Ostrander Elementary School was only two miles from my house, but the bus ride always took at least a half hour. Standing at the end of my dead-end street I waited with kids from down the road for Luis to pull up. We threw rocks into the tree near where we stood—trying to dislodge a pair of metal handcuffs that had somehow made their way up there. I can’t imagine they were real; Wallkill was anything but a crime hub. So we would pass the time throwing rocks into the air until the bus slowed to a stop before us, at which time Steven Hall would run out in front of it, flap his arms singing, “I feel like chicken tonight” like they did on the TV commercial. Once on the bus we’d find our other neighborhood friends and sit with them. At some point someone would inevitably stand up just to hear Luis, our Puerto Rican bus driver, yell, “shit down.” Really, we were good kids, growing up in an average little town.
The bus sounded with the buzz of children’s voices as we passed Camp Wendy, the Girl Scout camp, the dirt road that lead to the Borden mansion, over the bridge by the Rod and Gun club and past the countless fields of corn and wildflowers. Wallkill was nestled in the Hudson Valley region of New York. You could always count on seeing someone you knew. My favorite place to run into friends was the Tantillo’s farm market on steamy summer nights; waiting in line for ice cream and watching the parachuters fall lazily somewhere between the Mohawk mountains and the pick-your-own apple orchards. Tree tunneled country roads converged on the small town where everyone knew Rob’s Pizza, Dolan’s market and the Wallkill Public library, housed in a historic stone house that oozed with character at night as the light fixtures glowed giving the effect of candlelight. It was the place city dwellers referred to when they say they went to the “country” for the weekend.
Living this same early morning routine for the past five years, I was in line for my fourth year of perfect attendance until the cool morning of May 29th, 1996. That day I stood solemnly as I waited for the bus to arrive and sat silently as we passed the greening fields. My mom had not wanted me to go to school that day, but I was not willing to give up my award for a stomachache. Instead, we compromised and she was to pick me up at 1:00 that afternoon for an early release.
I loved school and I loved Mrs. Mumper’s fifth grade class. I grinned from ear to ear on the last day of fourth grade when I proudly announced to my mother that I had been placed in Mrs. Mumper’s class. She was a happy woman with a perfect smile and perfectly curled hair that even Mrs. Bradey from The Bradey Bunch might have been intimidated by. Her classroom and the projects we completed were always over the top. The room was in the newer part of the building and had a pleasantly carpeted floor and long bright windows. The back right corner was designated the “reading corner,” complete with a special table for making our own books. On the wall hung the huge, and predominantly red, white and blue, USA quilt we had made, each of us sewing and reporting on a designated state. I had Colorado, and was able to complete a more difficult stitch given its rectangular-like properties.
By the time recess rolled around on that long May day the pain in my stomach had become so uncomfortable that I just sat with my back against the chain-link fence watching my classmates play. A recess aide noticed me sitting alone and came over to find out what was wrong. Looking into her eyes as I told her I didn’t feel well and could tell by her expression that she knew I was telling the truth. She offered to take me to the nurse’s office. Going to the nurse’s office is an adventure most kids would seize at any moment, myself included on any other day, but I declined her offer, seeing no real relief from lying on a hard cot. At least there was a breeze outside to cool my burning cheeks.
It seemed the ear-piercing sound of the whistle would never come, but at last it did. Walking slowly to the door, a fury of students pushed by me hoping for a chance to be the leader of their classroom’s line. I didn’t care if I was the last person to leave the playground. I only cared about getting through the day.
After recess was math. While Mrs. Mumper was busy handing out and explaining our new fraction packet I had all I could do to keep my eyes open. We had moved our desks around the previous week and were now in square groups around the room. My good friend Travis was next to me. I trusted him as he had proven himself the previous year as the number one salesman for my friendship bracelet business, J.A.M., Jewelry And More. Given his propensity to dress with a suit, tie, raincoat and bowler hat, he was a natural for the job.
Trying to adjust my focus from the black and white page before me to the green writing Mrs. Mumper was adding to the marker board my hand slowly cradled my head. I let my eyes close and my breathing slow as my awareness soon settled on the heat I could now feel in my hand. To keep the room cool the lights were off, but Travis was still able to detect the abnormality in my behavior. With more concern that you would expect from a regular fifth grade boy (but like I said he was clearly not a regular student) he leaned in and whispered that I really should go to the nurse. Again, I blew off the suggestion. Each time I forced my eyes open again I glanced at the clock until the hands read 1:00. Little did I know that once I stepped out of Mrs. Mumper’s classroom that day it would be for the last time that year.
Usually I would wait with my friend Eve until around 3:10 when the lady in the office finally announced over the loud speaker that bus 403 had arrived. We rode the bus home squinting from the bright sun, holding our hair behind our ears and yelling to each other over the sound of the wind dancing between the open windows of the bus. Eve was dropped off first and then two stops down I was left at the end of my road. By the time I reached my house the phone would be ringing with Eve or any other of my neighborhood friends on the line waiting to arrange for that afternoon’s adventure. We lived for the precious hour and a half between when we stepped off the bus and sat down for dinner. My desire to set fashion trends ended each day with rubber boots and shorts. Sporting safari gear we could often be found trudging along the swampy waters in my back yard hoping to catch a frog, or with any luck, a turtle. Once I did catch a turtle. Instead of immediately making me put it back into the pond, my mom agreed to let me keep it for the summer. We blew up an old kiddie pool and filled it with water and rocks, putting it on the picnic table on our back porch. My mom even let me buy special turtle food at the local pet store. We would sprinkle the dried, smelly, shrimp pieces and watch them float on the surface as Felix (named for the 1995 hurricane) swam around trying to catch the pieces with his pointy little mouth.
My mom was like that. Willing to sometimes become more of a kid to let me be more of an adult. She had let me make the decision that morning in allowing me to go to school, but had used her motherly instinct to persuade me to leave school early. When she arrived at Ostrander to pick me up she probably expected to find a stubborn child unwilling to go home, bouncing around as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Instead, she found a tired and sick girl who was just longing for her bed and her blanket.
It may seem odd for an 11 year old to still be seeking the security of a beat up piece of fabric, but it was the last hope I had. Once I remember telling my mom I thought I was addicted to my blanket. When I was around it I couldn’t help but stick my left thumb in my mouth and rub its silky binding along my upper lip, and when I didn’t have it I longed for its warmth and protection. It had been with me since I was born, a gift from my biological mother, whom I never knew as I was adopted as a baby. That wasn’t the only the reason, however, for why I had kept it for so long. It was the connection we shared. My blanket had faced all of my experiences, although minor up to this point, beside me. If it could talk it would tell you about how my grandpa used to hide it, just to tease me, and how I used to wrap my cat up in it like a straight jacket, and how I had stretched it every which way making it grow with me over the years, and how it could be worn as a skirt, dress, head scarf and cape. My mom would tell you about how it always smelled like sweat, my denial of such accusations, and how she had to steal it away from me in the wee hours of the morning to wash it. I would tell you how I hated to part with it, but enjoyed how fresh it smelled after spending an afternoon on the clothesline outside.
When I got home I changed into a black pair of soccer shorts and a blue Umbro shirt to be more comfortable and laid on my bed. I held my stomach with one hand and my formerly pink blanket in the other, squeezing it with all my might, hoping to release a drop of miracle.
Before I knew it my mom and I were on our way to the pediatrician’s office. Fairly tolerant as a child, my hate list was quite short: olives, grapefruit, watching cartoon animals cry and going to the Pediatrician’s office. Washingtonville Pediatrics was the only reason we ever went to Washingtonville, a town about 35 minutes away. As we made our way there I clutched my blanket tighter in hopes it would allow us to just turn around and go home. I had no such luck and my stomach knotted even more as we made the turns and got closer to the richly landscaped, dark, box-like building that was the office.
By this time it was nearly 2:30 pm, and the women at the reception desk had obviously reached that point in the day where they just wanted to go home. They sat in their matching yellow blouses and glanced up from their forms and appointment books when my mom and I walked in. Usually upon entering the office and signing in at the front desk I would move to the left side of the waiting room and wait with the “well children.” I never touched the toys or reached for a magazine, for whenever we came, which was rarely, the toys seemed to mysteriously move back and forth from the “well” side to the “sick” side, and in my mom’s words, “you never know what snotty-ass kid has had their hands all over them.” For the first time in my life I slid into a seat on the right side of the desk, the side designated for “sick” children. It looked just the same as the “well” side, but I knew it meant something completely different.
Soon I was seated on the examining table with my mom at my side. The paper gown sat beside me, as I refused to undress and put it on. I wasn’t willing to leave my comfort zone just yet, and admit that there might be something seriously wrong with me. Dr. Casazza, a friendly woman with a kind face behind dark rimmed glasses examined me, listening to my heart and lungs, feeling my tender stomach and investigating the bruises on my legs and the odd little dots that had surfaced on the underside of my wrists. After about a half hour the warm and friendly light in her eyes faded as she became more serious, questioning whether I had recently had shellfish or if I had been exposed to someone with hepatitis. She may have known when she first saw me that my condition was much worse than the common flu, but she did all she could to find another possibility before sending me to the hospital for blood work.
After having my blood drawn, my mom and I retreated out to the narrow, dimly lit waiting room and sat hoping for some news that might put our minds at peace. I surveyed the random group of people surrounding me, wondering why we were all here while my mom periodically went up to the reception desk to see if the results were in. The receptionist glanced away from her computer screen long enough to say that Dr. Cazazza had also been calling and the answer was still no. Finally, she called my mom to the desk and handed her the phone. Dr. Cazazza told my mom that she should call my dad and have him meet us at the hospital. She must have been watching for him to show up, because as soon as he arrived she appeared and led us down the hall to another waiting room. I sat as she took my parents into a glass paned consultation room and told them what I would hear in only a matter of minutes.
I cautiously sat alone, anxious to know what was going on in the room in front of me. A little girl who had been sitting a few chairs away came over to me and asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s probably nothing,” I replied simply. My response couldn’t have been further from the truth, but it was what I thought at the time. At last it was my turn to enter the little glass room. My dad stood up and motioned for me to sit as he stood behind me, my mom sat motionless beside me as we all looked ahead at Dr. Cazazza, who seemed uncomfortable behind the desk that was obviously not familiar to her. She looked at me with her mother eyes, not her doctor ones and said, “Ashley, you have cancer.”
I don’t remember what I did or what was going through my head. I was in complete shock. After a few minutes of letting it all sink in, the motherly comfort of Dr. Casazza faded away and the determined doctor in her kicked in. She told us we were to go to Hackensack, New Jersey, to a hospital there where a doctor would be waiting for me. We were to leave immediately, or she would send me in an ambulance. We were not to go home, not even to feed my cat and dog. Then she pushed a fax across the desk with a map and directions. The journey had begun, the race was on, and as we walked to the truck I was glad I had the foresight to bring my blanket.
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