Rebekah Palmer “Junior High Can Be Rough” 2/7/13
The year I started seventh grade could be described in the word “hopeful”. That summer, my mother had just given me the gift of life for the second time. My kidneys had stopped functioning so I received a healthy working kidney from my mom. The surgery had its ups and downs and the healing process was fairly rough, but I was beginning the school year on time and in good health.
The homework somehow seemed more difficult that year but looking back, I think I just had more outside work assigned than classroom time to complete problems, readings, and essays. Other than more challenging concepts, many aspects of school stayed the same. I continued on with the same classmates and minus last year’s seniors and one or two new faces, I was surrounded by familiar people. I truly enjoyed my time at Immanuel Baptist Church School.
Towards the end of semester one, I began to get that annoying scratch in my throat; the kind that only goes away when you drink hot tea and breathe in the steam from the fragrant liquid. I had a cough, but I was really hurting from a raw pain down my esophagus and a pressure in my left ear. Ginger and menthol were the two new scents of 1999 for me. I had never experienced an ear infection before, so if this was it, no wonder three year olds wailed so loudly!
Nothing short of contemplating ear tubes were the doctor’s suggestions for pain relief. Doctors made comments like:
“It’s not strep but I will order some antibiotics since you recently had a kidney transplant.”
“There’s really nothing there except for a little fluid. I can drain the ear.”
“Mrs. Palmer, perhaps you should try a behavior specialist since there is no medical reason for this level of pain.”
Quite offended by the last comment made by an ear, nose and throat doctor, my mother contacted the transplant coordinator who arranged my care and treatment during my transplant surgery.
“It’s not typical to be in so much pain months after surgery without any explanation. Send her back up to the hospital and we will get to the bottom of this, behavior problem or not.”
The word describing my seventh grade year had gone from “hopeful” to “miserable” and one semester was barely finished! At the hospital, another ear, nose and throat specialist looked down my mouth.
“Oh my God. The whole left side of her throat is caved in. Mrs. Palmer, do we have your permission to take her into biopsy?”
I barely heard my mother say yes. I think my brain had shut off in the three days between offending specialist one and specialist two.
I remember waking up that night in a dark room. It was dark because I could see the sharp flashes of green and red lights on my I.V. pole next to my bed. There was a dull yellow light from a hallway making shadows with the door to my room. I turned my head and could just make out the form of my mother sleeping on the recliner chair across from the door. Suddenly, two masked figures entered my room.
“Mom?” I asked in whispered fear, as one of the masked figures rolled up its white sleeves and placed its gloved fingers on my hospital wristband.
“Momma!” I said more loudly as a blood pressure cuff squeezed my arm, compelling me to ask for mercy.
“What’s going on? Why are you in masks?” My mom questioned the figures at my bedside.
“Sorry for scaring her. The doctors aren’t sure yet what she has. It could be infectious and the other children on this floor are receiving chemotherapy. We can’t spread anything dangerous because of their suppressed immunity.”
As my mom rubbed my arm, the nurses, as they now were identified, released me from the blood pressure cuff and left my room. “Mom. I’m scared.”
“It’s okay…I don’t think you have anything that serious. They’re just trying to be safe around you and the other kids. Go back to sleep.”
When I awoke the next day, it was much later. I could hear the rumblings of a crowd and my mother silently chanting ‘Make a touchdown Chris Carter! Make it for Rebekah!’” I opened my eyes and saw the purple and gold colors of my favorite team blurring the screen. I gazed over at my mother and saw her focus was directed straight at the T.V. Her eyes were unusually bright, like she had been crying. Her curly hair was bunched up in a ponytail with strands trailing down her neck. Her form was alive as if the electricity from the screen had rubbed onto her clothing.
“Hi mom,” I greeted her.
“Oh I hope the Vikings win the super bowl this year just for you,” she said in a high pitched voice.
“You have to stay here a little longer…you have cancer.” Her eyes sought mine with a frantic hope that I would fight the word that had just come off her tongue. I lay back down and went to sleep. After so many missed days of class due to sleepless nights and days of crying in pain, the verdict was in and the culprit was a bully: cancer. I was twelve years old with an elderly diagnosis of B-Cell Lymphoma, three months to three years survival rate. I had heard Junior High was going to be tough, but not life and death survival tough.
A few days after that evening, I was sitting up in my hospital bed trying to make sense of the letters that sounded out so hollow a word as cancer. My mind was trying to draw pictures on the white wall in front of me. A solid brown face moved into my line of vision.
“Hi Rebekah. My name is Dr. Krishnamurti. You can call me Dr. Krish.”
Silence from my end.
“Rebekah, are you okay?”
I tried swallowing the tears that had gathered in my throat.
“Are you afraid you are going to die?”
I focused my eyes on the dark chocolate ones looking at me and slowly nodded my
“Well, Rebekah, I have good news for you. I do not think you are going to die. I think we gave you the chemotherapy at the right time and we have caught the cancer. With more chemotherapy I think you will be better.”
I looked at this man in a white lab coat with pepper colored hair, black with flecks of white in it. He had kind eyes. I trusted him over the medical prognosis. I decided to beat the odds.
I don’t remember much of my first couple chemotherapy treatments. I remember sleeping a lot; the kind of sleep that leaves you in a black hole with absolutely no dreams. I remembered staring out the window or at the wall in my room. I remembered feeling my dad’s hand in mine. I remembered Christmas songs being sung to me; the older carols of Christ being sent to the world for all mankind. I remembered my middle brother looking down, trying not to cry. I could always tell when he was going to cry because his lips would start to move and he would firmly press them together, making mumbling noises when he talked. I know he told me that Christmas 1999 that he loved me. I remembered my mother smiling at me from across the room holding my smiling youngest brother, just nine months old.
I remembered: going bald in junior high. I was watching Little House on the Prairie, the episode where Laura gets her Pa to prevent Mr. Edwards from taking his own life. I ran my hand through my hair and shook dozens of silky white strands from my fingers. I turned around and stared down at my pillow. I had never seen so much of myself not connected to my body. A fear crawled up my stomach into my throat and I turned back to watching my T.V. show.
My mother came in later and helped me take a bath. More hair was thrown in the trash as we cleaned out the drains. Later on, a friend of my mother’s came into my room and gave me the kind of haircut that Julie Andrews had in the Sound of Music, kinda like a boys cut. Instead of long wispy hairs floating down into my food, my hair would be short enough not to be such a squeamish bother.
After that initial month in the hospital, I was sent home between my last two chemotherapy treatments. My mom gave me shots that you would normally go to a clinic to receive, but I got them in our home dining room. She also cleaned out the tubes I was donning so when I returned for treatment I didn’t have to relive the shock of injections to my chest. I actually made it to a few days of class during the second semester just to get out from four walls. That’s when the word for my seventh grade year became “hopeful” again. The doctors saw the cancer settling into remission and I was determined to tell my story of life to anyone who would listen. You can only start a story of hope and finish it with hope if something miserable happens in the middle.