By Chuck Strouse
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The afternoon before the surgery, Joe's friend Daniel from school came over. They were outside messing around, and I stepped out on the porch and overheard Daniel tell Joe, who had been absent, undergoing the pre-op tests, that the kids were talking about him on the playground, about his imminent surgery, and how Zoe was sad, and that some of the kids were saying they would not have to cut Joe at all.
"Oh, no," said Joe, matter-of-factly. "They cut me. With a knife. Right here," and he made a vertical line down his chest.
He went to bed as always that night. Unafraid. Not even anxious. Instead of pajamas, I put on his comfortable long-sleeved T-shirt and some shorts, because we were going to be getting him up early, around 6:00, and I figured I'd just carry him out to the car and lay him down in the back seat and he'd wake up on the way to the hospital, which is ten minutes from our house. He slept great.
Nicoletta and I didn't. It took us a long time to fall asleep, and our rest was fitful.
The clock went off at 5:15 and I jumped up like it was a fire alarm. Nico and I had coffee and showered. She had prepared a bag with stuff for us, some food and extra clothing, because we didn't plan on coming home until sometime the next day. My mother had come down from Tampa, and she would stay with the other two kids.
At about 6:15 I picked Joe up and carried him to the car.
He was still drowsy when we reached the hospital, so I carried him from the parking lot. But he pretty much woke up by the time we reached the door, and he walked in. We went up to the second floor, to the surgery registration office. The paperwork had been done, so it was just a matter of giving our names to the secretary, and passing into the waiting room.
I was surprised to find it crowded. There were about fifteen people in there, mostly mothers with their kids. This waiting room was for all kinds off surgery, not just cardiac. Three little girls were there for facial surgery, or followups. Two of them were about three years old, and the other was only about one. They had varying degrees of disfigurement; the baby and one of the toddlers had already had work done, showing quite a bit of reddish, healing tissue. One of the girls was black, one was Latin, and one was redheaded, like her mother. The African-American girl had not had any surgery yet. About a third of her face was taken over by growths like bulbs, from one side of her nose across her cheek to her chin and up around one eye. From the scars or healing tissue on the other girls, I imagined that they had probably had something like that removed.
Even though you're dealing with your own fears about your own child, when you see a pretty little girl who wants to smile but is judicious about it, with much of her face made ugly by gone-crazy tissue, it makes you sorry for her, and it makes you feel a great deal of admiration for her mother, who so obviously loves her. The other mothers knew the unoperated-on girl too, and there was easy exchange among them, and between the two little girls who'd gotten out of their strollers.
Joe was playing in a toy car. So Nico and I were free to observe these other families who were dealing with their dramas. The black mother and the Hispanic mother and the redheaded mother were very friendly, had obviously spent time in waiting rooms, maybe this same one, together. And I thought, Now there's a bond, a kinship among these women. Nobody knows how they feel except each other. It was a true sisterhood.
Because heart surgeons work early and are kind of at the top of the ladder, I guess, the first name to be called was Joseph Mine.
For most of the several weeks leading up to this moment Nicki and I had believed -- without being able to say why -- that we would be with Joe, holding his hand, right up until the time he was put completely under the anesthesia. The idea had comforted us.
It wasn't the case. We'd found out a few days before. He'd be conscious when taken away. But it was a particular kind of consciousness. I sat him on the bed, took off his clothes, and put a small lime green hospital gown on him. A nurse took his blood pressure and temperature and chatted. The anesthesiologist escorted me aside.
It was getting to be time to go. We were standing around the bed, and the nurse gave Joe a little clear plastic shot-cup of groovy juice. She told him he had to toss it back, gulp it in one swallow, and he did just that. She also told him it was going to make him feel "silly."