we watched television (a city luxury that had not reached Pemberton) and we generally just gawked at the many sights and sounds of Vancouver. After six x-rays of my pelvis, Mom said no to more over concerns about my future fertility. Besides, the scans showed no evidence of a return of the growth.   

For most of my (very healthy) adult life I haven’t reflected on my hospital stay or the disease which caused it, but recently I’ve heard several people speak of their encounters with cancer and the insights they developed during their treatments.  Profound and inspiring, yet oh so personal, their stories have prodded my memories, though many events remain hazy. These smoky summer days of ominous light paradoxically obscure and illuminate the landscape in a similar way.  There is beauty in the darkness but it is a haunting, hurting kind of beauty wrought by destruction; I think I would rather not remember it all.

One thought on “What the Smoke Revealed

  1. Michelle Beks says:

    I, alas, was old enough to remember my many stints in the hospital. A nurse once told me when I asked if it was going to hurt. “Honey, everything we do in the hospital is gonna hurt” Wise words…..

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