The Home for Emotional Orphans and Unappealing Children

The summer I turned thirteen, I felt tired all the time. My mom figured it was pre-puberty stuff. She sat on my bed and patted my leg beneath the pink floral blanket.

“Your body needs rest to grow into womanhood,” she whispered.

I was the first of four daughters, so Mom hadn’t yet perfected “the talk.” I just nodded and waited for the big reveal. But, instead of growing into womanhood that summer, I grew smaller, thinner, anyway, and by September, when I couldn’t rise with the alarm clock to tackle the first day of seventh grade, Mom and Dad finally realized my need for sleep might be more serious, so they took me to a doctor. They suspected mono.

The diagnosis was leukemia. Mom responded by leading a Rosary session in the living room that night with my three little sisters taking turns on the Hail Marys, kneeling in front of the old, green sofa where I, sanctioned by sickness, lay like a saint. I might have enjoyed all the attention if I hadn’t felt so crummy.

Dad, normally reserved about religious expression, prayed aloud with them because he had talked with the doctors and knew the odds. It was 1972, and the survival rate for this particular cancer, at this particular stage, was close to zero. No one told me that. They didn’t have to. I could see it in the eyes of my parents. I could tell from the way the young doctor, studying to be a psychiatrist, took special interest in the drawings I made during art therapy in the children’s ward. I sensed how some nurses were way too nice to me and others kept a cool distance as though afraid to become too attached.

The first year was the toughest. Mom still believed that I could get better instantly if everyone just prayed hard enough. On days I did well, she was triumphant. God had answered her prayers! When I got worse, Mom said “God was testing her.” I wished God could come up with a test that didn’t involve me puking my guts out, but His will be done and all that.

The doctors explained that treatment was a process that would take years. There would be ups and downs. Mom just nodded and started a prayer-chain letter. She brought stacks of response cards to the hospital that she read to me as I puked my guts out from the chemo. The sicker I got, the louder she read.

I spent days at a time in the oncology ward of Children’s Hospital hooked up to IVs, watching the leaves on the trees outside my window turn from green to gold. When I did get to go home, I was in no shape to attend school. My homeroom teacher gave my little sisters reading lists and math worksheets for me to do if I got bored but said my “assignment” was to get healthy. “We’re saving your place for you,” she wrote in a note. The truth was no kid dared sit at my desk for fear of cancer cooties.

Cancer was my excuse to ignore all schoolwork. Whenever I had the energy, I picked up one of my sketchbooks. At the hospital, therapists encouraged us to draw pictures of our diseases. Some kids drew monsters with sharp teeth and claws. Some drew detailed battles between bad-guy cancer cells and good-guy medicines, but I prefered to sketch the doctors, nurses, and patients. One kid, who’d lost his pitching arm to cancer, just scribbled black all over the paper.

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I moved back and forth between home and the hospital, a week here, two weeks there.  One afternoon, I fell asleep in the living room watching an old movie on TV and woke to the flickering blue screen and the clinking of metal spoons stirring coffee cups in the kitchen. Mom was crying. This wasn’t the soft whimpering I’d heard some days at the hospital when she thought I was asleep but deep, gasping, hysterical sobs. A neighbor comforted her.

“Men aren’t as strong as women in these situations,” she said.

That’s how I learned: Dad had left us.

I crept into my parents’ bedroom and took the pillow from Dad’s side of the bed, from the side he used to sleep on, and buried my face in the pillowcase and tried to breathe him in. All I smelled was Tide detergent.

My sisters seemed to take it in stride. They’d seen it coming. My parents sheltered me from their fights and financial troubles, so I missed all the clues. Maybe they figured I’d die before the divorce, so they’d never have to tell me.

Mom took a part-time job as a secretary in the school office. She went to work and came home with my sisters. I tried to go back to school several times, but my immune system was shot. I didn’t like being around all those kids anyway. They’d changed so much. And I suppose I had too. Children’s Hospital felt more like home than home.

One night, I woke to the green glow of electronic readouts and the whirling sounds of machines beside me and the chemical stench of the hospital and the stink that was cancer clawing at me to find both Mom and Dad at my bedside, and I felt good to see them together again until I realized why. The stranger at the foot of the bed, whom I at first mistook for yet another doctor, was actually a priest performing last rites. Grandma Jean was there, too, even though she’d been dead for years. She stood in one corner of the hospital room and smiled her perfectly white, false-teeth smile and waved for me to join her, her wrinkly arms flapping the way they did. Then came a bright light, almost like a skylight had suddenly poked through the hospital ceiling above me, and I looked up and saw a long, vertical tunnel opening directly overhead, stretching infinitely upward. I felt myself lifting out of my body, floating up, and spiraling toward the bright light. No angels with golden harps, which you might expect from a good Catholic girl, just an abstract, warm white light that didn’t only surround me but seemed to become me, or I became it, and I just knew that what I was feeling was death and God and good, and it was okay.

Then a weird thing happened. I didn’t die.

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Little by little, I got better. Mom’s visits to the hospital became sporadic. She was a single mom. She had a job and other daughters who needed her. The nurses at the hospital looked out for me. They made sure I had the paints and brushes I liked. When I had to have some bone marrow pulled from my hip and cried, it was Dr. Berger who held my hand and brushed the hair from my face.

They sent me home for what turned out to be the last time when I was seventeen years old. There was no big “welcome home” party. At the time, no one knew for certain if I’d been cured. And they’d been fooled before. I carried my suitcase in from the car and headed for my bedroom to unpack when Mom explained that my three sisters were tired of sharing a room, so one had moved into mine, but I could have the basement to myself.

“I bought a red rug at Sears, and we can get some curtains to hang from the rafters for privacy,” she said. “You won’t even see the washer and dryer.”

I nodded. Mom kept her eyes on me but seemed to be looking right through me as if I were a slightly smudged window with an uninteresting view. The woman who gave me life had nothing more to give. I didn’t blame her. I wished it weren’t so, but I never blamed her.

When it became too painful for me to stay with her, I moved in with my dad. But he had moved in with a woman who had kids of her own, and that didn’t work out either.

The first time I took the bus down to the hospital to visit the pediatric cancer ward, the doctors and nurses thought it was sweet that I’d come back to say hello. But on the third visit, when I asked if I could sleep in one of the empty beds, Dr. Berger took me aside to ask what was going on. I said nothing was going on, which seemed true, but all that nothing started to feel like something big and sad and lonely, and I knew that he knew that nobody wanted me.

It was decided the best thing was for me to be declared an emancipated minor. It just made the most sense. Dr. Berger knew of another girl, also seventeen, named Una Arnold, in a similar situation. We fumbled through an awkward phone conversation and agreed to meet at a pie shop near the hospital the following week.

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I missed the transfer bus and was twenty minutes late, so I ran the final three blocks, arriving at Best Pies sweaty and breathless. A girl about my age sat at the counter taking the final bites of a piece of cherry pie.

“You must be Una Arnold,” I blurted out.

She wasn’t. I saw a woman sitting alone in a booth. She looked too old, but I thought maybe I just felt too young, and I was debating whether to ask her if her name was Una when a man slid into the booth beside her. I considered other customers when a waitress in a dirty, mustard-colored polyester uniform and white apron approached carrying a Pyrex coffee pot.

“You can take any of the two-tops,” she said, “or sit at the counter.”

I figured I’d missed Una but took a table anyway, so I could catch my breath and figure out the next bus home. The waitress came over with a glass of ice water in one hand and a coffee pot in the other, posed to pour. I asked for a Coke.

“And pie?” she asked. It sounded more like a demand than a question.

“What kind of pie do you have?”

“What kind do you want?” She reached for a laminated menu tucked between the sugar jar and the napkin holder, slapped it down on the table, and pointed to the list of pies. I mentally calculated the change in my pocket.

“I’ll have a Coke,” I repeated.

She turned to go. I felt the heat of the coffee pot on my face. I was fishing the bus schedule from the bottom of my bag when a curvy girl in faded blue jeans and an old army jacket breezed in. The drab olive fabric flapped open. Beneath she wore a little girl’s white undershirt, two sizes too small, and no bra. An old guy sipping soup at the lunch counter paused to look. Her hair was a dark coppery color that fell into wild ringlets past her shoulders. Smaller curls framed a pale, round face with large dark-brown eyes. She glanced around the room. Her jaw worked a wad of gum and then came directly to me without hesitation.

“You’re Diane Edlen,” she said, sliding into the vinyl seat across from me. She flagged for the waitress with one hand, righted a ceramic coffee cup with the other, and drank down my entire glass of water all before I even had the chance to say yes.

The waitress came with a second glass of ice water and the hot pot. She poured and left without a word. Una kept her eyes on me the entire time as though looking for physical evidence that I would be a tolerable roommate.

She shook and tore open four pink packets of artificial sweetener and then dumped them all into her coffee. With dirty fingernails, she peeled back the foil tops on two plastic creamers, poured both into her coffee cup simultaneously, and stirred until it turned the color of caramel candy. She took the gum from her mouth, pinching it between her thumb and pointer finger, swallowed half the coffee in one gulp, and stuck her gum back in her mouth. Every move Una made looked tough and fearless.

“So, what were you in for?” she asked.

I just looked at her.

“The shrink?”

It took me a second to realize that because Dr. Berger introduced us, Una assumed I’d been in a psychiatric unit.

“Geez, I’m not crazy,” I said, trying to sound smart and snide like her. “I had cancer.”

“Good for you,” she said. “I’m batshit crazy.”

She slugged down a second glass of water and signaled for the waitress as if to go while I sputtered a panicky apology. The waitress came with more coffee and water for Una and, for me, a glass of Coke with a red-striped paper straw sticking out of the top. It looked like a candle on toddler’s birthday cake. I took it out but then wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I slipped it back into the icy drink. Una repeated the cream and sweetener ritual, stirred, and parked her gum in the back of her mouth before taking a sip.

“So, why don’t you want to live with your parents?” she asked. “Wait, don’t tell me: you got cancer, and you’re an orphan.”

“They’re alive,” I said. “I’m the one who’s kind of dead.”

She looked at me, waiting. I gave her the CliffsNotes version of my life story: the cancer; the treatment; the weeks at a time spent in the oncology ward; the divorce; my near death; and the gradual realization that I wasn’t comfortable at my dad’s new house or my mom’s home because they weren’t comfortable having me there.

“So, you are an emotional orphan,” said Una with a slight smile.

I hadn’t really thought about it that way before, but I supposed what she said had some truth to it. Una had obviously paid more attention in Dr. Berger’s sessions.

“Hey, I showed you mine,” I said. “Now you show me yours.”

Una laughed, which made me feel good. She had a deep laugh that made the curls on her head bounce like hundreds of tiny copper springs. A few stray hairs fell over one eye and stuck to her lashes, which were goopy black with mascara. I didn’t wear makeup. My face suddenly felt naked. I slurped the last of my Coke through the straw, both hands resting on my lap beneath the table as if I were a six year old invited to sit with the grownups. I waited.

“There was this accident,” Una said slowly.

Twice a week, Una was supposed to drive her little sister across town to ballet class. She was some kind of dance prodigy, only eleven years old and already on pointe shoes. Una earned gas money and an allowance for the chore. One Tuesday, she got busy with her boyfriend behind the stadium, lost track of time, and was late picking up her little sister from the dance studio. The kid was pissed. She was going to tell their mom. Una told her to “keep her tutu on.” The radio was blasting. Una made a careless left turn.

“I didn’t even see the other car,” she said.

It slammed into the passenger side. Paramedics took almost twenty minutes to pull her sister from the wreckage. By then, their parents had both arrived. Una’s mother sobbed hysterically. Her father sought to comfort his wife on the curb where she’d collapsed crying. Una was left standing alone on the side of the road. She said she still remembered the faces of the drivers who slowed down to get a better look at the crumpled cars. When the ambulance drove off without sounding the siren, Una knew: she’d killed her little sister.

“She was their favorite,” Una said without jealousy. “My parents couldn’t forgive me.”

But they weren’t half as hard on Una as she was on herself. She slit her wrists and lay down, fully clothed, in the empty tub in her parents’ master bathroom.

“I didn’t want to leave a mess for them to have to clean up,” she said.

The cuts weren’t deep. Una merely bled until she passed out. She woke up an hour later, cold and sticky. Her parents came home and found her cleaning out the bath with Ajax and knew something wasn’t right. That’s how Una ended up under the psychiatric care of Dr. Berger. She dropped out of school to “concentrate on getting balanced.” After almost a year of thrice-weekly therapy, she’d stopped cutting her arms and was even able to make dark jokes about the car accident.

“I was guilty of being young,” she said. “If I’m lucky, I’ll outgrow it.”

She earned her GED, no sweat, and got a full-time sales job at a department store because she liked their clothes. She said that she was “more than ready” to get out from under her parents’ roof but that they didn’t want to her go.

“You’re lucky,” Una said.

“Lucky?”

“At least no one found you so unappealing they used you as their emotional punching bag.”

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” I said.

“Then that’s where I’m going,” Una said, smacking her open palms on the table.

“I don’t think you understand what the saying means,” I said. “It means sheep think the grass on the other side of the fence is greener, but it’s really not. It means appreciate what you’ve got.”

“No,” said Una. “It means smart sheep are always on the lookout for something better. It means, even if the home turf is green and good and five-star cud-worthy gourmet grass, a sheep might jump the fence just to get a taste of something different. She might jump for the sake of jumping, just to have some fun before being trucked off to the slaughterhouse and turned into fucking chops.”

“God,” I groaned and laughed. “That’s a little morbid, isn’t it?”

“Morbid? Why? Death is a fact of life. You, of all people, should know that.”

“Believe me—I do know.”

“I know you know.”

We sat for a while in silence. I sipped my Coke. Una stirred her coffee even though the cup was half empty. After a while, she let the spoon drop with a clink.

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t know,” she said. “Sometimes I want to be one of those stupid sheep grazing in the meadow completely oblivious to the approaching apocalypse because knowing doesn’t really change the outcome. It’s not like you can break from the flock and escape the slaughterhouse. Everyone will die, Di.”

“But first let’s live live,” I said.

She looked at me, momentarily confused. Then she laughed.

“You know, Di, I think your name is working against you,” she said while making the sign of the cross in the air between us. “Under the powers vested in me, I hereby rechristen you Liv.”

“Liv?”

“Pleased to meet you, Liv,” she said, extending a hand. “I’m Una.”

I shook it. The moment our palms touched, we became best friends.

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