Preface: This is one of many memories of living at National Jewish Hospital for three months as a kid back in the 70’s. It was an inpatient program for kids with severe intractable asthma and/or lung disease. We came from all over the country and some outside of the US. While I’m not sure it really helped my health much, it taught me many lessons, and most of them came from the other kids I lived with. This is about one of those kids, Eduardo.
He looked so sad. That was my first thought when I saw him. Flaming red curly hair, olive skin, and freckles, tons of freckles. He was very short, about as round as he was tall, and waddled when he walked. I liked him immediately. He was from Puerto Rico and didn’t speak any English, none of the other kids spoke Spanish, and I knew only a few words and phrases. I said hello, and told him in Spanish that I didn’t speak Spanish well. “Hablo muy poco Español” That one broken sentence sealed our friendship and he stuck to me like glue from that point on. He was scared, really scared, and couldn’t talk to anyone. His parents had gone, flown back to Puerto Rico. There was only one nurse’s aid on the floor that spoke Spanish, and she wasn’t the kindest soul. The language barrier made a bad situation a thousand times worse.
Whenever they made him go for medical tests he’d ask me to go with him…of course, I wasn’t allowed to but I always reassured him the best I could it would be OK. I was a shy awkward kid, like most of them, and didn’t know how to deal with other people’s pain. In his first week there he had breathing problems and they had to take him to the unit. He begged me to come with him…it broke my heart because I knew how scary it was. It had happened to me on my second day when I came down with a virus, and I didn’t think I’d live through it, not so much because of my breathing, but because of my fear and being so very alone. I held his hand, but they had to take him. I couldn’t go, and we weren’t allowed to visit kids there, even though it was just down the hall from our particular living unit. I hoped Leah, a four-year-old angel who slept in the unit, would find him and comfort him. I knew she would. I had learned a lot from that little one and didn’t want any of the kids to feel alone after my experience in the unit.
That was the worst thing about the place, the isolation. It felt like the loneliest place on earth when you first arrived, especially when you were sick and not feeling well. It was overwhelming, and I didn’t want anyone else to feel that way because I could feel their fear and pain. Each time a new kid came through the door and was left crying as their parents walked out the door, you went through it again. Some cried openly and screamed, others sobbed silently into their pillows like I had, but they all did it. It wasn’t summer camp, and everyone knew it. Parents were told this was our best chance at having a normal life, so scared parents left their scared kids, some, like mine, against their better instincts. I could feel my mom’s pain when she left me, so I tried my best to be brave. I didn’t cry till she was out of sight. She knew I was hurting and made the goodbye as short as possible. I’m pretty sure that was also to hide her own emotions. Every kid went through it, even the toughest of them, and some of them were like rocks, or at least they appeared that way, till you found out that they were the most fragile of all.
Ed made it through the unit and was out in a couple of days. With a little attention from me and my roommates, he started to relax a little. We were horrible to him! Not really, of course, we all loved him, but we’d dress him up in girl stuff, treat him like a baby doll, and order him around. I think he liked all the female attention, until one day he realized his young manhood was being challenged when we tried to put pink ribbons in his hair. He went screaming and ranting in Spanish and then explained he was muy macho, un hombre fuerte! We all died laughing. He was bellowing in his deep raspy voice about his manhood, with pink ribbons adorning his red curls, his round freckled face bright red with indignity. The memory of that spectacle still amuses me to this day. He eventually forgave us for doubting his maleness.
Ed loved BASKETBOLL! (he would bellow this every time it was time to play), and I was his favorite team-mate. He stood in the middle of the floor, there is no way that boy could run. I, “El Gigante Blanca”, as he called me, ran around and fed him the ball. He was like a robot… he’d hit the basket every time! We pulverized the rest of the prednisone stunted kids and were rulers of the court. We made quite a team. I was already my adult height of 5’7”, and he was a little round red midget, who looked a lot like a basketball himself, with a hell of a shot.
He learned some English, and we learned a bit of Spanish, but a lot of our communication was nonverbal, and as an introverted kid, I was fluent in nonverbal communication. One day, a five-year-old girl from Texas came in. She spoke Spanish to her parents, and Ed went to her immediately. She was an emotional mess, and he made sure she had somebody to talk to. She spoke more English than he did, but she seemed to like that another Spanish speaker was there and he was really sweet to her… Ed was no longer afraid all the time, and he definitely was macho.
The day I left, Ed cried openly for the first time. Everyone else avoided me like the plague that day, but Ed came out, hugged me, and cried like a baby… The sign of a real macho man, at the tender age of eleven.
I miss him.
¿Quien es mas macho? Mi amigo muy fuerte, Eduardo.