Sunday, October 16, 2011

Another Ruin of a Life in Progress

A few weeks ago, as I was taking my family to a corn maze, hayride, and pumpkin picking, we drove past Kessler Memorial Hospital, a small country hospital in Hammonton, NJ, that was closed down a couple of years ago. Seeing this remnant of my childhood jogged loose a memory that had been left crinkled in the bottom of a file tagged “childhood.” 

I was a patient there twice between 1971 and 1972 when I was in second grade. 

I had been experiencing chronic sore throats and ear infections.  So, in the fall of 1971, like many others my age during that era, I had my tonsils taken out.  I also had my adenoids scrapped which back then I likened to falling off my bike and scrapping my knees.  That summer I had tubes put in my ears to help open up the ear canal.  I wished that those two procedures could have been flip-flopped because I wasn’t allowed to go swimming while the tubes were still in my ears.  I remember the doctor telling my mom that I could use ear plugs, but Mom was way too cautious for that, and so I dryly sat on the sandy sideline of summer fun.

Though I know I was at Kessler twice, the experiences have blended themselves into one recollection.  Memory has a way of condensing time.  It’s like having one file drawer that will only fit so many manila folders.  At some point your folders labeled gas and electric are pulled and filed together under utilities.

Days before being admitted, I remember telling people at school about my impending dilemma.  I received encouragement from my teacher, Miss Lalama, who touted the ice cream benefit of the tonsillectomy.  Then there were the condolences from my friends and the “better-you-than-me” looks. 

In the hospital I had a roommate named Tommy who is probably a composite of the two roommates I had with a little bit of the playground set thrown in, and his name may not have even been Tommy, but that’s how I remember him. 

Tommy was having the same procedure I was having.  I remember watching our parents talking to each other at the foot of our beds during most of the time they were there.  There was a large window at the end of the hallway that looked over a lake and further out toward the White Horse Pike.  I stood at that window after my parents left that first night, trying to see their car on the highway.  After watching for a long while, I picked a set of red rear lights that looked like what I thought might be on our car and decided that was Mom and Dad on their way home.  Knowing how my father hated highway driving, they probably took some back road home.

As I stood at the window, a nurse asked me if I wanted to take a ride in a wheelchair.  Sure, I said.  Tommy was also taking this joyride with us, and we both climbed into one wheelchair anticipating the fun.  After rolling through several corridors that all looked alike, we ended in a large room where we were given chest x-rays and had vials of blood taken from us.  This wasn’t a joyride at all.  Tommy and I both felt a little duped.  Later on the nurse asked us again if we wanted to take a ride.  We both declined afraid that she was planning on taking us to some diabolical experiments that would leave us looking like the sons of Frankenstein.

The morning of our surgery, I was awakened when it was still dark outside and given a shot.  The nurse said it was to relax me before I was taken to the operating room.  She gave one to Tommy, too.  Tommy and I didn’t talk much that morning.  I guess we were both lying in our beds that resembled oversized cribs, deep in our own thoughts about the meaning of it all or, more important, what flavor ice cream would be waiting for us in the end.

The shot was making me feel a different kind of drowsy I was used to feeling lying on the floor watching TV.  I asked Tommy if he felt it, too, but he was sound asleep.  I considered surrendering to the feeling, but decided to fight it because I wanted to see what was going to happen.

Soon an orderly came in the room to roll me to the operating room.  He seemed surprised I was still awake.

Once in the operating room I was scooted onto the table.  There was a lot of commotion around me, doctors, nurses, talking in what seemed another language, and certainly not the English I was used to.

A man held what looked to me like an athletic cup up to my face and asked me to count backwards from one hundred.  Not much past ninety-eight, I woke up with a sore throat.  And Mom and Dad were there.

While Kessler Hospital becomes another ruin of a life in progress, like the old neighborhoods and open fields, it’s the remembered stories, true to the teller, simple or severe, that will keep its doors open for generations to come.

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