I was hoping to announce this post a great deal earlier than this, but that is not how life decided to play out. After a stint in New York City, I will be visiting Pennsylvania, and between gorging on Elio's toaster pizza and taking in all of the art I was too bratty to appreciate as a child, after nineteen years of being away from the city, I am revisiting the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. This isn't just going to be a whichever day I decide to walk in, followed by lunch at the local cafe, no no. I have a scheduled visit which includes a walkthrough of the fifth floor west wing, my wing. This is the wing where I spent more nights that I'd like to count; a good portion of my years in Pennsylvania. Five years may not seem like a lot of time in the grand scheme of a human lifespan, but these particular five years of my life were easily the most significant as they shaped me, giving me two open heart surgeries, a best friend, my first ambulance ride, influential teachers I will cherish and strive to impress so long as I live, an animal companion whose life meant more to me than many of the humans that have crossed my path, a cardiologist I admired and would hold all others up to in terms of quality and temperament, and a profound loathing of cold climates. I find it appropriate that this adventure be held in my thirtieth year and had hoped for a number of years this would come to fruition. It gives me all sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings when goals are realized.
I didn't walk away from Philadelphia with many unresolved issues of the psychological or emotional variety; I am a fairly upbeat, confident person when I look back at that time. This is largely in part due to the staff and very nature of CHOP doing all they could to make the lives of their young wards easier, brighter and as cheerful as humanly possible. While sterile white is a common motif among my hospital-related memories, so is the color yellow - bright and welcoming, yellow was the main accent color along with rainbow plaid curtains to draw around my bed when the need for privacy took me.
"Get to the playroom."
"Get to the playroom."
This was my only mantra whenever I was ensconced to CHOP; a virtual wonderland of video games, board games, books, videos, puzzles, toys and other instruments of happiness to assist the morale and hurry along the recovery process. My favorite was the free-standing Ms. Pac-Man game that had no need of quarters, just patience and will.
This was the room to meet and befriend the ever rotating faces, names and stories that came through fifth floor west wing. Though I do not recall all of their names, I am proud to say I remember a handful of the girls and boys whom I either shared quarters and happy memories with: Raven, Lauren, Jeremy, Nathan, baby Alice, baby Jordan. Raven and Lauren would be about my age now; Raven with her many asymmetrical braids of all shapes and sizes, much gusto in her personality; Lauren with her long, fine brown hair and blue eyes. Jeremy was older than I, almost banished to the adult ward but still able to catch a few years in the children's side. He would be close to forty now, with quiet mannerism, long hair and a love for his acoustic guitar. Nathan was around my age as well, dirty blond or light brown hair.
It is Baby Alice, though, whose wide, blue eyes sought me out as a source for comfort and familiarity amongst the confusion of her just-begun life. I don't recall how old she was exactly, my mother says between one and two. Her own family was rarely present, as I believe they lived out of state with both parents in the work force. If my mom pulled the curtain that separated our beds to a close Alice would scream and cry until it was pulled back and she could see me. I would feed her ice chips and read her stories by the hour. Reaching through the cold metal bars of her crib I would hold her little hand, still chubby with that layer of new baby pudge, and talk to her in tones that suggested a higher knowledge than my seven years possessed.
Baby Jordan was around two when we met; a plastic tube from his nose led to a Crayola dark green oxygen tank that shadowed him like a faithful service animal. Already handsome with thick, dark curly hair and dimples despite his thinning frame, he was desperate to be on the go, toddling about the playroom with a fierce determination and joy no illness could snatch from him. HIs father, his poor father, exhausted and overwhelmed, let me, a nine year old, watch over his son as he escaped to the downstairs cafeteria for a much needed cup of generic coffee. Exhilarated with my new found responsibility, I took my duties of Jordan-sitting with an ardent earnestness that would follow me into my career as a child care provider. Hovering behind him like a farmer's daughter with a flock of chicks, I herded him around the playroom where ever his heart desired to venture.
Suddenly seized with the memory of one of my earliest babysitting gigs when I was fourteen, I made what I thought was a rhetorical inquiry to baby Jordan's fate. My mom's face had the answer. She had kept the secret of Jordan's death for five years. Enraged, I demanded to know whose death she had also kept but she couldn't recall who lived and who died. She had a system; whenever I was admitted to the hospital and boisterously inquired after one of my little friends, the nurse would silently shake her head at my mother, too subtle a gesture for the self-absorbed child mind to heed. Mom would then politely suggest that such-and-such friend was probably home, or at school. Not precisely a bastion for recollection, my mother had forgotten the rest of them. Jordan's case was different for her; she remembered the haunted appearance of his father…how completely ignorant he and his wife were to this club which they did not ask to be signed up for, only to find themselves in another club with the worst membership fee possible.
My first bout of survivor's guilt happened the night I discovered Jordan's death. The conclusion was swift and simple: I must live and remember as much as I can, whomever I can. I will live and I will carve my own definition of happiness into the universe, not to be deterred by finger-wagging eejits who would tell me I am an unformed person for not completing the required checklist of adulthood success; for not coloring within the lines, as it were.
Though I would be over the moon should I be able to hunt down those I do remember, I know federal HIPPA laws prohibit medical officials from divulging any sensitive material and therefore I do not have my hopes set high. However, I do not expect this to be a sad visit. Contrariwise,this will be a harmonious reminder of all the miracles both science and the human heart can design when they are one. It will be nostalgic and sentimental, as I am both nostalgic and sentimental, and I will be sure to take notes on my observations and feelings.
It is apropos that the woman I am staying with during my time in Philadelphia is not only a fellow adult with a congenital heart defect but a former patient of CHOP. Indeed, we were frequently in and out of the same ward when were both young, and odds are favorable that we once shared a hospital room. Irony. She is an abundant mistress.
For now I wait on the proverbial edge of my seat, eager to experience the thoughts, memories and emotions I undoubtedly will as I revisit the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Will I unearth catharsis? Self-inflicted wounds of yore? Ennui? As the immortal Chuck Barry once said: you never can tell.