Off with their heads

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by Thomas N. Lonergan

A dozen bodies waiting. Few words are heard. Whispers. Directed stares. Stone faces. Few words.

I resort to counting and repeating lines from old John Prine songs, studying every face in the surgery waiting room, trying to figure out what will shatter the temporary solace.

For the past 24 hours, my companion and I have been shell-shocked. Yet, an odd sense of relief cloaked me shortly after our baby boy was whisked away to surgery. The doctor in the wheelchair had said forget about the pink eye.


The right eye was dead.

"He will lose his eye."

Those were his first words at the pre-surgery conference just after, "Hello, I’m...." Baby boy’s mother and I looked at each other – in silence – and then we wailed. We had hoped our overnight stay in clean, well-lit, cheerfully painted Children’s Hospital would provide a simple answer for the pink eye.

Instead, the doctor in the wheelchair had more questions. That’s what the surgery would really be about. How far did it crawl – the tumor that began no bigger than a grain of salt? Is it in his left eye too, swallowing the optic nerve? He never says the "C" word. His diagnosis is "retinoblastoma." It’s rare, he tells us. Maybe a couple hundred cases in the country a year.

Retinoblastoma. It sounds like something an elephant would get – not baby boys.

"A lot of people live with one eye," the doctor in the wheelchair says.

He named names.

Sammy Davis Jr.

The TV detective with the wrinkled trench coat.

Sandy Duncan.

And ... our baby boy. Put our baby boy on that list, I’m thinking. He’s gonna make it.

Waiting is torture. Waiting. Knowing nothing. More waiting. The Prine song I can’t get rid of is the story of Sam Stone, a drug-addicted Vietnam Vet – "climbing walls while sitting in a chair."

What if we had brought baby boy in a week ago?

He had thrush mouth in June. Dirty dishes. Great grandma knew it was the dirty dishes. Couldn’t be. Our eyes are fine. We ate off the same dishes. It’s because we’re not married. That’s it. A Sixth Commandment infraction. Nope. Too stiff. Much too stiff a penalty.

It’s not baby boy’s fault we had sex. More than once, too.

The family doctor sent us to a pediatric eye specialist. He yelled at baby boy’s mother. "Something is seriously wrong here." Why, yes, that’s why we’re here, she responded.


He sends us to Children’s Hospital. First stop, the insurance check. They call it the "Emergency Room." It’s not. For the vast majority wandering in on this steamy hot August day, all emergencies wait for the health insurance check.

We have good insurance, I think, while holding baby boy in line. It’s from Washington, D.C., where my employer is based. That confuses some in the health insurance world. Odd looks from clerks. Washington D.C.? My insurance may as well be from Cuba.

Baby boy is tired. Robbed of his afternoon nap, toddler time, playing.

Mostly mothers are holding babies. Larger children wiggle to free themselves of clutching hands.


For once in my life, I picked the right line. Our insurance is good. We only stood for 15 minutes, maybe 20. Baby boy’s Mom is sitting, nine months pregnant with a baby brother.

Next stop – the examining area. Baby boy looks cute beyond words in his powder blue striped shirt and shorts. Just a couple months shy of three and by all accounts, already a big boy.

Baby boy’s curiosity overcomes the nap need. He stands on the examining table; plays with the throat sticks. He doesn’t ask what we’re doing in this place. So I try to explain.

Fear breaks the words, mumbles them, jumbles them. The tears fill my throat. I blurt something out like, "They’re gonna take a look...." I can’t finish.

He says nothing but his face tells us he knows. Something’s wrong. Perhaps he’s known it for a long time. Maybe from day one. Has he been in a one-eye world all along?


The emergency doctor pulls back the curtain. Stethoscope around the neck. Young man. Good looking. Too confident. Can’t be an intern.

"Hey, how’s it going, buddy?" He’s been prepped. Goes right to baby boy. We are unwilling spectators in the front row of this slow moving drama. He feels baby boy all over, probes the neck, abdomen, back. The nurse had taken the vitals and the blood. No one has said a thing. He lays baby boy down. Gets his light out and examines the right eye.

"It’s been pink for days," we tell him. "He’d had it before and it went away."

No words from Dr. Preppy Looking Guy. Just ... "ummmm, hmmmmm."

We watch his every move, but he provides no pieces to solve the puzzle. He orders another blood sample.

The nurse returns. She’s hot. Hair matted to her forehead, like its stuck with sticky glue. Her blue gown hangs on her warmly as we and the scores of other emergency "customers" have apparently spent the day’s air conditioning.

She’s a pro; knows baby boy has had it as he clings to his mom. His day has been about as welcome as an hour wait for a bowl of mashed vegetables.

As the nurse approaches he yells, "Off with their heads."

It breaks the tension. We’re filled with parental pride, as Alice in Wonderland kicks in.

Bravo, baby boy!

He didn’t mean it as a joke. He’s mad.

The pin prick on the index finger pierces his protective cover, unleashing a torrent of screaming. Yet, he eventually offers the finger for the steady drip, drip, drip of blood the authorities demand.

"What a brave boy," the nurse declares, as she gathers her kit for the welcome trip to the blood cooler.

"When will we know something?"

It’s always easier to ask someone who probably can’t answer the question.

"I believe they’re calling in a specialist."

She knows more than we do.

"You’ll be here for a bit yet. Maybe you want to try getting something to eat."

I hold my tongue. Eating would feel too much like we’ve returned to life. Instead, I pace the little curtained area meant for sitting.

Baby boy’s mom is whipped. Our communication without talking has never been better. We steer clear of discussing the eye. The numbness we feel has a strangely wonderful aspect to it, pushing the guilt aside for the moment.

After several hours of x-rays, blood samples, pokes, probes and endlessly staring into lights, baby boy lays across the table for a rest. The emergency room is quiet. The emergencies have been sent home or went somewhere else.

We aren’t so lucky.

The curtain opens and Doctor Nice Looking Young Man with the stethoscope returns.

"We need to admit you. We’ve contacted an excellent pediatric ophthalmologist. He treats children all over the world. Hell be here tomorrow morning."

Baby boy could care less about credentials as we prop up his sleepy little body. The nurse returns and brings in a toddler’s yellow hospital gown. Baby boy will be carrying Mickey and Minnie Mouse on his back through the rest of this ordeal.

Mickey sits in a little toy train headed for Happyland. Minnie cuddles a stuffed bear. They fail to dispel our fear, but shucks they’re cute.

The gown only ties in the back. Baby boy doesn’t like it. But there’s no "Off with their heads," directed at Mickey.

"There’s something behind his right eye," the doc offers. "A mass. He’s not seeing out of that eye."

Baby boy’s mom orders a cot and prepares for the overnight. She’d like a glass of wine, but there’s no room service of that nature. I enter the evening of the unknown.

The parking lot is full but my tan, dingy cargo van, stripped of all detail, is easy to spot. The late August evening is annoyingly sticky, the air clinging like an unwelcome sweater.

I have no focus. The radio tells me the Tigers lost, continuing a fall from first place. I feel no reason to retain anything or think positive thoughts.

The brain is lost in "what ifs" as the van heads north on the Chrysler Freeway. I stay in the right lane. Paranoia has come along for the ride, poised to eliminate a piece of my life.

Born in 1985, baby boy had filled every day with the joy of touch, discovery, trust, love and emotions I can’t express in words.

Don’t you love the way they look when they sleep, a brother wrote months before. So peaceful. So trustful.

"I love the way babies smell," a man in the Anchor Bar told us one sunny, carefree Sunday after the St. Patrick’s Day parade. He held baby boy up high and took in a good whiff. The dawn of spring. The future.

Was he drunk? Had he ever changed a shitty diaper in his life? The man’s a dad, no doubt.

I lecture myself as the van approaches the McNichols exit. Transformation time. This must be a test. Baby boy is in trouble so I can get my priorities straight. My personal constitution includes, never offering brain space to petty rituals of self-importance, career steps or how much the house is worth.

For the next few hours, I continue the list in our empty house.

I will no longer be bothered by: performance reviews, beer ads, crab grass, litter, Libertarians or fitness. My abs? Let them be sponges.

Just give me my head back, I plead to the numbness god. Tell me baby boy will be OK.


Back in the hospital, the morning brings no smiles. Baby boy slept. Mom didn’t. Time for a full body scan. The pediatric ophthalmologist is in the house. We head for breakfast. The stainless steel tubs full of crispy bacon and fluffy scrambled eggs invite an uptick in cholesterol. We opt for toast and coffee; feeding light heads with caffeine.

Unlike the emergency room, this morning has a sense of urgency to it. We’re rushed to the body scanner where there’s no line. I last saw this gigantic horizontal tube in the film, Altered States.

As we approach the technology intimidator, baby boy grabs me around the neck with his little vice grips. He has melted into my shoulder. I rub his back as my mind goes limp.

We learned to talk by touch. Then cries. Then words. His grip is so strong, it feels as if we are not meant to ever let go.

I sit in a separate room from the scanner. Baby boy is strapped in, stretched out on his back as he moves slowly into the electronic monster. The platform stops in the middle. There’s no light show, but in the room to my right, technicians studiously manipulate switches and controls on an enormous console. It looks like NASA control.

We’re told nothing about the scan as we’re whisked to another holding area. It’s the surgery wing, with big vertical doors you can open via a wall button. The doctor in the cart scoots in. It’s a cart, not a wheelchair. He abruptly stops in front of us. Dr. Rabinowicz is quite direct, but not brutal, summing up all our waiting, wanting and agony in a quick explanation. The eye must be removed. He’ll know more after surgery.


Our emotional storm is checked in the waiting room. Decorum rules. A hospital volunteer records our names in a notebook. We’re allowed to walk around, sample the lukewarm, weak coffee. We stoically sit still.

After more than an hour, Rabinowicz rushes in, brakes inches from our feet and declares, "We’ve got it."

Our names are crossed off the list. One more overnight for observation and baby boy can go home.


A couple days later, we are at the zoo. I hate zoos. The animals aren’t free, caged for some strange desire in us to watch them. Why not "survival of the fittest?" It’s "dog eat dog" for us.

The zoo’s a nice park, though and baby boy loves the train. So we ride and ride. I gaze into the pink tissue void where baby boy’s right eye used to be. The socket screams for something to be there.

He’s refused to wear a patch. There won’t be a prosthesis made for a couple of weeks. It’ll be a clear shell and then a real fake eye.

I self-consciously shield the side of my son’s head. What if these zoo patrons start gawking at him! Not the animals. What if he becomes the object?


He bolts away and takes a seat on the opposite side of the train, playfully waving his arms and pointing. We decide to go around again. Let them look.

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