Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jenny On the Side - I

I was seven that year, living in the simpler world of hand me down pants instead of new frocks, radios instead of TVs, door knocks instead of telephones, yet I was still spoiled by a world of affections if not a world of goods.  One day dad took me to the hospital on his bicycle, as my fever had reached 40 degrees Celsius  (104 F) the third time that week. The doctor took one look at my X-ray and sentenced me to a week's stay in the children’s ward, alone. A fate worth than death I thought.

But that was how I met Jenny, who was then only a couple of years older but a head taller.  She walked with her head held high even though her hospital clothes hung loosely over her body, so pale and frail she was you’d think a strong wind might take her away. Though none of that made any difference, as she greeted me with a smile I've never seen before when I was hiding my face under the covers crying, scared of the dark and hurt from being away from home in that cold hospital bed.

The children's  ward was on the fourth floor and our room had ten beds, five on each side of the room against the long walls.  Most of the beds were occupied that night and I heard crying but not the loud screaming kind, just some quiet whimpers you could only hear if you weren't talking or crying yourself, and were listening intently for steps in case somebody was coming to pick you up.  But there were neither footsteps nor unscheduled pickups; instead I heard whimpers that made my heart tighten.  Then all the sobbing sounds dwindled into one, and when I touched my face without thinking I realized it was mine.

The girl next to me turned around and slid off of her bed without much noise and remained quiet until I was curious enough to stop crying to see that she was keeling next to my bed.   

She smiled a toothy grin with a tinge of shyness when she saw me lookup, so sweetly that I couldn't help but wanting to crack a smile also, though I only managed to choke out another round of tears.  She reached out and touched my forehead the way mom always did to make me feel better: "It's OK, little sis.  What do you have?"

“Pneu… pneumonia...” I could hardly finish the word before tears started streaming again. A few coughs escaped and I was a mess of water works all of a sudden.

She smiled again, with relief this time.  "Oh, that is not so bad, you will be better in no time. You won't even have a chance to get to know all the kids here, hehe…”

Her laugh was the sound of a baby bell, a muffled chuckle rolling off the back of her throat. Like her, it didn’t have the kind of silliness girls her age are full of, as a thoughtless giggle would. It developed into a gentle sigh that melted away my fears, just as the moon had finally risen above the thick tree lines and its light giving everything a silvery iridescent.   I stared at her moonlit face and saw a familiar serenity too; one that I thought I had left me behind that morning.  The sound of children crying was fading away as I started telling her about my family.  But soon my eyes grew heavy, my tongue sluggish and I drifted off into a nice dream about going home soon.

The next morning I stayed in bed until the nurse came by to give us a daily check up.  When it was her turn I saw she was skin and bones with her ribs protruding.  Then she turned around and I nearly gasped.  She had large patches of bandages covering her back, and when the nurse opened one to change it, I saw scars that shouldn’t belong there, not with her.  I got scared and ran, joining some of the other kids in the courtyard for a game of songs and hand claps.  But soon my curiosity won out and I came back in to find her lying on the bed resting.

"So what is your name?" I asked as a way of breaking the ice, though I had told her all about my family and my friends by then.

"We don't use names around here. You know how they call you the pneumonia?  That's what everyone goes by."   This was the script they all had been reciting to me.

"But I have a name, and I know you do too.  Can you tell me your name please?"

I looked at her with my eyes pleading, and she sat up with a wry smile and said: "just call me Jenny on the side, because soon you will be out of here and you will forget all about me, just like putting a toy aside when you’ve had enough of it."

I wanted to tell her I only had one toy - a black haired doll since I lived with my parents and I'd never cast her away. But I couldn’t say a word as my chest tightened again, like someone was reaching in and squeezing my heart and lungs shut.  I strained to hold back tears by taking in deep breaths and letting out a heavy sigh.  Jenny didn't look at me again, but said she was tired and needed to take a nap.


In the afternoon, my parents came to see me and brought loads of treats, a rarity even for a sickie as I'd never seen a banana before then and the pint sized cake without frosting was what I had only dreamed of.  I gingerly brought the goodies back shouting "Jenny" all the back, wanting to share them with her, and show her off to my parents at the same time.  What a lovely thing that would be!

But Jenny was nowhere to be found.  It wasn't until dinner when we all returned to our beds that I saw her dragging back, paler and wearier then ever.

"Jenny, guess what?  My parents brought a cake this afternoon. I saved half for you. Where did you go anyway?"

"No save it for yourself.  Not everyone's parents visit this often.  Oh, I went to play with the heart murmur girl from bed #14".

"You did?"

"Don't look at me like that.  I would rather play with you, but I know soon you will be out.  I will have to play with her then so I might as well get used to it."

I couldn't think of anything to say.  Maria, or the heart murmur as they say, was the only other kid our age in that big room, but she was kind of mean. In fact I couldn't stand her.  She acted like a princess and was always trying to get others to "serve" her.  Jenny, the oldest of the younger kids in the room, knew how to handle her but I could tell she didn't enjoy being around Maria either.  I wished then I had a more serious illness so I could have stayed there longer.

That's when it occurred to me I still haven't asked what Jenny had, and she hadn't told me yet either.

"Jenny, what do you have? Will you be here real long, like a month?"

She laughed.  A hearty one this time that made her whole body shook and her head rocked back and forth a while before she stopped and looked at me in the eye.

"I have been here since about a year ago.  I don't know when I will be out, I don't know that I ever will..."

I felt all the air had been sucked out of my lung and my mind went blank for a second.

"Wha.... what do you mean?"  I managed to say.

"I have a heart defect, they have to keep monitor my heart and give me injections everyday or I will die."

It was the first time I had heard the word said out loud to me, especially by a kid roughly my age.  Yet I didn't see any tears, fear, or superstitious gestures as expected.  The only thing I saw was what I would call a calm acceptance on Jenny's face.  It made everything seemed almost OK, even though my mind had become marsh just a moment ago, seeing her like this made it somehow untangled, and I could tell pain from joy again.  The joy of seeing her here, cool as a cucumber and lovely as the evening primrose.  The pain of thinking her gone, cold as that sheet of paper with our names written on it, even though no one would ever read or used them.

There is a first time for everything so that was the first time I felt my heart ached for someone other than myself, for a night and more, as I drifted off into exhausted sleep, thinking and hoping. Hoping and thinking, surely there must be a cure?



  1. Gosh - that was really moving and well written - you said just enough and left just enough unsaid to draw me in and make me wonder.
    I'm looking forward to part 2

  2. Wow! This is an amazing piece of writing. I love the expression of empathy and wisdom here...and of pain and kindness. So well done.

  3. This is such a lovely piece of courageous writing. Wonderful despite the painful subject matter x

  4. Wow. Simply amazing. Your description of Jenny kind of reminded me of a girl I grew up with who had muscular dystrophy. She died when we were eleven.

  5. This is lovely - Jenny sounds fabulous and your description of your life without tv, bananas etc is terrific.

    I look forward to part 2.

  6. Wow, this is just amazing! I love everything about this story - how you tell us a lot but not just everything, the description about a life without TV and telephones...
    I really enjoy reading your posts, you're a very talented writer.

    I'm looking forward to the next part of the story.

  7. Fantastic piece of writing. It made me feel quite emotional when I was reading it. Really looking forward to the next part.

  8. As lovely as this piece of writing was, it brought tears to my eyes! How sad for poor Jenny. But with a "blessing a day" and a cup half full, we can be thankful you were healed and healthy! :)

  9. i'm a bit emotional these days, actually i'm a big EMO so it wasn't a surprise to feel the lump in my throat and taste my salty tears as i read this. I worked in the hospital before and though we're not allowed to cry in front of our patients, it pained me to see children sick and dying..I wouldn't cry for Jenny because of that, I'd cry because she had a weak yet strong heart.

  10. Love your blog, I'm following!!

    would love you to enter my giveaway:


  11. Painful reminder of my own very similar experiences.

    Which is to say, awesome piece, very well written.


  12. Wow, that's such a well-written story! It leaves me wanting to read more :)

  13. This was so touching.. One drop of tear is flowing down my left eye..
    And nicely written.The imagery, everything..
    Waiting for Part II.

  14. Part 2!! Part2!!

    This was really great. Totally enjoyed it.

  15. Fantstic story. You should write a book. I was so mesmerized that I wanted the story to go on and on.I can't wait for more. Keep up the good work.

  16. That was beautiful. I loved the way you allowed the reader to discover everything along with your younger self rather than via your adult point of view.

  17. Very well done! I am going to choose to believe that somehow, somewhere they found a way to help her.

  18. Sharon - I'm really flattered to have you make the first comment. I was unsure about splitting the post so thanks for letting me know it worked.

    Jade - Thank you, truth is I didn't have much empathy then but Jenny taught me much on that and more so it was easy to empathize with her.

    The Divorcee - Yes it did take some nerve to post this. Thank you I know understand. :)

  19. Robbie - as you are an amazing writer yourself, I'm flattered by your comment. I credit it to the story.

    Baglady - The opening was the result of a last minute addition suggested by a 10 year old.

    Starlight - you are too kind. Thank you so much.

  20. HF&I - Welcome to my blog. Thank you (and to all who said the same) for letting me know you want to read more as I really wondered about that.

    etoile - I can't agree more with you. Your comment touched me when I read it.

    My day (MDIAS) - what a lovely sentence!

  21. Maria - Sorry you are not feeling well, sometimes a good cry helps me. She was weak herself yet strong for others, you summed her up well.

    Sermsee - Welcome to my blog and thank you.

    Milly - Welcome and thanks for following. I enjoyed your giveaway.

  22. C.N - I'm sorry to hear you had a similar experience and thank you for sharing that you related to the story.

    Heather - I want to share the whole story so thanks for encouraging me.

    Runawaybride - Part II is coming. Thanks for reading and commenting this.

  23. Just like you - A book! I am very flattered you think so and am encouraged to write more. Thank you for such kind and generous comments.

    Holly - Definitely! Thank you and I enjoyed your comment.

    Nari - I'm so glad you said that as it was really difficult to not add more adult views during editing. I am glad and thankful you noticed it and liked it.

    Barbra - Thank you for saying so. So glad you are back.

  24. Wow. I think your very best piece, yet. I loved the opening paragraph, with "spoiled by a world of affections if not a world of goods," right down to the very end question.
    Gorgeous writing, Shopgirl. ;)

  25. A very touching story- sad to see the seriousness that children must endure sometime, but in many way uplifting that they have the ability to cope with tough heartaches and always hope for an escape, a cure.

  26. Oh no.....did you get to know what happened to her?

  27. Very touching. The emotion is well portrayed.

  28. Jayne - I am loving your writing especially lately. Thank you for the kind words. That paragraph came after my 10 year old told me the old opening was "awkward". :)

    Andra - Welcome to my blog. I've been enjoying yours. You understood it completely and that's the highest compliment to the story.

    Caterpillar - Stay tuned for part II.

    Susan - Thanks. I'd love to hear critiques as well. Feel free to email me if that's easier.

  29. Ha! Isn't that funny?...through the eyes of a ten year old. It's really quite amazing the things they see. It's good to have readers of all ages!
    Sometimes I'll have my kids take a look at my stuff before I press the button, and voila, a whole new perspective. ;)

  30. *TAG* You're it. I couldn't help it. I just love your blog.




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