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July 04, 2022

Courage

By Terry Petersen

Most of the traffic lights on the main street of our neighborhood still flash yellow as Dad drives us to the hospital this early Monday morning, April 6, 1998. There wasn't any need to circle the date on the calendar. My family had a better chance of forgetting our names than we did this day.

When we arrive Mom offers to stay with me while I get ready, but I tell her, "Someone else needs you more right now. I'll see you in the Recovery Room."

She nods without looking at me and I shrug and tell her I'm okay. Besides, my mother's got easy-trigger tear ducts. I'd rather be by myself than deal with them.

After all the preliminaries I shiver in my faded brown gown, the kind made for mooning between the tied bows. I pull a blanket to my chin and close my eyes, but they refuse to remain closed. They stare at the ceiling: it's bare, sterile, covered with pocked tiles. The walls are a dull green, the kind only a Sherlock Holmes would consider remembering. Nothing like my room at home. My entire ceiling is covered with posters: Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, Globetrotters, Frank Zappa, The Simpsons. I even have some old Scooby Doo cartoon stuff. Mom doesn't care for my design plan. She thinks it looks cluttered, like everything else in my room, but she tolerates it.

My dresser is covered with football trophies. In the center is a framed picture of my sister Leah and me on vacation last summer. No girlfriend's photo. Not yet. Sure, I've played sports, so people assume I have dates all the time, but as soon as a female classmate says hi, I lose every bit of saliva in my mouth. I'm useless.

I get up to go to the bathroom -- more to move around than any real need. The clock seems to be moving in geological time. My toes touch an icy floor. "Well, David James Myer," I say louder than I expected. "So this is why Mom wanted you to wear socks."

My privacy feels invaded as the flush echoes into the hallway. I don't study my face in the mirror as I wash my hands, but catch a glance of my baby-round face and blotchy field of dark freckles. A stranger would never guess I've been seventeen for three months now. Funny, though, I never realized how much my eyes look like my sister's, small and pale, kind of green and kind of blue.

I'm crazy about my little sister, Leah. No doubt about that. But we're not that much alike. I'm a redhead with more freckles than face, and she's so blond and pale she could fade into a sheet. She's barely twelve and would rather read than anything else. I'm not anti-intellectual, but I prefer to weave and run on the football field.

Mom says I charge through whatever I do as if I had only one chance to grab the ball. I tell her born leaders act that way; she doesn't always know when I'm kidding. She should lighten up now and then, but I understand why she's so worried all the time. My sister is so sick that I lose count of how many times people ask how she is.

Dad worries in a different way than Mom does. He gets sullen and simmers. Then when I'm spending a rainy Saturday watching TV he asks me what I plan to do with my life. I pretend not to care, but I'm not really that great at anything, and I can't tell him that. Especially not when he's in one of his moods. He shakes his head, and then goes in to check on my sister. I hear him talking to her about how well she did on her science test after she missed half the term. He talks loud enough that I'd have to be beyond stupid not to know he's really talking to me.

I barely passed Biology last term. That means brain surgeon is out. I could go for history, at least the way Mr. Riley teaches it. He's an American History buff, especially anything about Abraham Lincoln.

Once he said, "Abe didn't like dressing up. He'd take off his jacket, pull off his boots, and stretch his toes, whether there were visitors at the White House or not. And there is a reason why I'm telling you this." He unlaced his shoes and slammed them on the desk. "That doesn't have a thing to do with the founding of Virginia, but these are new shoes and my feet hurt. I figure if Abe can do it, so can I."

The whole class laughed. I'd like to be cool like Mr. Riley. But I'm not sure I can teach people who don't want to learn. There are a lot of kids like that at my school. Heck, I wouldn't want to try to teach somebody like me.

I wonder if Grandpa Myer was a good student. He served in the army in World War II in bomb disposal. I can see him in the old stilted-frame home movies, his khaki uniform turned to gray on the black-and-white film. Of course when I ask him what it was like when a bomb started ticking he says, "Courage doesn't come pure. It comes wrapped up in a lot of very smelly stuff."

I want to tell him not to talk to me as if I were six-years-old, but Grandpa always asks how I'm doing, no matter how weak Leah may be, so I let it go.

Heroes intrigue me, all kinds. There was a time I imagined being on the cover of "Sports Illustrated." I wouldn't admit it out loud, but I had my front-page pose planned in my parents' full-length mirror. Last year I dislocated my left knee in a game early in the season. That knee hurt like crazy. Sometimes it still does. Mom doesn't want me to play at all.

Almost cutting time. My mind has been doing cartwheels. Now my stomach is doing them. Come on, David. It's not like you are afraid of the dark or anything.

Sometimes Leah likes a night light. Kids her age tell ghost stories with flashlights aimed at their chins. But then Leah has spent a lot of the last few years in the hemodialysis unit. Three days a week in a narrow, blue vinyl chair, with the machines, thick needles, tubes, her blood thinned with heparin. I sat with her and read stories with her for hours, the smell of insulin and something antiseptic stuck in my nostrils.

I have never understood why my smart sister acts like her C-student brother is the greatest ever. She's always asking for me. When I tore up my knee that time I didn't cry much; she cried for me. Last summer I stayed the whole four hours with her when she had dialysis. I got to know the health techs and nurses. They joked and talked with me as much as they did with her. Sometimes Leah's potassium level would get too high. The doctor would order kayexalate with sorbitol from the pharmacy STAT. That would help, but at other times she needed an extra day of hemodialysis. Then she would cry and I would fume. I know every inch of the dialysis unit, and I've learned a lot about kidney disease.

But the fact is, I never got used to the routine.

Yeah, Leah's special all right. Maybe I'll make her proud of me for real someday. I'll tackle my study phobia and get a job in research, at a miracle place where intense studies eliminate kidney disease, make the common cold less common, cancerous tumors antiquated, and bloated fat cells a thing of the past.

Right, what a rich fantasy life you have?

An orange-pink is washing over the darkness outside. I see it through the window. A woman pushing a portable X-ray machine passes my door. Voices in the hall rise: "Hey, Kelly, do you have the med-room keys?" "Lifting help in Room 11."

Somebody in blue scrubs writes something on my chart. He looks at me and smiles. It's funny. I know this operation is a big deal but the thing I'm worried about is that first needle stick.

My lab results are on target. Leah is ready. I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be. I slide both hands over the warm trunk of my body and picture the charts the doctor showed me, full-color glossy pictures. He showed me something like a map of what's about to happen. They're cutting Leah from the front, someplace by the groin; if something goes wrong they can get back in easily, not something I want to think about. Because they're cutting me through the back, the doctor told me that I will take longer to recover than Leah will. For the first time I realize those pictures were flat, superficial, the difference between viewing Italian travelogues and visiting Rome, or checking out pizza ads and taking a good solid bite of double-cheese pepperoni.

I nod to the man in blue scrubs, gulp, and then smile. Mom and Dad are with Leah right now. I'm going to be fine.

Oh well, whatever happens, here's to you, little sister.

Article © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-03-03
Image(s) © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
4 Reader Comments
Gerry
03/06/2014
07:13:16 PM
I started to tear-up in the second to last paragraph. Very touching.Thanks Terry for a tender moment!
Sandy Hart
03/06/2014
10:02:44 PM
Wonderful story, Terry. It keeps you guessing until the end about his surgery. Loved it!


Gayle Reichert
03/07/2014
12:15:52 AM
I like the way you capture your characters' voices. This guy is really admirable, the moreso because he doesn't seem to realize it. The illustration is great, too!
Anne Becker
07/17/2014
02:23:37 AM
A beautiful story, Terry. I was so happy when I suddenly realized the wonderful thing that was happening!

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