Chapter Twenty-Three: Invincible
The Dupres lived in a monstrous mansion that could probably give the White House a run for its money. In the center of their semi-circle driveway was a fountain with colorful flowerbeds. Their landscape was immaculate with fresh emerald grass that glistened in the sunlight with an array of even more flowers arranged in painful perfection and precision. Their gleaming white house stood proudly over me. This voice plucked away in the back of my mind: “Can you believe that this family needs Medicaid for their daughter? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
My nerves twisted in my stomach all over again. The Dupres were one family that I had not met with **Tina as my protector and anchor. I heard Tina in the back of my mind with her words of sage experiential advice about Mrs. Dupre: “She grilled me with endless questions until I felt like I was six feet under the ground she walked on. She will do the same to you like she did with all the other case managers. Word of advise that all the case managers before me said to me: Say as little as possible.”
Tina had also kept me up to speed with the current situation that the Dupres were in. For at least six months, the Dupres and the local government were in cohorts of trying to get an elevator placed in the Dupres home to accommodate wheelchair-bound **Lisa Dupre who suffered a mild to moderate form of cerebral palsy, as I recalled. Unlike those with severe cerebral palsy, Lisa still managed to eat and talk. About two months before Tina left, the elevator was approved. However, the most recent drama revolved around Mrs. Dupre who was insisting that the highest elevator bidder with complicated and high-tech functions was chosen. The government was adamantly refusing, saying that there was only enough money in their budget for a basic elevator. Tina had tried to appeal the government’s refusal with the necessary paperwork, but the government was not relenting. Mrs. Dupre was not a happy camper about this and had been a thorn in Tina’s side since I arrived with wanting to know what the delay was with the environmental modifications with the elevator.
This was going to be fun, I thought, as I pushed the doorbell and heard a tinkling chime echo from inside the home. I tried to paste on an infamous Wu smile, but my smile crumbled when this tall lady who was completely dressed in crisp white with the exception of a multi-colored pastel scarf wrapped carelessly and yet artistically around her shoulders said to me icily: “So, you are Mary.”
She leaned against the doorframe and I stood there like an idiot wondering if she was going to let me in. Right behind her was Lisa in her motorized wheelchair. She gave me a sweet and simple smile. Her blue eyes sparkled and her dark blonde hair was in a tight and plaited braid. She looked much younger than 11-year-old.
“Hi,” I said weakly and went to shake Mrs. Dupre’s hand, but she dismissed the handshake and let me in airily to follow her as she called to me: “Close that door behind you.”
It took me more than a couple minutes to arrive in the spotless kitchen with technological gadgets that looked like weapons. Due to the couple minute walk, I was able to take in the unbelievably exorbitant furniture and well-coordinated décor of the foyer, formal living room, and dining room. There were orchids, crystal chandeliers or fancy antique lighting, and earth tones in just about every room that I had wandered into before arriving in the kitchen.
Everything in her kitchen appeared almost shiny, smooth, and cool marble to me. As soon as we were in the kitchen, Mrs. Dupre’s smooth hand wrapped around a tall glass that was filled with green liquid. I tried to hide my disgust with just looking around. Lisa drank what appeared to be a sparkling water beverage from a sippee cup that Mrs. Dupre held to Lisa’s lips gingerly.
“It is a seaweed drink,” Mrs. Dupre explained to me about her drink.
“Oh, okay,” I said.
She eyed me up and down suspiciously and then said: “Where did you go to school?”
I braced myself. Tina had prepared me well. “Manhattanville College.”
“Ahhh….interesting,” she said. She then proceeded to ask me what I studied and what I wanted to do with my life.
“What do I want to do with my life?” I repeated back to her like a parrot.
Both her and Lisa stared at me expectedly. Lisa had not even said one word to me yet.
“Well, maybe go into social work.”
“Ahhh…interesting,” Mrs. Dupre said again.
I was starting to feel like a frog being dissected on a silver platter tray. It was eerily silent in the kitchen with the exception of the refrigerator humming, Mrs. Dupre drinking her seaweed drink as daintily as possible, and Lisa sipping. Lisa then piped up with slow and slurred speech: “You are going to get us that elevator, right?”
“Yes, of course, sweetie. Mary is absolutely going to get us that elevator,” Mrs. Dupre said as a statement, her cold blue eyes burning into my eyes.
A jolt of fear sparked in me, but I just quipped as honestly as I could: “Well, I will certainly try and work my hardest to make it happen.”
Mrs. Dupre’s outlined and smoky eyes flashed with fury. Yikes, I thought, mistake on my part. I should have just kept silent, as Tina had told me. Mrs. Dupre then shocked and stumped me with a sudden and almost violent rant: “Can you believe how absurd this is? I just can’t believe our ridiculous government! Those lazy government officials told Tina that they have to allot and save that money for people who really need it! Lisa is in a wheelchair for God’s sakes! She absolutely needs it! She is disabled and needs all the help she can get and there is just all this stupid red tape, paperwork, and questioning! The government gives their money freely to criminals and killers who are on death row or in prison without question, but all we need is just that money for the elevator and they grill us! It is maddening!”
It took every ounce of strength to bite my tongue and not say to Mrs. Dupre: “I understand that Lisa is in a wheelchair, but at least she can somewhat eat and talk. And, at least she is in this lavish home with all the money in the world thanks to you and Daddy Dupre.” I inhaled sharply and pinched myself to stay silent.
Mrs. Dupre’s cold gaze bored into mine again as though she was waiting for me to respond. Mrs. Dupre must have thought of my speechlessness as stupidity because she said abruptly: “Well, I guess that is it for now. We will wait to hear from you about the visit next month and your progress with the elevator.”
She then turned on her heel towards the direction of the door with her three-inch heels clicking, clacking, and echoing throughout the magnificent halls. I opened and then closed my mouth like a dead fish. Mrs. Dupre ushered me out of her immaculate home faster than it had taken me to find it. Lisa smirked as she rolled ahead of me like a speed demon in her wheelchair, nearly running over my foot in the process. Mrs. Dupre practically slammed the door in my face.
On the car ride back home, I flashbacked to the Dupres home with its high-beamed ceilings, large glass windows, sparkling floors, wealthy antiques and pottery everywhere, and infamous watercolor paintings. I could not help but think that the Dupres were not exactly knocking on poverty’s door so why did they need the government’s money so badly when they could probably afford this elevator themselves? And, what did disabled really mean? I thought about the other children who I had met so far who could not even speak, eat, or go to the bathroom on their own. These families had barely asked anything of and from me. My mind played like a movie with rewinding back in time to when I was a preteen that was on crutches and then a wheelchair because of my left hip that had supposedly worsened and eventually broke down because of the Prednisone immunosuppressant medication that I had to take to keep my first and now my second kidney transplant functioning. I never once thought of myself as disabled when I was growing up, because I simply was not.
I knew that the Dupres were going to be my most difficult family when, ironically, it seemed to me that they really needed the least. That night, I tried to share absently and factually about the Dupres to my Dad, rather than my usual emotional rant I had done in the past with my first job at the nursing home. He shook his head in quiet disappointment. “You know, you can’t really judge that mother. And, you know, you have to feel bad for her and that entire family.”
“What?! Why? They have all the money in the world!”
“Well, that mother thinks that all the money in the world will make up for everything and that the government owes her for her child who is sick. We don’t really deserve anything because we have to earn or work for it. Who wants to be labeled as disabled anyway? I never labeled you as disabled.”
“But, I’m not disabled,” I protested defensively.
“That’s because I never labeled you that way. Don’t you know, Mary, that you are in the somewhat same alley as some of these kids with disabilities? Not the ones who can’t walk, talk, or anything like that, but you’ve definitely had your fair share of stuff. I always said that you could do anything as long as you worked for it and no matter all the health challenges that have come your way, and I stick to that.”
“But look at all the benefits she can get from the government,” I mumbled to myself.
My Dad’s eyes narrowed and he said softly, “Yeah, but look at the price they all have to pay for that label, right? No one wants people and the world to judge and that word disabled sure does cause judgment.”
I had nothing left to say to my Dad, but the biggest controversy that always played in my head when I worked at this non-profit organization was to what disabled really meant and if I could really work hard for a family that I did not believe needed my help or was even taking advantage of the government. Usually, I put everything and even more than that into my work and for these families who mimicked my own family and life to a certain degree, but after what my Dad said, there was little to no motivation in me to get this elevator for the rich and wealthy Dupres. I could not work for something that I did not believe in, no matter how many times the broken record whirred in my head that this was a job and it was my job to fulfill a task that a family gave me.
Mrs. Dupre certainly was not going to let me get away with my conscious gnawing away at me and preventing me from working my hardest. She called me every day and even multiple times a day with her piercing voice ringing in my ear or on my voicemail: “What is going on with the elevator?”
I forced myself to follow-up with the top government official who shot back the same story to me as he told Tina: “We told Tina and we are going to tell you the same thing that the elevator was approved, but there is no way that we are going to choose the bidder that Mrs. Dupre wants because the money is way too much and out of our budget. There really is no point for you to appeal, because it is going to be denied again. Mrs. Dupre knows that. She received a letter about it. Your organization received a letter about it. The only way she is going to get that elevator is if she accepts the lowest and basic bidder rather than the complicated and overly expensive elevator that she is requesting.”
Whenever I tried to merely mention to Mrs. Dupre about choosing the basic elevator, she fought back like a wildcat with one simple retort: “That is unacceptable.”
At that point, I was counting down to my three-month probation being finished. I was not going to let Mrs. Dupre stop me from having this full-time job with full-time health benefits, but I knew that I had to relent and finally go to **Debra for help on how to handle Mrs. Dupre. The government was not budging. Mrs. Dupre was not budging. No compromising meant no solution, and that I had to be the one to come up with one. When I told Debra all of this and asked her what to do, she said to me: “Let me talk to this battleaxe Mom for you.”
I could not help but laugh aloud. That turned out to be the worst idea ever. My ears burned with embarrassment when I heard Debra’s usual calm demeanor turn firm, assertive, and bordering on aggressive, and snippets of Mrs. Dupre’s voice shouting through the phone. Debra finally sighed and said: “Okay, Mrs. Dupre, we will do that then.” Debra hung up the phone.
“What happened?” I asked, my mouth like cotton.
Debra paused. “Mrs. Dupre is requesting another case manager. She has met **Jessica before so she wants her to take over her case.”
“Me? Why me?” Jessica asked, dumbfounded.
In our tiny office space area with our desks and chairs clustered together, nothing here was a secret. I swallowed hard. On one hand, I was doing mental cartwheels that I no longer had to deal with Mrs. Dupre. On the other hand, I felt like I was being tossed aside as a failure and that I had lost a fight for a family. I feared that this would hurt me staying at my job on a permanent basis. I also felt really, really bad for Jessica, and fearful that she was going to lash out on me for not being able to handle the Dupres.
Jessica, who was usually calm and even emotionless, asked Debra and I with a worried expression: “What does she think that I’m going to be able to do that Mary is not going to be able to do?”
Debra cleared her throat. “Listen, gals, you know I never lie to you, so here’s the deal. Mrs. Dupre said she wants someone more assertive in a calm manner. She said that she met Jessica before on some visit that I guess Tina brought her on and she wants her. So, Jessica, you will get the Dupres and we will give Mary another new family.”
Jessica and I gave each other a look that said that we agreed. “I’m sorry, Jess,” I said.
I expected her to flash me some stony gaze, but she gave me a crooked smile, sighed, and said: “Ahh…its okay. We’ll make it up for a double dose of happy hour.”
I laughed nervously in response. When I gave Jessica the famous blue binder of the Dupres, a weight of stress, strain, and struggles of trying to work hard for a family that I did not believe in was lifted off of my shoulders.
The Dupres were probably the worst and most difficult family that I had to deal with during my time as a case manager. Most of my families were middle-class and lived in suburban counties, Westchester and Rockland, and needed services and items that I was easily able to obtain with processing the necessary paperwork and calling the right people.
One family that I would have fought for until the end of time was the **Shandors. My first thought of tiny **Celeste Shandor when she clumsily half-crawled over to me was: She has the shiniest almond-shaped brown eyes, the silkiest dark hair, and the biggest smile I have ever seen before.
Celeste was a 7-year-old girl that suffered from a brain hemorrhage on the right side of her brain just as soon as she was born, causing major developmental delays in walking, talking, and going to the bathroom on her own. Her fragile body convulsed into violent seizures at any given moment. She toddled over to me for the first time with her long dark hair plaited in two ponytail braids. Her mother, **Mrs. Shandor, gave me an exhausted smile with a lightless look when she first met me. She was holding Celeste and her arms and Celeste’s younger sister, **Sophia, stepped forward as the official welcome wagon of the all-female clan that was clearly absent of a Father/Husband. Sophia gave me a wide grin and proceeded to show me all her toys scattered in the corner of the large house that belonged to Celeste’s grandmother who did not hesitate for a second to open the doors wide open to her daughter and granddaughters when Mr. Shandor had left the family just a year or so after Sophia was born and when Celeste’s health significantly worsened with the delays of the daily living skills and seizures.
Mrs. Shandor was cordial, yet guarded at our first meeting. She said almost nothing and spent almost the entire time eyeing Celeste nervously when Celeste tried to move around on her own rather unsuccessfully. Mrs. Shandor then would immediately pick Celeste up and hold her. Whenever Sophia called out for her mother, Mrs. Shandor was absentminded and distracted because her constant focus was on Celeste as though Celeste was glass about to shatter at any given moment. Mrs. Shandor said to me that all she wanted was Medicaid to cover diapers and medication for Celeste, but the ultimate goal Mrs. Shandor had that Medicaid could not cover was to prepare Celeste to be mainstreamed into public school in the next year or so. Half the battle of achieving Celeste to be mainstreamed was to ensure that all of Celeste’s speech and occupational therapies were implemented. The other half was Celeste herself, if she was actually healthy enough to be mainstreamed.
Mrs. Shandor shared with me with a strained smile, but a steady determination written in her eyes: “Celeste is in a school meant for the disabled now, but it won’t be like that forever. I really want you to make school visits to make sure that the therapists are doing what they have to do for Celeste to be with normal kids and to not feel like she is different or anything like that.”
Right then and there, I knew that Mrs. Shandor and I would get along. I would do whatever it took for her daughter not to be singled out and, most of all, for all the regular and “normal” kids to accept Celeste’s supposed differences. I made as many school visits as I could to observe Celeste in occupational and speech therapy classes. Celeste’s bright smile lit up the entire room when she was with her occupational therapist. Her two braids swung with delight, but she stumbled awkwardly over the activities. Celeste struggled with her speech therapist with odd sounds and words emerging from her mouth. After observing and scribbling notes at super speed, I spoke with Celeste’s therapists to find out how Celeste was progressing and if they thought Celeste was ready to be mainstreamed in the next year or so. Both her therapists were dubious if Celeste could ever be mainstreamed because the damage to her brain was too severe. It would take a lot of work. They said: “We told Mrs. Shandor before that we don’t think Celeste can ever be mainstreamed, but Mrs. Shandor keeps holding on to some warped thought that Celeste will.”
I thought to myself: Warped thought? Nope, that was not a warped thought. That was hope. What right did I have to take ‘hope’ away from Mrs. Shandor?
I had to be the bearer of the news to Mrs. Shandor. Every time I timidly told her that Celeste was not ready to be mainstreamed, I wondered about limitation and what was it exactly? Were we really limited and had to accept these limitations? Or were we absolutely limitless and could surpass these supposed limits that were unpredictably and undesirably given to us? Each time I mentioned that Celeste was not ready to be mainstreamed, Mrs. Shandor shook her head vehemently and turned away from me to stare into space or stare at Celeste and then Sophia, as if she was comparing both daughters and how one was younger but more advanced and “normal” and how one was older and more delayed and “abnormal.” It was months later when Mrs. Shandor’s guard began to break down that she said to me with tears in her eyes: “I just don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking she is disabled or different and deserves things because she was born a certain way. I just want her to think that she is normal and that she can do anything that she wants to do as long as she works hard. I don’t want her to think that she can just give up just because she was given things that she had no choice in.”
My blood ran cold. She eerily sounded just like my Dad.
With time, Celeste improved in her speech and mobility skills, but she was never well enough to be mainstreamed like her Mother and I had wished and fought for. The look of defeat and hopelessness in Mrs. Shandor’s eyes made me feel worthless and that I had failed not only fulfilling Mrs. Shandor’s dreams and hopes for her daughter, but I had also failed my own personal purpose of making a difference and going above and beyond for the supposed underdog. The ever-intuitive Debra sensed a change and sense of loss in me and asked almost all the time if I was okay. I always forced a weak smile and just nodded amicably as though everything was fine to Debra, though my mind raced with a million thoughts. I thought about how badly I wanted to stop taking all these families and their lives into my heart. I wished that I could slow down and eventually stop the fight and passion in me, but my health experiences were too big and too much a part of me. My family and I had been fighters our whole lives, and I could no longer deny that being a fighter and survivor was who I was.
Celeste and Mrs. Shandor made me understand the reality that we all have limitations and there comes a point of acceptance. True strength lies in accepting the weaknesses or limitations that we are given without giving up, giving in, or losing hope. Mrs. Shandor eventually said to me after some time passed for us to absorb this news: “I understand now that this is the way Celeste is and we just can’t give up or give in, but we can always keep trying.” There was the sound of calm peace and happiness in Mrs. Shandor’s voice.
With the exception of the Dupres, I immensely respected and enjoyed working with and for just about all my families. These families welcomed me into their lives with stories, experiences, cheers when their child thrived, and tears when their child worsened. I could only try to reciprocate for them welcoming me into their lives by fulfilling any and every need or wish they had for their child. The days I was in the office, I made phone calls to insurance companies, government officials, therapists, and nursing agencies to fight for what the parents and the child needed. When I obtained a stroller for an autistic child who was restless and relentless in running away, I cheered and the exuberant feeling was more of a reward than any money possibly provided. When I obtained van and home modifications for a family who had to carry their wheelchair-bound child up the stairs or into the van, a deep sense of pride overpowered me. I was persistent and a pain in the ass with following-up and constantly fighting for the families. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was making a difference. It was the best and most unexplainable feeling in the world to do something I loved and dreamed about. I learned more from this job and from the families than I had ever learned in school. I learned how all my health experiences were probably the best things that ever happened to me because they taught me to fight for myself and for all these families. I enjoyed my job so much that I forgot about the fact that this job was considered temporary for three months of my life. When the three-month mark finally arrived, though, Debra reminded me with a triumphant announcement: “Welcome aboard, Mary!” Then, her tone softened to the motherly side that she was famous for: “The families really love you. I’ve never seen someone so passionate as you. Just remember to go to Human Resources to find out all about the health insurance and dental plans and details of vacation days and other retirement plan benefits.”
Finally, the news that I had anticipated since I graduated from university: A full-time job with full-time benefits. More than that, a job that I actually enjoyed and co-workers and a boss that I loved seeing when I was in the office and not making visits to see the families. Was this for real? Was this just some kind of dream and I was going to wake up? When I sat in the Human Resources department to complete the paperwork for my United Healthcare insurance and given a stack of paperwork about my fifteen vacation days per year along with retirement plans, I felt more proud and grown up than I could ever remember in my life. That is when I knew that I was not dreaming. All of this with the job, benefits, and good health were all for real. Life was rocking and rolling my way. Everything was going right, and my way. Nothing could go wrong now. I was invincible.
To celebrate my achieved goal of normalcy with a job and benefits, I treated my family to dinner with my very first paycheck. I grew up seeing my Dad and Stepmom taking care of and treating their own parents. My Stepmom treated her parents to a meal with her first paycheck. My Dad was still sending money to my Grandmother in Hong Kong to pay for the maid that cared for her. I owed such a great deal to my family who had been there every step of the way with all the daunting health challenges that had to be overcome, and now as we all tried to leave the past behind us. A meal was the least I could do to treat them, but also to say to them that I was doing more than okay and growing up in the process. As my Stepmom said to me when the dinner bill finally came and I beamed with pride to put down my credit card to pay for us, “After all this hard work, and look at where you are. It really is such a different feeling to give back and treat your parents, isn’t it? The harder you work and the more you struggle then the sweeter the victory will be when finally achieved.” I could only muster a lopsided grin and nod enthusiastically.
Thanks to my new health insurance, I returned to see **Dr. Friedman again. As usual, his humor was huge and his blunt words and militant style were a cover-up to his genuine and excellent physician skills. When he finally saw me again, he boomed: “Where the hell have you been, kiddo? I thought you ditched out on me!” Our appointment was like a reunion and we bantered back and forth about my new job and how I had somehow reached the peak and best time of my life thanks to good health and, of course, my organ donors that I could never, ever forget about. As expected, he reviewed my labwork results and exclaimed: “Magnifient! .8 Creatinine! No one’s kidneys can get any better than that!” I gave him a huge smile in return. Life could not get any better than this.
With a clean bill of health and this feeling of invincibility surged and flowing within me, I thought that there was no harm at all to try to improve my socialization skills with my co-workers. Growing up in the medical world through no choice of my own, I always felt that my major weakness was always getting along and socializing with people around my age. Well, I no longer wanted to let that weakness bring me down. I wanted to take hold of that one single weakness and show it that was boss. Yet again, I was all about moving forward and no looking back or dwelling on the past. So, I began to forcefully and purposefully attend these almost weekly Friday and Happy Hour alcoholic fests with my co-workers. Sure, I dreamed that my same-age co-workers would like the same things as me—reading, movies, eating or trying new food, but these were all dreams. The fact was that they loved these social excursions that were at bars and clubs with colorful alcoholic beverages that left them laughing and loose for no reason at all. So, my conclusion was: Since I am healthy now and everything is going my way and I can’t beat or change my co-workers, then I will join them.
There was one bar on West 4th or West 2nd Street of New York City that they all loved. It was a pub scene with polished and hard-wood tables and bench chairs. According to Robert, “The beer here is great!! Mary, you have to try this ying ling beer!”
I found after a couple of social and alcoholic escapades with my co-workers that I was often quiet, pensive, and mustered a half and sleepy smile after only drinking half or one single glass of a sweet alcoholic beverage. I now liked drinking apple martinis or a margarita, but just drank one or half a glass. I eyed the fizzy and pale yellow beer that somehow looked like cloudy urine to me. I never tried beer and so my immediate reaction was a disgusted expression.
“Come on, Mares! If you can drink a piece of ass, then you can drink beer!” Robert teased.
I laughed, but could not help but sneak a glance at April who knew every alcoholic beverage known to man. I could see she was already intoxicated with multiple and empty glasses in front of her as she was laughing loudly with our other co-workers. I turned back to Robert with his big grin and took a sip. My expression immediately soured, and I spat out: “Ughh…gross!”
Robert frowned, but then burst out laughing as he downed the whole drink in front of me. I gave him a crooked smile. The alcoholic effect on me was a foggy and tired stupor, and my response to the haziness were lies and avoidance.
At the bars/clubs that we went to almost regularly, the loud laughter and chatter was deafening to me. I craved to crawl into bed and sleep after a long week of work, but on those Friday nights that I went out with my co-workers, I mandated myself to stay out as late as I could just to be with and just to be like all of them. I wanted to be a normal girl in her 20’s who loved alcohol and could drink and laugh the night away without a care in the world. I wanted to let loose and just forget everything. I wanted to eat up and live out this new life of good health, job, and benefits as most as I could.
Because I still lived in the suburbs with my parents, I returned home late at night around 1AM. I always tried to open the door as quietly as I could, but the door always creaked. My Dad was almost always planted in his armchair with the hum of the TV and him half snoring as the only noises. However, as soon as the door creaked and I shut the door, my Dad woke up and said anxiously: “Mary? Is that you?”
I inwardly groaned as I took off my shoes. The more I went out with my co-workers, the more a rift began to emerge and eventually divide my Dad and I.
“Hi, Dad,” I whispered.
He shook his head and snapped: “What are you doing back so late at night?”
I took off my jacket, and said easily: “Oh, don’t you remember? I told you that I was just out with my co-workers for a couple drink and would be back late.”
My Dad paused. An icy, cold feeling pervaded the room and between the two of us. “I know that. Can’t you call when you are going to be this late? Have you checked yet with Dr. Friedman if you can drink alcohol?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry that I forgot. Uhhh….I’ll check with him for sure, Dad. Uhmm…I’m going to sleep now—“
My Dad cut in sharply. “Just a minute. This is not like you with forgetting things with your health and not calling when you are going to be late. I don’t like this…this lifestyle with your co-workers. Have you forgotten about your health and what you have to do to take care of yourself?”
Any job at placating my Dad immediately came to a stop. I automatically flared angrily, “No, I haven’t forgotten, because you always remind me. I just want to have a little fun. I didn’t have that when I was growing up, so I’m just making up for lost time.”
My Dad was stoic and silent, which scared me more than him snapping at me.
I sighed and gave my Dad a half-hearted hug. I was too tired to argue with him. I said to him: “Sorry, Dad. It won’t happen again.”
That was my first major lie to my Dad. I had never lied to my Dad. It happened again and again that I went out with my co-workers, returning late at night in a tired trance. I was never drunk that I woke up the next morning sick to my stomach, but I was always in some hazy daze and sleepy after a night out on the town. It happened again and again that I would not pick up the phone to call to Dr. Friedman to find out the truth behind these small alcoholic getaways that were possibly damaging my overall health and kidneys, because I did not want to know the truth. I just wanted to enjoy and bask in this time of freedom, rebelliousness, and normalness. Being in the company of my carefree co-workers brought me to a happy and liberating world where I did not have to think about anything about my health and about my caseload of parents who were ridden with one problem after another in relation to their child’s health.
There were times that I was out with my co-workers with the dim lights and loud music pumping that a little voice whirred in my head saying: “Mary, you know this isn’t you with the bar and club scene, drinking alcohol, staying out late, and having your family worry about you. You know this isn’t you being in crowds. You know you are different. You know that your whole life has been about your health, so why are you hurting your health right now after over ten years of having your second transplant? Didn’t you accept a long time ago that being different was good and that you could help others because of your differences? Stop lying to the world. Stop lying to yourself.” Angry and frustrated for no pinpoint reason, I growled aloud to try to shut the voice up: “How do you know who I am? All I know is I’m having fun…something I didn’t have growing up. Something that I can have now because I’m fine.”
Months later after I was in complete comfort zone with my job and co-workers, my entire family and even my sister who never spoke out about my health and how I lived my life made it apparent that they were worried about me. They knew that I was not a drunken alcoholic, but they were worried that partying out late and even just one alcoholic drink each time I went out would eventually take its toll on me because they saw how tired and exhausted I was when I returned late at night. I ignored all of them, convincing myself that I was okay and living out and living up life. It seemed like I had gained three personalities ever since working: The professional and passionate personality with the families and on the job. The party animal personality with my co-workers. The remainder rebellious and angry personality with my family. Logically, I knew I had to take care of my own health and well-being with my kidneys. I knew that I was not invincible. I knew that something bad could happen in a blink of an eye. But, there was this new side to me that emerged since working and being in New York City that I just wanted to have fun and forget and believed that maybe nothing ever bad could happen again to me. This was a side to me that I did not know and was battling with, yet wanting to be more than anything in the world, even when it was hurting my health and even my life.
It was finally at a Christmas party with all my co-workers, all the managers, and even the executive director at my organization that my partying came to a complete stop. The Christmas party was held in a chic lounge with waiters and waitresses dressed in typical black and white outfits, holding silver platter trays of hors d’oeuvres such as pigs in a blanket, tiny crab cakes, pizza triangles, bruschetta, and more.
I was recovering from a slight cold and so my immune system was more compromised than usual with my typical immunosuppressant medications along with antibiotics and even some new experimental medication for my hip that had been acting up lately. Strangely, I was extra hyper and happy with picking up these little hors d’oeuvres whenever they were presented to me. I already had my usual apple martini drink, but rather than feeling tired, I was more alive and giddy than ever before with chatting with all my co-workers, laughing, and tapping my feet to the music and wiggling on the relaxed and cushy couch. The music and noise was more boisterous than usual, so I was practically ensued in a shouting match with my co-workers. Unexpectedly and maybe it was the fun atmosphere that had me loose and happy, I got up from the couch every now and then to mingle with co-workers that I did not normally mingle with, including very tall and handsome **Jesse. Jesse had brown hair, brown eyes, and probably one of the most gorgeous and well-chiseled faces that I had ever seen before. I did not like Jesse romantically. I just felt bad that he was all by himself when I saw him at the bar alone with a drink in his hand and a lopsided and sexy smile on his face. I normally never just went up to anyone (especially a very well-chiseled face guy) just to start talking, but I was not myself that night with the medications, alcohol, and the whole festive atmosphere spinning around me. Good thing that the next day was Saturday.
I said to Jesse cheerfully: “Hi!”
His expression was amused when he saw me, and he responded with a low: “Hi.”
“What are you drinking?” I asked abruptly.
“A Russian vodka.”
“Do you want some?” He offered the drink to me. I was inclined to agree right away, but shook my head instead. I was still conscious enough of my one drink at a bar/club, but endless eating policy in life.
“Too bad. It is really good.” He winked at me. At least, I think he winked at me. Was he flirting with me?
I shrugged and then he said: “I’ll buy you a Russian Vodka.”
“No,” I said quickly, “What if I don’t like it?”
“Trust me, you’ll like it.”
I had no idea what came over me. Believe me that I heard that little voice that poked at me that I already had my one drink and one drink was enough when I was already on too many medications. Rather than listen to this voice, I defied it by taking Jesse’s glass and then taking a large gulp. A searing burning sensation swam around my entire throat and upper chest until my eyes burned. Jesse chuckled, and he said: “You know, Mary, you’re pretty funny.”
Just about right away, Jesse’s voice sounded really distant and far away. I just nodded and giggled in response. The rest of the night after that drink was a blur of me dancing to loud techno music with Robert and laughing hysterically over nonsense with April and a bunch of my other co-workers. Sometime in between weaving in and out of all that socialization with my co-workers at this Christmas party, I recalled drinking another sweet alcoholic beverage that April had handed to me, and a bit of Robert’s beer. I finally saw the time was around 12 in the morning. I realized that I had to leave because the last train from Grand Central back to suburbia was around 1AM. None of my other co-workers lived in suburbia Westchester County and so they understood that I had to rush to return, otherwise I would be stranded without a place to stay in Manhattan. Before I had my jacket on to go outside, my co-workers by the name of **Steven and **Janice said that they would walk with me to the subway station because I looked a little flustered and not myself. I giggled merrily and said: “Oh, I’m fine!”
Before anyone else could say anything to me, I pushed the door out for the frigid and wintry air to bite at me. The fresh air did me a world of good with clearing my mind, although the streets and my surroundings were somehow still looking all mixed in together like a weird and psychedelic painting. I practically stumbled down the stairs of the subway station that I thought I was not going to find. As I waited for the subway, my head was really starting to throb. I felt like I was going to collapse. I managed to get on the almost empty subway that brought me to Grand Central. I got off the subway as steady as I could, but I nearly fell as I went up the stairs. That is when I heard a ringing in my head, and realized it was my cell phone. I fumbled to grab it from my bag and dizzily saw that it was my sister along with four missed calls.
“Hi, sis!” I screamed in the phone.
There was an awkward pause, and then she said over the line: “Mary? Where the hell are you?! Dad is worried about you!”
I laughed as if she said the funniest thing in the world. My eyes watered and everything was turning and turning around me like a merry-go-round.
Then, my sister shouted: “Oh, my God! Are you drunk?!”
I blinked my eyes a couple of times to try to make sense of my surroundings. When I did that, I was sure my head was about to explode. I managed to crawl up the stairs and walk unsteadily to the train. I vaguely remembered screaming back to my sister over the phone: “No! I’m not drunk! I’m coming home now!”
I had no idea how I made it back home in one piece with everything spinning around me and my head pounding relentlessly. When I finally did arrive back home, it was almost 2AM, which happened to be the latest time that I had ever arrived home. When I took off my shoes, I saw my Dad with the most livid and panicked expression etched in his face. My Dad said, “Weren’t you recovering from a cold? Didn’t you say that your hip was hurting? So, why are you back so late at night?”
The silence in the house was suffocating as my Dad waited for a response for me, but the pounding in my head was getting louder and louder. I just needed to block out everything and everyone around me. I managed a feeble: “I don’t feel well. I’m going to sleep.”
My Dad called after me as I struggled up the stairs: “We’re going to talk about this tomorrow!”
Tears filled my eyes as I collapsed on my bed with my clothes still on as I said softly: “I was just having fun.”
Darkness grabbed and wrapped its way around me.
The next morning, I stirred to the sound of loud banging on the door. I moaned and turned, certain that my head was about to split from that slight movement. All of a sudden, a sharp and burning pain pulsated in my lower right side that made me gasp. What the hell was that?
“Aren’t you up yet? It is 11 in the morning,” My Dad said, barging into my room.
My Dad stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me. “What’s wrong? What is it?”
I tried to move again and that sharp pain pressed even further and radiated all around. At the same time, my head was killing me and I felt like I was going to throw up. I tried to say: “Dad, my right side hurts,” but I guess it does not come out right, because he asked again: “What is it? I can’t understand and hear you.”
He went to feel my face and confirmed worriedly: “I think you have a fever.”
That is when my sister came barreling into my room. “What’s going on?”
Why was everything so loud around me? I tried to move again, and the burning in my right side thumped again in a violent response, causing my eyes to open wide in shock and pain. My Dad leaned in close to me and I said with as much energy as I could: “Dad, my right side hurts—a lot.”
“Here, I’ll try to help you get up,” he said. He held on to my arm and tried to move me. The pain traveled up to almost under my arm and then it shot back down to the original right side area, causing me to whimper and fall back down into my bed.
“Where’s Dr. Friedman’s phone number?” My Dad asked.
“My cell phone,” I whispered.
I just wanted to go to sleep. I heard scrambling and saw my sister go into my bag with one opened eye. I heard frantic and panicked voices and words like: “Hi, Dr. Friedman…this Mary Wu’s father…”
I closed my eyes again to go to sleep. “Mary, don’t close your eyes!” My sister said frantically. Her face was right in my face then with her eyes wide with fear. I closed my eyes again to block out all the loudness and drama that was going on around me. I did not understand what the big deal was. I just had a pain in my right side. I just needed rest. My second kidney transplant was on my left side. Nothing could be wrong with the kidneys, right?
“Well, I’m sure she had a drink last night, but I don’t know what she drank! She can’t tell me either because she’s out of it!” I heard my Dad say.
Then, all of a sudden, I heard a loud click of my cell phone shutting and my Dad announcing: “We’re going to the emergency room!”
My Dad and sister then tried to get me up, but my entire body was stubbornly stiff and aching. Everything rotated around me. I moaned and muttered, “Leave me alone…”
Every movement hurt. My body, head, and especially my right side vibrated with almost intolerable pain. I leaned on my Dad and sister. I heard my Dad and Stepmom say some things in Chinese that I could barely make out. I thought they said that my Stepmom would stay home.
I winced and clenched my teeth when my Dad and sister finally got me in the car. I muttered incoherent directions to them to the hospital as my right side pounded with pain. I was just so tired. I just needed sleep. I closed my eyes again because when I opened them, my head felt like it was going to fall off.
And, the only thoughts that came into my mind before everything darkened around me were: “What have I done?” and “I guess I am not as invincible as I thought.”
**denotes fake name to protect privacy of individual