Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Nine Story

Nine is a number I am not fond of, to be honest. 

When I was earning my living as a bank teller, the only good thing about Nine was that if I did not balance at the end of the day, and the amount I was off was divisible by Nine, I could start looking for a transposition. Transposition errors are always divisible by nine. Try it; it works.

When I was Nine, I got really sick. After I didn't get any better, my parents took me to the emergency room where they eventually learned that my appendix was ready to rupture, possibly minutes away from spreading poison throughout my entire body. My father, a normally very swarthy Croatian man with a barrel chest and strong arms, turned white right in front of me as I watched the doctors explain to him and my mother in the busy hallway that I needed surgery immediately.

The surgeon told my parents that my appendix burst as soon as he touched it. Consequently, I have two scars: a long, ugly gash for the appendectomy, and then a small one directly below it for the drains that pulled out the ugly greenish-brown fluid that I watched fill up a receptacle on the side of my bed. I hated those tubes. They kept me in bed and they meant that for the first few days of my seemingly endless stay, I was NPO, or allowed nothing by mouth. I was constantly thirsty and constantly hungry.  To this day I cannot stand the smell of A & D Ointment because that's what they kept putting on my lips to keep them from cracking while I was NPO.

The year was 1969, and it was April. The children's ward was full of Hong Kong flu cases, and there was also a girl with a full-body cast from her neck to her knees. She had been a hit-and-run victim, and she was my first roommate. She went home two days after I got there. Then I got Rosemary Jake.

I really have no idea why Rosemary was in the hospital, and I don't remember anything being wrong with her. That is, I don't recall any IVs or a cast or anything. But Rosemary was my roommate--I think--for pretty much the rest of my stay, and I was in there for about two weeks.

Rosemary was about the same age as me, but she was teeny tiny with thin arms and legs and a head full of braids. Her skin was the color of coffee, and her face was all eyes. Those eyes were so wide and so dark and they looked as if they could not possibly wait to understand every single thing you were saying. She was very devout--a Catholic--and her mother listened to her prayers sometimes when she visited.

Mrs. Jake braided Rosemary's hair almost every day. My mother did the same to me, except that I had only two braids, one on each side. If my mother brought ribbon, she made sure to tie a few bows onto Rosemary's braids. As the days began to wear on, I began to get gifts from people, and I shared them with Rosemary. One gift was a set of rub-on tattoos called "Funny Freckles." She was charmed by the little pink flowers and red strawberries that appeared on her skin with just a few strokes of a tongue depressor over the transfer.

We watched the movie "King of Kings" together, and we hoped we would be home for Easter. Sometimes, late in the evening, she would get a visitor who made her so happy. I can't remember if it was her uncle or her brother, but he was definitely a character. Named Buster, he wore a long, sweeping duster-type coat and a fedora-style hat. He would walk in on pointed-toe shoes and call her "Rosie." She would smile brilliantly, sit up in bed, and talk and talk. She would promise to rest, but keep up with her schoolwork. It was clear to me that they loved each other.

Rosemary and I were still in our room at Easter, and it was a terrible day. We each got a little basket with a token toy, but we weren't home. Worse, I had spiked a fever; my incisions had not been attended to according to doctor's orders and I was again full of infection. My stay had just gotten longer.

I did finally go home, of course, and not too much longer after that it was my birthday. I was to have a party, and I asked if we could invite Rosemary. I have no idea how my parents contacted Mrs. Jake, but they did and if we could provide transportation, Rosemary was allowed to come.

There are only a couple of things I remember about her house. One was that she lived in a very different part of town than we did, and in a brick house that was big but old and tired-looking. The second one is that it had a sagging trellis on one side with a climbing rosebush on it. Much later, I went down that street again, and those roses were a deep, blood red.

I remember presenting Rosemary--who was dressed in a red plaid dress with red bows all over her braids--as if she were a celebrity to the rest of my friends at my party. Because, to me, she was. She had been my comrade-in-arms, my fellow in suffering, my hospital friend and now, here she was! Here! I have no idea--no recollection--how she was received at my party or if she had a good time. It was such a long time ago.

In the intervening years, life was a challenge for Rosemary, who not only had several of her own children to raise, but because of the sudden death of her sister, was raising several nieces and nephews as well. All this, plus working and trying to take college classes, stretched her resources. Our family often put together some boxes of clothes and things to help out.

That birthday party in 1969 was the last time I saw Rosemary until my father's funeral in the summer of 2000. My brother, who had been the liaison with Rosemary's burgeoning family through his job with the city, took me over to her. "Oh, Rosemary," I said as I hugged her once again, "how wonderful that you're here."

Rosemary didn't look teeny tiny and awestruck anymore. Mostly, she looked tired and...experienced. Like she had seen way too much of life and would like to close her eyes for a while. But she also looked compassionate and kind. I would have loved to have spent some time with Rosemary, but not that day. And she had other commitments as well. And again, our lives have diverged into the years ahead. I have not seen her since, and it's been fourteen years.

To be honest, I have not thought of Rosemary very often, and I'm sure she has not thought of me.  Our lives always were very different.  We lived on the other side of town, but it may as well have been the other side of the world.

Sometimes a person can cross the stage, play her scene, and exit again without changing significantly the course of the play, even if her performance is memorable.  In a life this can happen over and over again.  In the playbill of Memory, during a very difficult year, Rosemary's name is gilded.



  1. Such a beautiful telling of that time in your life. Even though it was so difficult. Now I'm wondering about Rosemary and wishing her well.

  2. Ruptured appendix here in '68, age 18. Other than getting molested by a male orderly in the hospital not much to tell.

  3. Such a lovely memory. We are the same age apparently and I hated the one time I was in the hospital, at age seven for tonsils.

  4. Rose--Some of it, perhaps. Memory is so unreliable, isn't it? I'm sure some of this is probably not entirely accurate, but it is the way I remember it.

    My stay in the hospital was memorable; let's say that. Rosemary was definitely a pleasant aspect, but like you, as a child away from home and in pain and feeling homesick and uncertain and afraid, it was largely terrible. It's funny how--even with adult perspective so many years later--our childlike emotions stay with us.

    Silliyak--I'm terribly sorry that such a thing happened to you. Very sorry.

    Lisa Johnson--Thank you. My brother has retired from his job, so my link to Rosemary is all but severed now. Like you, I fervently wish her nothing but the best in her life, forever.

  5. A wonderful piece of writing, Nance.

  6. I suffered a ruptured appendix six years ago. As you know, not any fun at all. I also have had a couple of Rosemarys in my life. My memories of them, indeed, are gilded.

  7. Nance--You always amaze me with your very precise memories. Whether they're completely "accurate" or not, sharing how you remember them is important and, of course, the only way you can share them. As parents, we hope that such memories are forgotten or are buried deep--well, at least the painful, dark parts--but as human beings with our own memories of painful childhood experiences, we know they are not when we allow ourselves to remember them. They say that smell is the most powerful sense and can take us back in an instant. Your memory of A&D ointment is a good example. There are peppermint candies that take me back to my grandmother's house when my great aunt, Aunt Virgie, visited. Those are very pleasant memories, thankfully.

    I'm glad that Rosemary was there for you in the hospital and how wonderful that she was there for you at your dad's service. Sometimes the connections made in "single" moments in time are more powerful than those we have with people we see on a daily basis, and we all need those gilded souls in our lives.


  8. This was indeed a lovely post, though bittersweet. Sad that you didn't keep in touch, though perhaps you didn't have enough in common to cement a lifelong friendship. But you both remember the other, and that time together, even though it was not pleasant. You made it less lonely for each other. That's a good thing.

    And boy, that appendix thing is scary. Can't believe how close you came to dying, or at least getting MUCH sicker than you already were. Ugh.

  9. J@jj--I did almost die, I was told much later. My parents were terrified, and the surgeon did not mince words in that hallway. The speed of that gurney in the corridors on the way to surgery...I still remember that ride.

    It's remarkable that my parents never thought of making a fuss about the obvious lack of diligence in my care that led to the second infection. My mother still says, almost chuckling, "I'll never forget the doctor's face when he saw your incisions on Easter and how he went out and hollered at those nurses!" Everyone in that hospital dodged a bullet, thanks to my mother's even temperament and the fact that, back then, society had not yet seized upon the idea that Average Joe could sue Big Businesses.

    Thank you for your kind words. As always, I am proud to accept compliments from my Discerning Readers here.

    Shirley--How nice to see you here again! And thank you for your generous compliments.

    It is amazing to me as well how much I can recall about some things when I take the time to do so. As a very visual person my entire life long, I am a great collector of details and an observer. Color, especially, makes a great impact on me. Much of my memories are associated with color.

    When I sit down to write, it is when I am alone and it is quiet. That makes it easy for things to flood back. Small details reappear; pictures flash before me; scenes replay in my head.

    Scent--even moreso than taste--is a powerful trigger, as you say. I did a post on this long ago. And while it may be peppermints for you, it is wintergreens or horehounds for me! Those oldfashioned candies are my grandparent triggers, and are counted among some of my most pleasant memories, too.

    Melissa--Why do we even have an appendix? Nothing but trouble!

    Gina--Thank you so much.

  10. A wonderful recollection that reminds me that all relationships, no matter how brief or unusual, define us in subtle ways. I wonder if I have a Rosemary in my life. Must think on that.

  11. Ally Bean--Thank you. I think that's true, that all relationships do have a way of informing our character in some way. Our experiences are instructive; it's our job to determine what their lessons may be.

    It's probably a good idea to remember that in the reverse perspective as well: when we are part of someone's life, we need to remember what impact we may be making.

  12. I love the story you've told here - you're such a fine writer. But what a horrible experience for you!

    I had my tonsils out about the same year (I was 5 or 6, so 1969/70). What I remember is that I got a Baby Chrissy doll (all the nurses asked if she was my baby, like I was in the maternity ward), I was allergic to the sedative they gave me before surgery, and my brother had the most fun teasing me afterward because I couldn't yell at him. And ice cream. My hospital stay was mercifully short.


Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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