When I was seven, I was healed by a miracle. That’s how my parents always told it.
The night before, we’d had company. It was a weeknight, which meant my sister and I had dinner with the grownups, and we were allowed dessert from the table of goodies – probably guava chiffon cake or cream puffs from Liliha Bakery which some auntie (in Hawaii, all adults are auntie and uncle) had picked up on the way over. Then, we were put to bed at eight o’clock o’clock, as usual. I remember lying there, listening to the comfortable noise of conversation, punctuated by bursts of laughter.
When my stomach started to hurt, I ignored it. I thought I’d eaten too much. I was determined to bear it; I felt virtuous. Good little Catholic girls offered up their suffering for the poor souls in purgatory, so I did, falling into fitful slumber. In the morning, when my mother came to wake me, she found me whimpering and holding my side.
By the time we got to the hospital, I was in such severe abdominal pain that I wasn’t able to eat or bend at the waist. They admitted me at once. The next day, the nurses prepped me for surgery. They started an IV drip and inserted a catheter, which was more horrible than the IV but less awful than the spinal tap the doctor had done on me the day before which caused my legs to stay locked in the crisscross applesauce position I’d been sitting in when they stuck the needle in and drew out spinal fluid for testing. No one could figure out the cause of my pain, but because of its location, it was decided that an appendectomy was the best course. I had to spend the night that way, my pretzeled legs pointing up at the ceiling as I lay sleepless. But in the morning when the nurses came to wheel me to the operating room, I felt a change. A softening. I straightened my knees and sat right up in the bed. “I’m feeling better now,” I told them. “I want to go home.”
My mother said the entire parish of St. Anne’s church had prayed for me, and this is what made the pain disappear. “Father mentioned you in the petitions,” she said. So many people, sending out good wishes and pleas on my behalf. I thought of it as a holy laser beam, burning away the bad thing in my stomach.
You can’t just waltz out of a hospital, though. I had to be examined once again, just to be sure, and I endured more pokes and tests. One nurse was so impressed by how quietly I sat when they drew blood that she told me I was a good little boy. “I’m good,” I replied, “but I’m a girl.” She blushed and apologized, having been fooled by my pixie cut and the genderless hospital gown.
She wasn’t the only one. I’d been in the joint a few days, and while the docs were trying to figure out my symptoms (before the spinal tap debacle), they let me hang out in the hospital playroom. There was one other kid there, a boy my age. We played together every day – blocks, board games, Hot Wheels cars. He had a big bandage around his head, and I remember my dad asking him about it. The boy explained that he’d had surgery for a brain tumor. “But I gotta get out of here,” he said, sounding confident and manly. “I gotta get home to my mom. My dad hits her, so I protect her.” I was awed at his bravery. When I looked at my dad, I saw that he had tears in his eyes. I stopped off in the playroom to say goodbye, and my buddy was in there. “Wait,” he said, startled. “You’re a girl?” I was wearing a dress. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m a girl.” He shrugged. “Okay then.”
I don’t know what triggered it, but the other day I found myself remembering that kid, the one whose name I never knew. I wonder if he made it okay. Being a kid myself, I didn’t think about it too much then, but over the years, whenever we talked about the miracle, my father always brought up the boy. “He was so strong, that kid. A tough little guy.” Now that I’m an adult and a parent, that fuzzy memory buckles my knees. I’ve been thinking a lot about a 7-year-old with a brain tumor whose biggest concern was taking care of his mom. And that sure has kicked the shit out of any petty nonsense I might be worried about. To this day, I don’t know what happened to me and why I suddenly got better, and I don’t know why little boys with abusive dads get brain tumors.
I think about hurts that cannot be named or identified or neatly categorized, no matter how you poke at them. I think about free-floating suffering that settles in sunlit playrooms like dust motes, and how remarkable it is that the sufferers can put their shoulders to it and set themselves against what seems an insurmountable adversary. I think about the mysterious softening that can come in the lonely darkness and the cool, sweet relief that follows.
Perspective, pain, grace, and unexpected, undeterred strength – those are my lessons, then and now. Also this: hope. Because you have to, right?