From My Commonplace Book - 52

from The Children's Ward

by Jane Cooper

Take her north to a doctor you can trust. She's dying, and you're dying watching her. That's the way my mother told the story to my aunt. . . .

. . .

My mother didn't want to leave me alone on the ward but I was delighted. Every day while we shared the small room at the hospital I would creep down to the end of the hall and peer in the ward door and wonder about the children who lived there. Those children were old campaigners. They could tell the names of various diseases and how they affected you. Frances, for instance was epileptic. That meant you fell down in fits. Frances was pretty, and I used to love to lie and watch her still profile through the cheesecloth curtain that at rest hour divided our two cots. She had long, pale braids, and when she sat up they fell silkily down her back. Frances was almost nine and rarely smiled. After awhile I decided she would not get better. You could usually tell.

For over a year I had weighed 42 pounds. Because of the diet my second teeth might not come in with enamel. But I didn't have celiac disease, all I had to do was stay in the hospital and learn how to eat again. Dr. Kerley stood at the foot of my cot, and my mother perched at the side. But I wouldn't look up. I was holding the brimming spoonful so that it sparkled under the bedside bulb. It was my first real supper cornflakes, with thin, sweet cow's milk.

. . .

Nurs-ah. Nurse-ah. Nurse-ah. The whole place smelt like a zoo. There was the smell of fear, the warm animal smell of sleeping bodies, and the sharp stink of hospital disinfectant coming up from the floor and sheets. Billy had started it. He had waked up wanting the nurse and no one was on duty. She must have just stepped down the hall. By the time I woke up, everybody was shouting or crying. The ward was dark, and it took me a few moments to make out Billy clinging to the bars of his crib and beating on the top rail with his fist. Billy couldn't talk clearly yet and he was shrieking in panic. Nobody could get over the bars of their own beds to help him. I sat up, then I stood and leaned over the high end of my bed and kicked at the bottom railing with my bare foot. We all began pounding the rails with our hands. The smell grew heavier. Gradually a rhythm was pounded out, and together we began to shout as loud as we could for Billy: Nurse-ah! Nurse-ah! Nurse-ah! At last we could see flashlights coming down the hall, sending slanted shadows toward the ceiling as they got closer. Then the overhead lights glared on, and the three nurses started fussing through the ward, telling the children to lie down and tucking us in with tight strictness. One of them picked up Billy, who was soaked through. Almost at once he fell asleep with his head on her shoulder. But I couldn't sleep for a long time, thinking how we had all called together to save Billy.

. . .

It was growing cold. Soon it would be time to go home. My mother came to visit, bringing with her a pair of brown leather leggings outgrown by my northern cousins. She got permission to take me for a walk outside the hospital, and together we set off through the strange city streets. At home I was used to grass and trees, so I stared at the gray, flashing pavements. Then I was leaning against an iron railing, looking down at ranks of boys in gray uniforms who marched and gestured rapidly with their hands. My mother kneeled down beside me and took my body in her arms. They're deaf and dumb boys, darling, she said. It's the deaf and dumb school. Those boys can't hear anything, and so they have to learn to talk with their fingers. I examined her face in surprise. Her eyes had blurred with tears. Then I pulled away a little and slipped one hand out of its glove experimentally. It certainly was a cold day not to be able to wear gloves. I looked down at the boys again where they wheeled and beckoned without a sound across their paved field. But didn't she know we all had something?

The Children's Ward is included in Jane Cooper's The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed. For more information on Jane Cooper see From My Commonplace Book 51.


Very sad Merry - so let's get up and find answers ! And enjoy poetry - happy making too whilst a clear fight on our hands.
Dear Enid, I guess the positive aspect of the story, which takes place around 1930, is that so many advances have been made in medicine since then. Children especially have benefited. (Maybe we should be hopeful that our own illness will be understood much better soon and real treatment will be available to everyone.)

I understood "The Children's Ward" to be autobiographical. Jane Cooper was born in 1924. Because of a misdiagnosis of celiac disease, little Jane nearly starved to death on the strict diet that was her prescribed treatment.

Jane Cooper lived to be 83. In later life she developed Parkinson's Disease and died of complications.
And yet it's on the way - probably too late for me (enjoy each day as it comes - mostly plants and country I must admit - oh and the birds thinking it's Spring and toddlers greeting each other in the school next door - now what's to chose more but maybe the answer to ME for us all - and that will come too. Happy New Year Merry.
Happy New Year to you, too, Enid. May your year be filled with beautiful flowers and birdsong and the voices of the little children in the school next door. May you also find relief from the worst of your ME symptoms .

ME/CFS research will continue in 2012 -- perhaps even accelerate. I look forward to the news. Though I have no illusions that I'll ever be well, I am excited by the work being done and have great hope for others.
Happy songs forever - not in my lifetime (too long in the tooth) - but we are accelerating. Roll out the poetry too.

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