Wednesday, August 27, 2014
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.