I’ve been lucky. I’ve never lived through a war or a pandemic or any other event that would require me to be cooped inside forever and ever. Quarantined without an end in sight.
It was only after my surgery at age four that I had to stay in bed for almost two weeks, without moving much, and to this day, I have the physical and mental scar to remind me of that time.
After an emergency appendectomy, I returned from the hospital with a drain tube in the right side of my lower abdomen.
Colette and her mother, Mrs. Demetriade, our friends on the third floor, did the neighborly thing and came down to visit with me. As a get-well gift, Colette brought me a toy bludgeon with a wooden shaft and a spiked head she had made of hardened brown play dough. “A bozdogan, to fight off your rotten disease,” she explained with precocious confidence, using the Turkish name for the weapon. From my bed, I accepted the gift and, with a confused look, I held it awkwardly in my hand. While my grandmother Ina and Mrs. Demetriade exchanged smiles, Colette dropped to the floor to play with her doll that she had brought from upstairs. I softened the spikes of the bozdogan by warming them with my fingers and bent them into an almost perfect sphere. I then carved out the eyes, nose and smiling mouth of a gentle human being.
“He’s an angel,” Mrs. Demetriade said pointing at me.
“A pussycat,” my grandmother agreed.
I closed my eyes. I was able to move my hands and turn my head, but not my body, and when I forgot and tried to reposition myself in bed, the drain tube pulled at my scar and pain shot through my groin and down my right leg to my knee.
“We almost lost him,” Ina told Mrs. Demetriade. “When they opened him up, his appendix was on the verge of bursting. One more hour or two and this little boy would have been done for.”
“Don’t think about it,” Mrs. Demetriade consoled her.
“That’s why he has the tube — for the puss to drain out of his body,” Ina added tearfully. She had been late in recognizing that I had appendicitis and blamed herself.
I recuperated quickly. In a couple of days, the color returned to my face, and my freedom of motion improved. Dr. Max, my dad’s colleague from the hospital, came to see me and was delighted with the progress. “Limit his mobility until we remove the tube, by the end of the week,” he ordered.
Each day, I became more restless. While my parents were at work, Ina read to me, told me stories and encouraged me to play with my toys without getting up from my bed and without turning and stretching. Mrs. Demetriade and Colette checked on me every day. Colette played silently on the floor, and Ina used the opportunity to chat in the kitchen with Mrs. Demetriade. Keeping me still all day long was hard on her, even though she realized that my progressively better mood was a sign of recovery.
One morning, Mrs. Demetriade brought me a box covered in shiny wrapping paper. Inside was a red fire truck that I lifted into the air with shaky fingers.
“So, what do you say to Mrs. Demetriade?” Ina prompted me.
“Thank you,” I answered.
Colette and I played with the fire truck for hours. We named the toy firefighters, built streets, homes and castles out of blankets and pillows — obviously they were all burning. Later that day, after Colette left, I asked Ina to fill the truck cistern with water.
“Honey, don’t play with water in bed. It’s a bad idea,” Ina said, but I insisted. She relented, after which she rushed to the kitchen to fix dinner. My dad would be finishing his afternoon rounds at the hospital any minute. When she returned, the pillow was soaking wet, as were the sheets, my face, my hair and my pajamas.
“Oh, baby, what did you do?” she exclaimed, amused and irritated. “I told you, didn’t I? Well, get up. I will have to change you.”
I stood on the bed. She rushed to the bathroom and returned with a towel. I waited quietly while she dried my hair and undid the upper buttons of my pajama top, but when she reached my navel, I took a sudden step back. “It will hurt,” I said and started crying.
“No, honey, it won’t. I’ll be careful.” She pulled the pajama top towards her and away from my tummy, and she handled my pants the same way, careful not to touch the scar and the dressing. I shook out of fright rather than pain, and she threw the wet clothes on the floor. “You’re cold,” she said and resisted the impulse to hug me close to her chest.
Just then the entrance door to the apartment opened. “Hello, I’m home. Dinner ready?” Before Ina had a chance to react, my father was in the room. “Why is he naked?” he asked.
“He’s wet,” Ina said. “I need to make his bed and change him.”
“Did he pee on himself?”
“No, it’s from his fire truck,” Ina said, trying in vain to point at the red toy hidden by the white comforter.
I was wailing by then.
A few days later, Dr. Max showed up with a metal tray with surgical supplies. It was time to remove the drain tube — the end of my sequestration. “C’mon, Alexander, this will be quick.”
“Will it hurt?” I asked, my eyes darting from Dr. Max to Ina, who was standing next to my mother, a few feet from the door.
My dad moved closer and sat in front of Dr. Max near my pillow. He leaned over. “All right, Alex, we have to do this. Dr. Max has to remove the drain tube. It will be just a pinch, I promise. Be a big boy, and in a day or two the little hole where the tube is will heal, and you will run and play as much as you wish.”
“But will it hurt?” I pleaded.
“Ina,” my father said turning around. “Give me that bludgeon, the one he got from Colette.” She did, and he handed it to me. “Hold on to this like a big boy and let Dr. Max do what he has to do. I’ll sit right here. If it hurts even a little, smack me over the head with the bludgeon. The harder it hurts, the harder you smack me.”
“Really?” Ina asked.
I grabbed the bludgeon and stretched out on the bed. My dad pulled my pajama pants down and carefully removed my bandage. “We need more light,” he said, and Ina switched on the bedside lamp. The skin around the scar was red, and the tube extended out through the skin about one centimeter. The gauze around the tube was completely dry.
“Looks good,” Dr. Max said, and lightly cleaned the area with iodine.
“Ready?” Kostea asked.
Dr. Max grabbed the end of the tube with his surgical pliers, squeezed, and extracted the tube, first by jerking his wrist and then following with a continuous pulling motion. The four or five centimeters of tube that were inside my belly revealed themselves slowly and wiggled like a worm in the air. Immediately, a bloody froth bubbled to the surface. Dr. Max cleaned it by tapping lightly with a sterile cloth, then applied a piece of gauze over it and secured it with a large Band-Aid.
The whole procedure had lasted ten seconds. I had followed the doctor’s hands with scared eyes and my mouth wide open, and when it ended, I shrieked. Then I turned and hit my dad with the bludgeon as hard as I could on the forehead. The play dough around the wooden handle flattened. Dad’s skin cracked and a red bump formed instantaneously. He covered his forehead with his hands, as he, Ina, my mother and Dr. Max starting laughing. But I was free.
For months, my dad’s forehead carried the sign reminding us of the time when I was not allowed to leave the bed.
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