**denotes fake name to protect privacy of individual
Chapter Twenty-Two: Pressure
If there was one major lesson I learned from my complex medical history and experiences, it was that I was resilient. I was always back up again after being pushed to the ground and kicked around like a soccer ball with my unbreakable spirit and shielded attitude that I was above and beyond any obstacle that was in my way.
But, for the first time in my life, the greatest obstacle in my way was pressure. Pressure loomed over me like a huge monster with claws, fangs, and devil ears. It was bigger than I could rise above. It was scarier than I could possibly foresee. It brought me down and I felt the crushing weight of it when I thought to myself time and time again like a broken record in the days that followed after losing my job: “What if I never get a full-time job? What if I am destined to live off of my parents like some kind of barnacle? What if I never get my health insurance? What will happen to my kidneys?” The vicious cycle of thoughts taunted at me, increasing the pressure I felt tenfold until I thought I would explode.
“You are too impatient, Mary. What is the rush anyway for you to get a job? You’ll be working for more than half your life as it is. You are too hard on yourself. There isn’t a deadline here. You’ll find the job for you. We are here for you,” My Dad reiterated when the hopelessness and the pressure was written all over my face.
My Dad was right. I was not on the streets. I had my parents who were there to support me in the comfort of their home, but I was realistic that having my parents around to take care of me was not going to last forever. I had to start taking care of myself. So, I figuratively braced myself for Round 2 with imaginary boxing gloves that I had to knock out and down pressure to get a full-time job that would last. Prior to this job search, I thought my largest battle was finding a full-time job and now I knew that my largest war was making sure that the full-time job I found would stay permanent.
“Here we go again,” I muttered to myself as my Internet Explorer revved up and I went to my usual job sites of socialservices.com, monster.com, idealist.com, and newyork.craigslist.com.
Bad and sad experiences made us stronger and taught us about avoiding getting hurt yet again, so I weeded out any group-related and leadership jobs that required working with any population and especially the elderly population. As much as I loved and valued the elderly, I knew that I absolutely could not work in a nursing home again to see these elderly people being degraded with Bingo and Simon Says exercises. At the same time, I was confident that I was still a people person that was meant to help and play a positive influence on people. However, the biggest fear I had when I ensued in this Round 2 job search was that my search would turn into this endless journey, preventing me from receiving my own necessary medical care as well as demoralizing me even more that I was a full-fledged loser and unable to live just a normal life post-two kidney transplants and multiple medical episodes.
As usual, whenever I trekked off to job interviews in itchy blouses and jackets that I loathed, my Father and Stepmom reminded me to keep my lip zipped about my health experiences. They were like broken tape recorders: “Separate personal and professional lives,” or “A job is a job.” Apparently, their tape recording was not as effective as I thought because I broke the rule yet again about keeping my health bouts to myself on a job interview in the New York City. The job interview was for this non-profit organization that was looking for a case manager to manage about a 22-24 family caseload of children with severe medical needs and disabilities. The job was to ensure that each child received such mandatory services as nursing care, modifications to the home or van to make them wheelchair accessible, optimal therapies, and pieces of durable medical equipment. As soon as I read the job posting, I knew it was for me. I completely lucked out that I nabbed a job interview.
So, there I was: An awkward 22-year-old from quiet and calm suburban Westchester County that was standing in the middle of New York City 35th Street chaos in my navy blue shirt, beige skirt that I scrounged from my sister’s closet, and a beige jacket to match. A tall skyscraper of a building towered over me. I took a deep breath and muttered to myself as I opened the door: “Here goes nothing.” Multiple job interviews had created a routine drill of me flashing my bright, toothy smile as a clipboard was given to me to repeat all that I had supposedly bragged about on my resume and cover letter. After all, I was trying to sell myself that I was more than capable of being a work slave—and it began with that smile and professional attire. I was surprised when I was called by two young women who were just about my age, and even more stunned when I was led through a maze full of cubicles with other people around my age in jeans and T-shirts as they yammered on phones or had huge blue binders opened to reveal lined sheets that were etched with scribbled and scrawled writing.
I recognized two of the women as the usual fashionistas with manicured fingernails and skinny jeans that hugged their slim figures, but there seemed to be a gentler and genuine touch when I answered their usual job interview questions as quickly and calmly as I could. As I answered their questions and they explained more in detail to me about the families in need and about this non-profit organization, I flashbacked to when I was a little girl that started life when I received my first kidney transplant and not when I was born. In mid-interview, it suddenly hit me that I really wanted this job and, more than that, I knew I could do the job because I had been there. I had been that sick kid that did not know what the hell was going on around me, but knew that I was fighting to live and survive. My parents and sister had been these families who struggled and faced up to every and any life curveball that was hurled at them when they were trying to take care of me—a chronically ill child. The need to have and want this job gnawed away at me on the inside, but I forced the outer exterior of calm, cool, collected, and more than capable for this job to shine through. The one girl with brown hair messily and sexily in a ponytail asked me with a pencil poised in her hand one last interview question: “Is there something that you’ve achieved that you are proud of and how do you think it would contribute to this job?”
I paused. I stared at them. They stared back at me. The only thing I could think of that I was proud of was how I had overcome every health challenge that had come my way since childhood. I was eerily attached to my health as though it was my Siamese twin. I wringed my hands and ignored my parents’ tape-recording voices that played on overdrive in my head.
I cleared my throat. “Well, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve received two kidney transplants and overcome any health obstacles that occurred in relation to my health.”
They gave me Barbie doll expressions of smiles with empty understanding in their eyes that said: “What is a kidney transplant?”
I rushed ahead and continued on: “I believe that this is something to be proud of because I can relate to the families and especially the children in order to help them and do my job above and beyond.”
I could not read their expressions when they nodded and just handed me a piece of paper to provide a writing sample. I tried hard to focus and show off my writing skills in the sample, but there was this voice in my head that went: “You stupid ass! Why do you do that? Why do you always go back to your health? Are you trying to screw yourself over before you even have a chance?” Again, pressure seemed to just cackle away in my face. I tried to block my thoughts out and concentrate on the writing scenario in front of me as I held back angry tears towards myself yet again.
One step forward. Two steps backwards. Good job, Mary.
I plastered on a plastic smile before I left the building, but all the fakeness fell to how miserable I really felt as I hurried to catch the subway and then the train back to my comfortable suburban home life. When I stepped foot in the house, my Dad took one look at me and knew not to ask about my job interview. We had this unspoken ritual about my Round 2 job hunt that my Dad would continue on with the questions if I made the first move of speaking about how the job interview went. When I was wordless, my Dad was wordless as well.
That night, although I was convinced that I failed horribly at this job interview for a job that I seemed to fit into like a golden glove, I forced myself to close the loop with this job opportunity by writing a handwritten thank you note to the organization for taking the time to meet with me. As I stamped the card, I held on to it with a glimmer of hope that maybe I had not totally messed up this job interview and that I would have this full-time job with the full-time health benefits that I had been waiting for and needed since graduating from college.
The worst critic in me reared its ugly head with mentally bashing myself for the next couple of days, so imagine my complete shock and surprise when I received a phone call about a week or so later with an unfamiliar area code of New York City blinking on my cell phone. I picked it up almost immediately with my heartbeat thudding a mile a minute in my chest cavity. It was the Human Resources director from the facility saying that I actually got the job. All the details and information she gave me about a salary and when to start was a blur to me. I was dazed, amazed, and so over the moon happy that I was speechless. I could not believe that it only took almost a month after being let go from the nursing home job to land this second full-time job!! I could not believe it that I was going to be working in Manhattan full of its hustle, busy, and crazy chaos!! WHOO-HOOO!!! Furthermore, unlike the nursing home job, I was not second best. I was first choice, and I was going to live up to that standard! I could not be more excited and thrilled!
When the excitement began to fade at just an inkling, it was also the first time that thoughts seeped into my head as to if my parents were really right about me hiding and keeping all my health experiences as a big and murky secret. What was the real harm in sharing my weaknesses that made me strong and capable? Maybe me telling those two interviewers that I had two kidney transplants was what landed me the job? And, so, I asked my Dad and Stepmom just that.
My Dad explained: “They probably did not hire you because of what you said about your kidney transplant. They hired you because you are qualified and already have job experience from the nursing home.”
My Stepmom nodded in agreement. I gave them a quizzical look. Were they really right and was I wrong to question them? They said to me: “You got lucky this time, but you may not get lucky next time. You worked hard to find this second chance job, so remember to just focus on the job at hand, try and do your best, and don’t tell anyone at work and especially your co-workers about your health stuff. You were already burned once, right? Why take a chance and get yourself burned or on fire again?”
I nodded reluctantly. Yes, I guessed they were right, so why did I feel like they were wrong for this first time in my life? I had always trusted and went by what my parents told me without a single question or doubt. They were older than me. They were wiser than me. So, what was this voice in my head that was beginning to rebel and wonder about my parents?
I did not have much time to think about this new voice that was beginning to blossom in my brain, because I was thrown into the fast-paced, frenzied, and fun-loving life of New York City with this job. On the first day of work, I was wide-eyed and frozen by the flood of people and bodies that rushed past me in Grand Central Station and who then slammed roughly into me as I fought to get on the smelly and humid New York City subway to my office building that had the most beautiful and breathtaking view of the Empire State Building in all its skyscraper glory. When I stepped into the building and waited for the elevator to reach the 11th floor, I could not help but pinch myself as to if this was really happening that I was working in “The Big Apple” and “The City that Never Sleeps.” Pinch, pinch. Yes, this was happening. Yes, this was real. Yes, a goofy grin played on my face that here I was living my normal life because of my second kidney transplant and now this second chance at a job. Maybe I was a girl that was all about twos and twice. Gone were the days of pressure in all its monstrosity, or so I thought. Little did I know that there would be a new pressure for me to maze through my three-month introductory or probationary period. Just like the nursing home, it was after three months that I was deemed if this full-time job was mine on a permanent basis along with any other health and vacation benefits. There was no second-guessing that I would maze through. By all means, I was not going to repeat what happened at the nursing home with taking my job and the people so personally that I would lose the job all over again. This job was mine. All mine. No one and nothing was going to stop me, not even myself or this pressure.
Unlike my first job at the nursing home, there was no cozy or home-filled feeling to the entire work floor. The aura of business and professional enveloped me with the personal cubicles, desktop spaces, fresh-scented office supplies, and unending thick, blue binders that contained ALL the information for each and every single child. I was even given my very own business cards that read “Mary Wu/Family Advisor.” At the same time that professionalism was the way at this company, I could easily tell that it was not overbearing when I was introduced to a myriad of co-workers that were all around my age in flip-flops, jeans, and T-shirts.
The director of Human Resources showed me to my very own desk with a desktop, office supplies, and a plush desk chair in a room full of other co-workers who were all around my age and freshly out of college. I was replacing **Tina who took care of families who happened to live in my suburbanite Westchester County territory and a couple families that lived a little further upstate or in other close-by counties to Westchester. Tina looked me up and down in her khaki skirt and casual shirt as though she was dissecting me like an earthworm, gave me a squeezed smile, and said: “Welcome aboard.” Her long, thick, dark curly hair was in a ponytail. When I met her, my immediate and unfortunate thought was: “Good thing she’s leaving and I’m taking over for her.” There was **April with her thin and silky, shoulder-length blonde hair, chic clothes, crystal clear blue eyes, and she said a lot more warmly: “Nice to meet you.” Next was **Robert who was African-American and somehow resembled a weightlifter with his buff body. His handshake nearly cracked and broke my fingers. He gave me a big, boyish smile and said: “Hey!” There was **Jessica with her thick layers of brown hair with highlights and twinkling brown eyes who said quietly with a shy smile: “Hi.” Lastly was **Jasmine in her baggy clothes and dark complexion as she gave me a short: “Hello.” She was completely tucked away in the corner near **Debra who was my supervisor. The moral majority of the supervisors were also to my age, but Debra was one of the very few who was middle-aged with round blue eyes and the most blonde hair I had ever seen before in my life. She was tiny, petite, and had a weary expression in her eyes and face. Debra immediately had me work alongside Tina to examine the infamous blue binders to read about each and every family.
Both Debra and Tina instructed: “Take notes on the families, but, more than that, take notes on what we are about to explain to you about the whole Medicaid System.”
I whipped out a legal pad with a pen poised in my hand. They meant business, so I would do the same. Little did I know that I was about to get entangled with and take charge of a very complicated Medicaid System as a way to help the families. As both Tina and Debra explained to me, my official title was “Medicaid Service Coordinator” and my main job at hand was to ensure that each family obtained Medicaid or kept their Medicaid, which covered necessary medical services like therapies, durable medical equipments, supplies for school, and much, much more. The catch here was these families were middle-class and some were even wealthy that managed to obtain and keep Medicaid through a waiver system that ignored the parents’ income and focused on the child’s severe medical needs. In order for the families to keep Medicaid, I had to make monthly home or school visits to see each child (NOT family) and take notes on how the child was progressing and, every year, I had to fill out a whole packet-full of paperwork to prove that the child was still sick enough to still need Medicaid. Once the family securely had Medicaid for their child, they would seek out my assistance in putting in place any services that Medicaid covered, including the therapies, the modifications to environments to make them wheelchair accessible, nursing, personal care aides, and much more.
I took notes and hung on to every word that Tina spoke. I held on to the packets of information that she had prepared for me. Most of all, I dived into the blue binders with gusto and enthusiasm. I could not wait to learn about each and every single child and family. However, by the end of the week, I was so drained out from reading these sad stories that I wanted to burn the blue binders. Children with severe autism, cerebral palsy, spinal bifida, cystic fibrosis, and major mental retardation. Children who could not talk or walk, brush their own teeth, go to the bathroom, or even breathe without an artificial device assisting them. Parents who blamed themselves or were beside themselves with what life had given them—a gift with so many unfair curses. Families that broke a part like mine because they did not know how to handle their child’s chronic illness. Siblings that were neglected because one illness had ravaged the child and then the whole family. With each word I read, I kept remembering what my family and I had been through. The memories plagued and haunted me. Worst of all, the stories I read combined with my own bad memories and experiences made me doubt if I could do this job that mirrored my personal life much too closely.
By the end of the week, I was very comfortable amongst my co-workers and especially Debra who was soft-spoken, practical, and had the combined talent of a leader but also joking around with all of us as though we were her friends. Debra was the one who noticed how weary and wide-eyed I was after going through each binder and asked me in private: “Are you feeling okay about the job?” I swallowed hard to hold back my emotions. I wanted to tell her: “I don’t know if I can do this job, Deb, because of what my family and I went through from my own health experiences. Can you give me some kind of memory eraser?” Instead, I lied like my parents coached me as a way to protect myself and separate work and play: “I’m okay.”
But, when it was just Tina and me and she showed me a little cheat sheet that she made about the status of each child’s needs and how each family was, I asked her: “How can you read this stuff about the families and work with them? It is so sad.”
Tina shrugged and said, “Well, it sounds bad, but you get use to it and eventually become immune to all of it.”
I bit my tongue of wanting to say: “You might get use to it, but how does a family get immune to it when day in and day out they see their child struggle and fight just to live or just to be normal?”
Tina’s eyes glimmered with mischief when she next said to me: “Just wait until you meet the families. That is a whole other ballgame.”
Because we were all together in one office spaced room, Jasmine, Jessica, April, and Robert all heard Tina.
Jasmine, who usually kept quiet, chuckled and said: “Yeah, just wait for that.”
April chimed in: “It is just a job, Mary. Trust me, you won’t get paid enough here to care for all the work that you do. You’ll find out.”
Jessica gave me her infamous shy smile again and said easily: “Don’t worry. You’ll be okay.”
Everyone else in the room seemed to agree, except for Robert who seemed to be focusing diligently on a note that he was writing about a family. Out of all my co-workers, I liked Robert the best. He always had such a happy and carefree smile on his face and, unlike all my immediate co-workers in the same office space as me, Robert just about never complained about the families. He was soft-spoken and calming on the phone with the parents, yet feisty and passionate when speaking with government officials or vendors to obtain services for the children. Just about all my other co-workers griped about the low salary and annoying parents who called continuously. Some intuitive feeling told me that Robert was similar to me with this passion to really help these families, yet I could not help but think that there must be something wrong with me. Yes, I was doing this job for the money and health insurance, but, more than that, I was all about working for these families and their children. Looking at all my newbie co-workers who were fresh out of college and who I could only assume had not had to deal with health experiences that I had endured, I knew then that they really had no idea what these families went through. For them, it was a job. For me, it was something more because of what my family and I had been through. I was going to have to find a way to fight against my own personal life, past demons, and usual whirlwind and care-too-much emotions to help these families and to do everything that I possibly could.
About two weeks later after starting this job, Tina started to plan out visiting the families and how I would accompany her. A big desk calendar laid in front of her as she penned in each family to visit about every other day. She advised which families to visit on which day and time and how to group them together based upon location. Visiting the families was soon going to happen and I could not wait to finally match the faces with the hard-core life experiences that I had read about time and time again on an almost obsessive basis. In addition to the visits, Tina continued with trying to explain all the complicated processes to obtain the services that each child needed as well as take in phone calls or messages that she received from parents about any issues, vendors who provided equipments, teachers, and government officials. Any work done or contact made was written down in as much detail as possible. I watched in awe with ongoing phone calls and follow-ups that she made, letters she had to write, research she had to do, and paperwork that had to be processed. I tried to help whenever I could, but, honestly, I could not wait to completely take on Tina’s role. I felt useless, helpless, and as though I was an assistant to Tina rather than really doing the job on my own. Robert said to me with his usual playful smile: “Be thankful that you have this time with Tina because I didn’t have any time and was completely thrown into the firepot of not knowing what the hell was going on with the families and being left with shit work.” I laughed, but had to agree what he said was true.
On the first day that I accompanied Tina on a home visit, I was bleary-eyed and jetlagged from a hurried weekend getaway from Washington D.C. with my family. My flight had been delayed and I was a knot of nerves from about to meet the families I was going to be working with, yet also a drained out mess from my flight disaster. My Dad said to me: “Look at you. You look awful. Why don’t you cancel and just reschedule?”
I yawned and said, “I can’t. I promised Tina. I promised the families.”
“I don’t like that you have to drive around to see all these families. There are crazy drivers out there,” My Dad said huffily with his arms across his chest.
“Dad, I have to do it. It is my job. The state requires that I have to meet each family in order for them to keep the Medicaid service for their sick kid. Besides, at least my company reimburses my gas AND at least over 90% of the families live near where I live. Lots of other case managers have it way worst where they have to travel really far to see the families.”
My Dad was quiet as I prepared for my outing, but just when I left in another business attire that I hated, he called after me: “When in doubt, put on the blinkers!”
“Yeah, okay, Dad!” I replied, but I could not help but roll my eyes and slam the door on my way out. Why was my Dad annoying me all of a sudden? Couldn’t he see that I was growing up and I had to do whatever it took to keep this job for my own health and to take care of the families? Couldn’t he see that we were now moving forward away from our past demons? I was no longer that little sick girl and I knew it was difficult for my Dad to face as well as myself. Now I had my Dad and our relationship simmering in the back of my mind as I tried to follow the mapquest driving directions to meet the first family: The **O’Hallorans. There were two thick blue binders for the O’Hallorans because they were 6-year-old twin boys who suffered from multiple medical illnesses. **Paul was in much worst shape than his brother **Lawrence. Paul had eye problems along with the inabilities to talk, walk, or go to the bathroom on his own, while Lawrence was just delayed in talking and walking. Paul also suffered from breathing difficulties, sporadic seizures from epilepsy, and autism. The family lived literally only 30 minutes away from me, but they were in an area that I was completely unfamiliar with, so following the directions with my many thoughts about my Dad along with exhaustion from the Washington D.C. trip was a challenge to say the least. I was not accustomed to driving so much and cars zipped past me as though they were flying. I let out a deep breath of relief when I finally arrived at their Victorian-styled white house with black shutters. I made it. I slowly got out of my car and my feet fell on to a pebbled driveway. I heard laughter and chatter in the backyard and glimpsed Tina already there chatting away with Mrs. O’Halloran. There was one little boy who I guessed was Paul who was sitting in a stroller as he stared vacantly into space. Lawrence was holding tightly on to his mother’s hand for dear life.
Mrs. O’Halloran gave me a warm and wide smile when I approached her. “You must be Mary. So nice to meet you.”
Tina smiled at us as Mrs. O’Halloran and I shook hands. As Tina had told me, the O’Hallorans were the easiest and sweetest family to work with and it was mostly because Mrs. O’Halloran was a part-time social worker at a major New York City hospital. She knew all-too-well about the entire Medicaid system. Tina told me that Mrs. O’Halloran rarely ever needed help and, when she did, you knew it was for something that she truly could not handle on her own.
“Do you want something to drink?” Mrs. O’Halloran asked.
I shook my head and Mrs. O’Halloran proceeded to introduce me to Paul and Lawrence. They were both beautiful and cherub-faced boys with blonde curls and blue-gray eyes. They were spitting images of their mother. Lawrence acknowledged me by hiding behind his mother, while Paul could barely meet my eye gaze and coughed up a supposed hairball in response. We went in their house that was pleasantly old and creaky. Lawrence kept himself occupied with the TV and trying to put puzzle pieces together while Mrs. O’Halloran placed Paul on the floor in a lying position to change his diaper.
“Who is the cutest boy ever?” Mrs. O’Halloran said over and over. She tickled Paul, but he just stared into space again. If Mrs. O’Halloran was bothered by Paul’s unresponsiveness, she did not show it at all. She continued to tickle Paul and smile.
“One of these days, he will talk,” Mrs. O’Halloran said to me.
I just nodded and smiled like an idiot. Lawrence came over to his Mom and wrapped his arms around her neck from behind. She gave him a kiss on his nose and Lawrence smiled. I had yet to hear a word from him and wondered if he could speak at all. Mrs. O’Halloran announced to everyone in the room: “And, Lawrence is going to be whomever he dreams or wishes to be.”
Mrs. O’Halloran then looked at me again and continued talking, “We already have the speech therapies in place for Paul and it is just taking him longer to talk than Lawrence. It took awhile for Lawrence to talk, too, and he still does not talk a lot, but at least he can say “Mom” and “I Love You.” One of these days, I will hear what I want to hear those words from my Paulie: “Mom” and “I Love You.’” Mrs. O’Halloran went back to cuddling Paul who was mute.
I had to look away from Mrs. O’Halloran. It hurt too much. At least I could speak to my family and friends to say that I loved them, though I did not say it over enough. Then again, I did not think any of us said that we loved the people we loved enough.
By the end of the week, I had already met at least two other families in addition to Mrs. O’Halloran, but none of them stood out to me as much as her, Paul, and Lawrence. I thought of Mrs. O’Hallorans easy attitude as she cuddled Paul who did not even look at her. I thought of the other families I met. I had spoken with every single parent so far who expressed sadness over Tina leaving and suspiciousness as to if I was going to live up to Tina’s hard-work standards to take care of and go the extra mile for their child. I knew that I was going to do everything I could for each and every one of them. I was a fighter throughout my life so it was not going to be any different fighting on behalf of them as well.
I was now beginning to feel comfortable in my “Case Manager” role of at least scheduling the next month of visits to see the child/family as well as understanding the various red-tape systems, which was perfect timing to Tina leaving on a Friday. Debra, April, Jessica, Robert, and Jasmine said that we all had to go out to a nearby bar for Happy Hour to celebrate Tina’s departure and also a celebration that I had managed my first week of visits and first month on the job.
I cringed when I heard them clamor excitedly about us going to a bar. Even Jessica who was often in her shy and silent mode seemed to light up. Bar. Celebrate. This meant alcohol and loud noises. It did not sound like any celebration to me. I did not want to go, and, yet again, those feelings of “different” and “not belonging” poked at me like a stick beating me alive. The ugly face of pressure reappeared again. All of them were eager and on the edge of their seats to go to the bar next-door while I was trying to avoid going to the bar by burying myself in work. Even before 5:00PM hit, all their computers were turned off and they were all ready to leave. Robert, Tina, and Debra were going to meet us there. Jasmine was at a family visit and said she would be late, but she was definitely going to be there to down beers. Jessica and April were all packed and ready to go. I could feel April’s gaze burning into my hunched-over back. She finally said to me with exasperation: “Mary! It is past 5:00 and Friday!! Aren’t you coming? We have to go and meet them there!”
“Oh, yeah, well maybe you guys can go without me,” I said weakly.
April’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Jessica looked at me blankly as though I lapsed into another language. Both of them must have thought that I was some anti-social freak, but the truth was that I had never really tried alcohol and I was afraid of what was going to happen to my health and kidneys if I did. April’s surprised expression vanished and then she broke out in a wide grin, grabbed my hand, and announced: “I am not taking no for an answer! You need to have a little fun! You take this job too seriously and, honey, we do not get paid enough for all this crap! You are here in New York City, baby, and need to live it up more!”
Jessica nodded in agreement and said simply: “Yeah, come on with us, Mary.”
I paused. What could I say to them? Could I tell them about my health? Looking at both of them, I did not feel comfortable to tell them about my health. I knew that they were both right. I did need to live up life more and not take things seriously. I did need to maybe step out from my comfort zone and from the life that I had known, but I was too scared of something happening to my health all over again. I did not want to relive my past ever, ever again. My past and arranged marriage to my health always loomed over me and was always there like a monstrous ball of fear. After my second kidney transplant lasting now over ten years, I always said that I was going to live my life to the fullest, but was I really living life to the fullest by not trying what everyone else did, yet that would also possibly endanger my health all over again? Looking at April’s disarming smile that welcomed me into a world of normal and then glimpsing the Empire State Building outside the window, I finally gave in to her and Jessica. One drink. I was only going to try one drink. One drink couldn’t possibly hurt, right?
April squealed with delight when we were finally outside in the New York City streets. The bar next door actually meant about two avenues over. I was still not accustomed to the craziness in New York City. Horns blaring. People shoving past one another before the light changed to not walking. The mixed scents of people, crunchy pretzels, and roasted hot dogs. The sounds of the subways churning beneath me. I gulped and stuck by April and Jessica like a dog trailing after them as they talked to one another.
When we finally arrived at the bar, April pushed open the doors with the biggest smile I had ever seen on her face, climbed up and plopped down easily on the bar seat as though she always belonged there, and then said to me as I was still struggling to get on the bar seat: “So, what are you going to have?”
I could feel sweat building up as I was trying to plop down on the seat. I was too short to reach the seat and actually sit down. April giggled and said: “You need some help there, Mary?”
I laughed awkwardly. Jessica held the spinning seat for me and I finally managed to sit down rather lopsided on the seat. One of my butt cheeks was practically hanging off the small round seat.
“What can I get for you ladies?” The bartender said and winked at April.
I was starting to feel nervous about what I was going to order. April had listed a bunch of different alcoholic beverages that she was going to have: Martini, Daiquiri, Long Island Iced Tea, a shot, and the list went on. I had tried to pay attention to the drinks she had said, but I could barely hear her with the loudness and chaos that was still ringing in my ears from the New York City streets. April could have been a bartender with all the drinks she knew. Jessica quietly told the bartender what she was going to have while April made this huge production about ordering a sweet drink with lots of alcohol inside to the bartender. She flashed another big grin to the bartender, Jessica, and then me, saying: “Hey, I’m not driving! Happy Hour Friday! We got lots to celebrate! ”
As if on cue, Robert, Tina, and Debra all came stampeding towards us. I cringed. Great. Now, they were all going to be here as I stumbled over a drink to order. April squealed again, nearly busting out my left eardrum, and gave them big hugs. Her, Jessica, Debra, and Tina started to talk separately as Robert came to me and asked me: “So, what are you going to have to drink?”
I wanted to ask all of them: “Why did everyone care what I was going to drink? It is a drink. Not a three-course meal.” But, honestly, I was so relieved that Robert was the only one there to hear me because when Tina, Debra, Jessica, and April were all together, they tended to go into super female mode with chatting away about nonsense.
I whispered honestly to him: “Well, I don’t really know about drinks.”
Robert shrugged. “That’s okay. I’m not too much of a drinker myself, but won’t lie that I have my beer and booze moments.”
“You really are not too much of a drinker?!” I asked in disbelief. I was so relieved when he said that. Sometimes, I had the feeling that I was the only one around my age who was not too keen on alcohol as a way to have fun.
That is when the bartender came up to me and asked me with an amused grin on his face, “So, what are you going to have?”
Yes, that was the third time I was asked what I was going to drink in less than five minutes. I stared at him as though he asked me an impossible mathematical equation. “Uhh….” I stammered.
Robert cut in and said to the bartender and me, as though trying to rescue me: “Let me guess that Mary likes sweet drinks, but not too sweet.”
I stared at him in awe. “How do you know I like sweet drinks but not too sweet?”
All my other female co-workers and Debra then seemed to join us with wanting to hear the conversation.
Robert winked at me and said, “Oh, I just have a feeling about that.” He then turned to the bartender and whispered something in his ear. The bartender nodded and was like an octopus with grabbing multiple colored and transparent liquids off the shelf behind him and then started to brew some concoction.
“Robert, what did you just tell the bartender?” Debra asked him with a teasing gaze in her eyes.
The bartender nearly slammed the glass in front of me with a bang. It was an unexplainable color of pink and fizzy with a small red straw sticking out from it. “Try it,” the bartender encouraged.
“What’s in it?” I asked scared as the drink seemed to fizz, bubble, and even change colors.
“Trust me, you’ll like it.” Robert nodded with enthusiasm.
“Can you at least tell me what’s in the drink?” I asked the bartender.
That is when it occurred to me that maybe I should have asked my nephrologist if I was even allowed to drink alcohol. Well, it was really too late for that as the bartender rambled off a bunch of words that were completely foreign to me of what was in the drink and with my co-workers and supervisor surrounding me like watchful vultures.
Pressure yet again and, to be specific, peer pressure. I stared down the drink. This was the first time alcohol and I went head to head. I suddenly felt the strange sensation that drinking this alcoholic beverage would make or break belonging at my workplace, the New York City jungle, and amongst my co-workers and supervisor. And, yes, I wanted to belong with all of them so bad now that Tina was leaving. And, yes, I knew after a week full of visits with families and hearing their stories that I wanted this job even more to the point that the mere idea of losing this job after a three-month introductory period made my stomach hurt. And, yes, I would do whatever it took to hold on to this job, even if it meant taking down this drink. Most of all, I wanted to forget everything that had to do with my kidneys and health.
My co-workers and Debra leaned in closer to me when I picked up the frosted and fizzy mystery drink. I wanted to tell all of them that I liked all of them and wanted so badly to belong, but I was not sure if I could drink this one drink because of my kidneys, but I took that thought and seemed to mentally pulverize it right then and there as I picked up the drink. This was it. Normal. I had to stop looking back and looking back at the past and I had to start looking forward. I was going to belong. I was going to work here and with these people. Leaving behind everything and anything that had to do with my health. One drink. It can’t hurt. All I had to drink was one drink to belong and loosen up. Easy enough. If I could get through two kidney transplants, peritoneal dialysis, multiple surgeries, my Mom leaving me, finding this second job after a very first failed job….well, this one drink was going to be cake and I was more resilient than anyone could ever guess.
I took a big gulp of the drink and this stinging and burning sensation washed into my throat and lungs that made my eyes tear up and cough. I wondered as the liquid streamed throughout my upper body: “Oh, my God! How can anyone drink this?!”
Meanwhile, my co-workers, Debra, and even the bartender beamed with pride that I seemed to have passed some initiation that I belonged with them, this company, and at this job. Robert was particularly excited when I forced myself to drink some more. That was when I started to feel all mellow, silly, and light-headed. That is when everything seemed funny to me and I began to laugh for no reason at all. That is when the room suddenly seemed to spin and appear darker. I shook my head to get everything and everyone in focus again. I forced a smile at Robert and the bartender with a slurred tone and goofy grin: “So, what…what…was that drink called again?” I hiccupped.
“Are you sure your okay? Maybe you drank that too fast,” Debra said putting her hand on my shoulder and making me face her. She must have spun me too fast in the chair because the room was still turning around like a merry-go-round in my head, but at least everything and everyone looked normal again to me rather than the dark and misshapen hues that I had seen about 30 seconds beforehand.
I hiccupped again and said: “Oh, I’m fine. What was that drink again?”
Debra still look worried and as though she was trying to read my expression and find out all my health secrets that I had managed to keep from her and everyone else.
Robert held up his glass of rum and coke that he said was just a starter to Happy Hour, picked up my nearly-empty glass to put it in my hand, put his arm around me, and boomed to Debra, all my co-workers, and me: “It is called a piece of ass, Mary! Welcome to New York City and the work world! Get ready to rock n’ roll with us on the job and outside with many more weekly Happy Hours and pieces of ass while you work with us! Whoo-hoo!!”
The dizziness returned again and I remembered cloudily thinking over and over again: “I'm fine. I'm fine. Just one drink and I'm still fine."
Everyone burst out laughing and, in spite of the burning and almost delirious sensation that was overpowering me, I tipsily raised my glass and clinked it with Robert and everyone else. It was the first time I felt normal. It was the first time I felt like the working girl that was growing up. One month down and two more months until my probation period over with the confirmation that this job and health insurance benefits were all mine to hold on to. Yes, I was resilient. Yes, I was the fighter and survivor. And, yes, the journey at this job and leaving behind everything else related to my health had just begun.
**denotes fake name to protect privacy of individual