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Under the pall of the cherry tree

April 12, 2011

Most of us measure segments of our lives from one significant memory to another. It can take a lifetime to recognize which memories actually affect our lives and which simply take us for a nostalgic ride.

The demise of the cherry tree mentioned in the post I had a toad is an example of a significant memory. It was a catalyst for synaptic connections to other memories that may have faded with time. Sad when it occurred, the incident spoke to me at various times later in life when I was struggling to understand whether people can change seemingly inherent aspects of their personalities, and how much decay can be present before a structure, tangible or emotional, comes tumbling down.

From the I had a toad post:

The cherry tree fell in a storm later that summer. Split down the middle it crashed to the earth in two partially exploded sections, exposing the secret it had been hiding—it was rotted internally from top to bottom. Staring into that dark emptiness caused an uneasy stirring in my soul that I didn’t fully define until decades later, when I read a similar story in Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged. I was astonished to see my story in the pages of her epic book.

I recall a feeling of despair that seemed too intense for the loss of a tree. Today I might call that feeling a sense of foreboding. It had to do with what we see and what we can believe, and how much decay pervades everything in our lives. At what point does decay so overwhelm a structure that it can never regain its strength? We all began to learn that lesson shortly after the safe haven under the branches of the cherry tree disappeared.

It had been a sanctuary for a rather dramatic little girl who found she could block out the whole world as long as she sat in its shade. Magic lived in that shade so it would stand to reason that magic lived in the cherry tree, too. But it didn’t. No magic lived in the tree and once it was gone, so too was the magic shade of its leaves. Sap running from the center of the tree was not a sign of life but a harbinger of despair and death. It was lifeblood, and it had run out. Beautiful on the outside, the tree hid damp, decayed secrets within. And so did life.

Every family has tragedies. If they are lucky, shared heartache can make a family unit stronger. Heartache and common goals to preserve the family made us stronger for a while; but I yearned for cool sanctuary in the magic shade of the cherry tree often through the years. Or anywhere, because the tragedies just kept coming. One of the really big ones began shortly after the tree blasted apart. It seemed as if our lives blasted apart with it.

Things had been great for our family since we had settled into the green Cape Cod on the corner. We had lived there for four years and there was almost enough space for everyone until the surprise baby, Dave, arrived on the scene. One more growing person made things a bit more cramped than Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John liked, and they hired a contractor named Charlie to build a large bedroom and bath at the back of the house.

Charlie had an accent I never did identify as anything other than thick. He was astute in his judgments of people and immediately gave Tommy and Chuckie the nicknames Dobble Trobble and Treeple Trobble. The names fit. During the time that Charlie was building, he witnessed the best examples of the life of Grandma Beanie as she attempted to keep up with Chuckie, nine, and Tommy, six.

One morning the two boys found themselves wanting chocolate ice cream. There was no chocolate ice cream in the kitchen freezer, so they headed down to the basement to see what they would find there. They found a gallon of chocolate ice cream behind two gallons of Neapolitan and two gallons of vanilla, and removed the four gallons of unwanted ice cream to a nearby couch. They took their find to the kitchen to create a chocolate ice cream-cone-making mess.

Finished with their cones, the boys headed out the back door to play, greeting Charlie with sticky chocolate smiles as they went.

Grandma Beanie entered the kitchen by the side door after completing some gardening chores in the front yard and found the ice cream mess, along with the rapidly melting gallon of chocolate ice cream on the center island counter. Grumbling and cursing under her breath she cleaned up the mess, then headed to the basement to work on laundry. With a basket of laundry folded and a load in both the washer and dryer, Grandma Beanie left the laundry room and entered the recreation area of the basement where the freezer stood. And she stopped. Stared. On the couch she saw a crazy rainbow-like river of pink, brown and white ice cream flowing from four cardboard gallon containers, over the couch cushions and into a psychedelic puddle on the floor. The freezer door stood open.

She saw red.

She stormed up the stairs and headed to the back door to find Chuckie and Tommy. As she reached for the ice cream-sticky screen door handle, she noticed that there was a large round hole cut into the screen. It didn’t make her mood any better. Heading out the door she found a green faux grass door mat that was usually at the bottom of the two steps leading out the door, in pieces and spread all over the back yard. Chuckie and Tommy were nowhere to be found and that was a lucky thing for them.

Later, a much calmer Grandma Beanie and two extremely meek little boys were discussing their antics. They told her that they weren’t responsible for the ice cream mess in the basement and didn’t cut up the up the door mat. It’s impossible to guess why they thought she would believe them about not having caused the river of ice cream in the basement. Chuckie didn’t deny cutting a hole in the screen and when Grandma Beanie asked him why he did that Chuckie told her, “To let the bugs out.”

With the exception of a serious staph infection Dave had as an infant, everyone had been healthy in the big green house until the morning of September 3, 1968. It was the first day of school for all of us but two-year-old Dave, and the house hummed with activity on the eve of the new school year. Sets of clothing were laid out for each of us on the kitchen table, and each of us had a brand new tablet of paper and stocked pencil box on top of our piles of school clothes.

In the morning everyone hurried around fixing breakfast and getting ready for school. Tommy was on the couch, resting. He had developed a high fever during the night and would be missing his first day of first grade. We felt badly for him. We left him watching Captain Kangaroo as Grandma Beanie shooed us out the door for the first half day of school.

While we were gone Tommy’s condition worsened. Grandma Beanie was cleaning up the breakfast dishes when she turned around and asked Tommy to get up. She wanted to see him walk. He couldn’t walk, he could barely move at all. She had never asked any of us to get up and walk when we were sick, and said she had no idea why she asked that of Tommy. She said she had a feeling, and that feeling probably saved his life. Grandpa John said it could be the flu and suggested monitoring Tommy to see if the fever broke. Grandma Beanie demanded that they take Tommy to the hospital now.

When we arrived home from school Grandma Beanie told us to get in the car while Grandpa John carried Tommy to the front seat. He was delirious and had a high fever. Grandpa John drove to the hospital, where he and Grandma Beanie took Tommy to the emergency room. The rest of us waited in the hospital parking lot. Dave had been left with neighbors.

I had a bunch of catalpa worms I had captured and was racing them in the back of the car when Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John came out of the hospital with Tommy. They were very solemn and Tommy didn’t wake up at all. Grandpa John drove us to a different hospital and he and Grandma Beanie took Tommy inside. That time they didn’t bring him back.

They left the first hospital because Grandma Beanie had not heard the answers she wanted to hear. From a phone in the hospital she told our pediatrician that the doctor at that hospital “didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.” She had a bad feeling about him, and the hospital. The pediatrician told Grandma Beanie to take Tommy to another local hospital and she would meet them there. She also told Grandma Beanie that she thought Tommy’s illness might be fatal.

When things are at their worst, Grandma Beanie is at her absolute best. She sailed right past the comment about possible fatality and demanded action. For all of the patience it took to raise seven children, she had very little patience when one of us was ill or hurt. She demanded that Tommy be taken to the hospital the morning of September 3, 1968, because of a feeling. She left the first hospital because of a feeling. She had those feelings from time to time but was never able to explain them.

Our pediatrician always said, “Listen to the mom. They know things.”

She must have heard better information at the second hospital. More time passed while we waited in the car and before Grandpa John drove us home. He told us to fix some dinner and went back to the hospital. We were all taking care of Dave and Linda was fixing fish sticks, which burned. Johnny ate a tomato. I don’t know why we remembered the fare of our first dinner without either Grandma Beanie or Grandpa John in attendance, but we all did. Especially Johnny’s tomato.

The oldest of us was thirteen that night and the youngest, two.

Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John later explained to us that Tommy had a very rare disease called meningococcemia, a deadly septic infection of the blood. The hospital kept Tommy in cold baths to bring down his fever that had reached 108 degrees. Our pediatrician called a variety of hospitals in the United States and Europe to try to find information about the disease.

Tommy was in the hospital for seven months that time, and we were allowed to see him at the hospital only once. We waved to him from the roof of part of the hospital that was just below a window opposite his room. Grandpa John had noticed the low roof during his many visits to the hospital and thought it would be perfect for us to see Tommy. The six of us climbed up on the roof with Grandpa John’s help and lined up at the window, reaching as high as we could to wave to Tommy. We sent our love to him through cold glass and across an antiseptic corridor to his circular bed that enabled nurses to painlessly turn him from front to back. Because turning him caused Tommy a great deal of pain, he was in the circular bed for months. The frame of the bed and an electric motor did all of the work so the nurses could change his bedding and provide wound care to all parts of his body.

With his gangrenous hands, he waved back. It was very exciting for all of us.

After an initial presentation of a flu-like illness, symptoms of fulminant meningococcal septicemia include extremely high fever, shock, renal failure, respiratory distress, and a characteristic petechial rash, or purpura, which can spread to the entire body. Purpura is characterized by hemorrhages in the skin and mucous membranes that result in the appearance of purplish spots or patches. The hemorrhages enlarge and become necrotic, or surrounded by and full of dead and compromised tissue. The tissue needs to be debrided, or cut away, to aid in the healing process. Unlike other types of meningococcal disease, meningococcal septicemia does not present with the symptom of a stiff neck.

Approximately 30% of Tommy’s body was affected with purpura and subsequent necrosis. Debridement of the lesions left significant scarring and loss of parts of both ears. He also was affected with less common peripheral gangrene, resulting in the loss of extremities. He first lost fingers and toes, kneecaps and heels. He later lost both legs below the knee. His care was a primary focus for our family for over ten years and close to forty surgeries.

In 1968 doctors in our area didn’t know much about the disease. The mortality rate for the type of meningococcemia Tommy had was said to be over 98%. Even today meningococcal septicemia carries an approximate 50% mortality rate within a few hours from initial onset of flu-like symptoms, with catastrophic necrosis, gangrene and amputation as common results of the disease. There is currently no vaccine for the type of meningococcemia that Tommy contracted.

During his delirium Tommy hollered at Grandma Beanie, “And we didn’t cut up the door mat! Daddy did it with the lawn mower!” When Grandma Beanie told us about that we all felt a little better, as if it told us Tommy was still in there somewhere.

Everything was confusing and scary. I shared a room with Tommy and it was dark and lonely in there. I didn’t want to sleep in there. I needed my dresses that were hanging on my little wooden rack, five dresses lined up neatly for five days of school. Grandpa John moved my dress rack and bed upstairs and told me that I would be sleeping with the big girls from then on. It was something I had desperately wanted, but it wasn’t exciting anymore. It was dark up there, too.

We all prayed the Rosary every day, kneeling at the couch from smallest to tallest. We were certain that God must be hearing our prayers as well as those from the Holy Catholic Church, and the huge prayer group of the League of Saint Jude, to which Tommy was enrolled as a perpetual member.

I believed, back then. With all of my heart.

We all had to take preventative medicine after Tommy got sick, and so did anyone who was close to the family within a short time frame before the illness struck. Ladies came with Jello almost every day (to this day none of us eat Jello, we have forever had our fill), along with other food to help support the family. Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John tried to create some order while caring for a gravely ill child, a toddler and five other children. We were all stricken with grief, but had to try to continue with a daily routine. Grandma Beanie desperately needed help, Grandpa John had to work to keep the family afloat, and we all began to grow up, far faster than we ever thought possible.

The doctors allowed Tommy to come home for part of Christmas Day and we were so excited that we were all upstairs half the night, watching out the window for Santa and talking excitedly about the next day. Wearing red and white striped pajamas and a red Santa hat, Tommy was carried in by a dear family friend the next morning hollering, “Merry Christmas! Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Tucked away with the oldest family Christmas decorations Grandma Beanie has a book with a worn felt cover, containing a beautifully illustrated version of the incredible poem The Night Before Christmas. Each Christmas Eve we would all snuggle into position as close to Grandpa John’s lap as possible and he would read the book to us. Because Tommy was finally home Grandpa John read the book to us on Christmas Day instead, and we felt for one half of one day that things were almost normal.

December, 2012. Find that book. Beanie wants you to have it.

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