I was 12 years old on Thanksgiving Day 1988. The one day of the year I could count on to provide me with my favorite holiday treat, chocolate cream pie. I had to have chocolate cream pie at Thanksgiving even though it was in no way traditional. I hated pumpkin pie. I would politely consume a sliver of it, but only to get to the chocolate cream deliciousness. And always with a huge amount of whipped cream.
On the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, I woke up sometime in the wee hours feeling sick to my stomach. I ran to the bathroom and threw up the pepperoni pizza I had consumed for dinner. I thought for a moment about waking my mother to let her know I was ill, but I had always been an independent child and had recently turned the ripe old age of 12, so I let her sleep. I reasoned that there was nothing she could do now and that I would probably feel better soon, since I had emptied the contents of my stomach. I went back to bed. No sense in troubling mom until morning. I was growing up. I could handle a little puke on my own.
When Mom came to wake me for school on Wednesday morning I told her of the previous night’s purge and that I didn’t think I should go to school that day. I was too sick.
My mother didn’t believe me.
Why didn’t you wake me up last night? Her question was totally reasonable.
I didn’t want to bother you. My response made perfect sense, if only I weren’t 12.
Mom wasn’t buying it. If I was sick enough to throw up in the middle of the night, surely I would have needed her comfort or counsel. In her defense, I was a notorious illness faker. I’ve never been a morning person. To this day I consider 8:30am to be the “crack of dawn”. My hatred of mornings led to many a faux sick day before I learned to get myself to school late with the excuse of an expertly forged note from “Mom”.
I pleaded my case. My mother argued that I only had to make it through one day of school before having four days off to do whatever I pleased. I told her again that I was too sick. She got the thermometer, it would prove one way or the other whether I was capable of attending that day’s edition of seventh grade. I had science on my side, it read 99.8. Not exactly a raging fever, but arguably enough to keep me at home. To ensure that my truancy would be less than pleasurable my mother assigned me a couple of low energy chores. I felt pretty rotten, but I figured I could handle folding the laundry and washing a few dishes. I had all day to do it.
My stepdad, Tom, had slept through the whole exchange. He had had a late session at his recording studio the night before and hadn’t gotten home until sometime after the hurling incident. I was doing the dishes when he came downstairs. I told him what had happened and that I had been assigned chores. But as we were speaking, the unmistakable feeling of rising vomit came over me and I ran to the bathroom to spew out the maple and brown sugar flavor instant oatmeal I’d made myself for breakfast.
Now I had a witness. I really was sick.
Although he and my mother had been together since I was four, Tom had only officially become my stepdad two months prior and was taking his parental responsibility seriously. He forgave my work debt. He had to go to the studio for a few hours and would take me with him because he was uncomfortable leaving a vomiting child home alone.
At the time, Tom’s studio was located in the retooled and refinished garage attached to his mother’s house. She was home that day and would look after me while he worked. Tom’s mother was the consummate grandma. Just being in her presence could put you at ease. She offered me saltines and ginger ale to settle my stomach. I gobbled up the innocuous treats, but I couldn’t keep the crackers down. We figured I had a stomach bug or had eaten something bad. I slept on the sofa until my mom came to get me a few hours later.
We went home and my mother set me up on the couch and made me some tea. She felt pretty bad now that it was clear I hadn’t been faking. (I still bring this up when I need to conjure some parental guilt on her part). She started preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. We were hosting the whole family the next day and there was a lot to do. There was chocolate cream pie to make!
On Thanksgiving morning I awakened to a dull, but severe ache in my abdomen and lower back. I needed Mom’s help to get downstairs to the couch. She brought me some juice and turned on the parade for me. She offered me cereal, but I had no interest and my fever had risen. When I couldn’t keep liquids down it became clear that this was more than a simple flu bug. I was in a lot of pain, but also bumming hard because I wasn’t able to eat. I was going to miss out on the turkey, the gravy, the mashed potatoes, but most importantly, the chocolate cream pie.
Tom called his mother, Bea, to relay this new list of symptoms. She would be here in a few hours anyway, but no one wanted to wait that long. Bea came from a big family and had raised six kids of her own. She knew a lot about sick kids. She wondered if my appendix might be inflamed. Get that child to a doctor, was her simple, logical directive.
Mom called the doctor’s office. She got the answering service. My doctor was away for the holiday weekend, but the doctor filling in called back immediately. She wanted to see me in the office right away, my symptoms concerned her. My mother left Tom in charge of the turkey. His sister Liz came over early to help complete the cooking. No one knew what to expect. I thought I’d be home later that day with a prescription and a restricted diet of some kind. Likely unable to partake of the pie I waited all year for. I was not happy.
The doctor’s office was a ghost town. There was no one at reception. There were no nurses. The doctor (we’ll call her Dr. Lady) arrived at about the same time we did and flipped on the lights in the exam room as my mother helped me onto the table. Dr. Lady was caring and gentle as she examined me and felt around my abdomen asking about my pain level. I still didn’t think the situation was all that dire. I’d seen on TV that when the problem is your appendix it hurts a lot in just one specific area of your stomach. My stomach hurt everywhere. Dr. Lady’s tone was calm and reassuring, she was very professional when she said, we can’t wait for the ambulance. I’ll help you get her into the car, then you drive her directly to the ER. I’ll be right behind you. OK, that kind of worried me.
I remember the ride. I remember bumping around as I lay across the backseat of my mom’s light blue Ford Escort. I remember the pain. It didn’t take long to get to North Shore, but by the time we did I could barely move. My mother parked and came around to the back to get me. I needed her help to walk. We made our way toward the entrance with her holding me up and me painfully trudging towards salvation one step at a time. We got about half way there. Then I collapsed.
I had passed out, but the ER staff came to our rescue. Dr. Lady had called ahead to let them know we were on the way and so they were ready with a gurney and expertly lifted me onto it.
The next thing I knew I was in an exam bed in the ER. The surgeon was there. An older man with grey hair and a calm demeanor. He was asking me a lot of questions. A nurse was sticking a needle in my arm. Dr. Lady was giving her assessment to the team. The surgeon examined me and pressed on my abdomen again. He asked me where it hurt. Everywhere, I said. He pressed on the spot I’d seen on TV and asked me if that hurt more. No. But when he let go of my gut my whole body convulsed. The pain was excruciating, unlike anything I’d ever felt. I was administered IV antibiotics. A drug called Keflex, which made me break out in hives. Apparently, I was allergic to Keflex. To counteract the allergic reaction, they pushed Benadryl into my IV which made me incredibly drowsy and pretty damn loopy.
As I crossed back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness I heard the surgeon telling my mother that my appendix had ruptured. Most likely in the parking lot outside the emergency room, right before I passed out. They would need to remove it right away. I was too out of it to be scared. My mother must’ve been terrified. I could hear them talking about the seriousness of the situation. They wondered why we hadn’t gotten in sooner. I fell asleep again.
When I awoke I was on a gurney somewhere outside the OR, waiting. I remember laying there talking to my mom (I have no idea what about). I saw blood covered surgeons leaving the OR, which would have really freaked me out if I hadn’t been so whacked out on Benadryl. The nurse told us that there was someone having brain surgery, but we were next in line for the OR just as soon as they were done.
Some time later they came to wheel me into the operating room. My mom kissed my forehead and told me she loved me. She said she’d be waiting for me when I got out of surgery. I asked her to save me a piece of chocolate cream pie. And then they took me in.
I didn’t stay awake long enough to have to count backwards from 100 like I’d seen on St. Elsewhere and Trapper John. I have only the faintest memories of the inside of the operating room. The next thing I knew, a nurse was asking me what day it was. I thought it must be Friday, so much had happened. She told me it was Thanksgiving night. Great! There’s still a chance for pie.
Then my mom was by my side. It was over. I was in a room in the hospital that I would have to stay in for the next 10 days. There were tubes all over me. The nurse explained them. One provided oxygen and was tucked up under my nose above my lip, one went up my nose, down my throat and into my digestive tract to pump out the poison that had erupted from my inflamed appendix when it burst. There was a tube sticking right out of my belly through a hole on the right hand side of the hideous, half-closed incision that made me question whether I’d ever be able to wear a two piece bathing suit again. It was there to drain more toxic fluid from my abdominal cavity. I’ve often wondered if they let the newest intern stitch me up after the operation. A semi-decent seamstress would’ve left less of a scar, but it was a major holiday and the hospital staff was what it was. My mom told me that the surgeon said I would have died had we waited any longer. She was shaken up, but relieved. She looked exhausted. I was still in a lot of pain, but noted a conspicuous absence of pie by my bed.
I wasn’t allowed any solid food. For several days I subsisted on IV nutrients, ice chips and juice. I found myself having bizarre dreams about canned peaches and other cafeteria delights. And of course, that pie. I checked in with my mother about five days after the operation when it seemed like real food was in my near future. She had bad news.
Aunt Patti ate the last piece of chocolate cream pie.
I was crushed. I had almost died and they couldn’t save me one measly slice of pie? My mom pointed out that the pie would have been nearly a week old at this point and wouldn’t have lasted forever. When I was ready, she told me, she would bring me some chocolate pudding from the hospital cafeteria.
Whatever, I said. It’s not the same.