The Strongest Woman in the Room

A daughter recounts her family’s worst day, through her mother’s eyes.

 

Kitty Sheehan | Longreads | October 2018 | 15 minutes (3,840 words)

July 27, 1978

Betty Sheehan pushed the 8-track cassette into the player and backed Dan’s car out of her driveway. The Stylistics. Dan’s favorite. She’d never heard it. When she rode in his car, she always made him turn the music down.

Dan was her son, who might be dying in a hospital, 60 miles away.

She was using all her energy to deny this and to keep those around her from believing it. Especially him.

You are everythingggggg, and everything is youuuuuuu…

She was surprised at how beautiful the music was. This beauty flooded her with sadness.

She pulled the cassette out and jammed it into the box on the floor of the passenger side. Her last time as Dan’s passenger was two months ago, when he took her to pick up her car at the repair shop. This seemed like years ago.

She rolled down the window a bit. It had to be almost 100 degrees outside. July in Iowa is no joke. She pulled a Doral from her purse on the seat beside her, put it in her mouth and pushed in the car lighter, surprised it worked.

Driving Dan’s car was like being in a room with him. Or what it had been like to be in a room with him a year ago. The car, a dark green Pontiac LeMans, smelled faintly like a gym bag, or a sweaty jacket. She looked in the back seat to see if maybe his Iowa State  jacket was there. No. He hadn’t needed a jacket for some time.

She thought of his favorite pair of jeans, the ones he wore almost all the time. The hems were ragged. And a pair of tan corduroys he’d had for a couple years. He wore those with a soft navy blue v-neck sweater; he was especially handsome in that. His dashing, dark curly hair offset the sprinkling of faded freckles on his 22-year-old cheeks.

As a little boy, he wore brown corduroys with an elastic waist and flecks of white dotted over them. They fit him for only a short time because he grew so fast, but he still wore through the knees, and Betty patched them with green flannel patches.

She’d taken a black and white photo of him in those pants, in front of the Christmas tree, at age four. His long-sleeved white t-shirt tucked into them, he squinted at the camera flash. He still squinted at a camera flash.

That tree, that turquoise chenille couch, those gray and white chintz curtains and that Kodak Brownie camera: when did that world stop, and how did this new one start?

It was impossible to imagine who she might have been then, when Dan was four.

***

There were a lot of parties in their little stucco house on Quint Avenue, where they each had a bedroom. Dan’s room was the biggest. His bed had a vinyl bookcase headboard and a Roy Rogers bedspread. His room smelled just like his car.

Dan was her son, who might be dying in a hospital, 60 miles away. She was using all her energy to deny this and to keep those around her from believing it. Especially him.

His little sister Kitty’s room was down the hall. Kitty had a fluffy, white looped cotton rug on the floor next to her bed. One Saturday morning, Kitty and Dan took the bottle of Chocks vitamins from the kitchen, dumped it onto that rug and ate every one of the different colored vitamins, like they were candy.

Betty and her husband Tom were sleeping in. Dan decided eating all the Chocks wasn’t such a good idea. He went to tell them about the vitamins. When Betty saw him standing beside the bed holding the empty bottle, she bolted up and ran to find Kitty, who was lying on the rug with her knees bent, one leg crossed over the other, singing a little song.

“What were you thinking? Whose idea was this?” Betty shrieked.

Dan looked at Kitty silently.

“I can’t remember,” they both said.

When Tom came to Kitty’s door and saw both kids seemed fine, he was confused.

“What’s going on?”

“These two thought it’d be fun to eat an entire bottle of Chocks!”

“What the hell are Chocks?”

“Vitamins!”

“Vitamins are called Chocks? Why aren’t they just called vitamins?”

“Jesus, Tom, get out of my way!” She brushed past him and walked to the wall phone in the kitchen to call the doctor.

Finally finding one to talk to on a Saturday morning, she was told all would be fine. She was still angry though, and punished both kids by making them stay in their rooms that afternoon.

Thinking about this now, Betty was unable to breathe.

She was headed to the hospital in Ames, 60 miles east of Carroll, where they lived. She was halfway there.

She’d driven home very early that morning to get clean clothes for herself and Tom. Kitty had come with her, and now was using the other car to do errands, and would come back to the hospital in it later. Kitty offered to drive Dan’s car back, but Betty wanted to do it. She’d never driven it before.

She wanted to bring it to him, so he could ride home in it.

Dan had been in the hospital this time for almost two days. Before these last few days, he was home on the couch for two months: June and most of July. Kitty skipped college summer school at the University of Iowa in Iowa City to come home and take care of him during the day, while Betty and Tom worked.

“He’s going to need somebody with him all day. He can’t be home alone,” Betty explained one day in April, when Dan was in the hospital the first time.

“What? I’m signed up for three classes. I need to –” Kitty began. She seemed surprised to learn things were that serious.

“What you need to do is be here to help me, and that’s all.”

The cancer was discovered and named on July 1, 1977, a little more than a year earlier. He had surgery to biopsy a lump on his cheek. Looking back, the lump had been strange from the very beginning. Of course. But it had knocked Betty and Tom off their feet when the doctor told them it was cancer, while Dan was still in the recovery room. They sat in astonishment as the doctor explained he wasn’t able to remove all the cancer, and Dan would need follow-up treatment.

Follow-up treatment? What? When? He’s in college. Two days ago he was having a party at his apartment with his friends, Betty thought. His friends who were waiting for her to call them and say he was fine. That he wasn’t fine never occurred to her, not for a second.

Now she saw how stupid that was.

She knew better than to be blindsided by anything. Life is hardly ever kind. Her older sister Janice was born with a heart issue and died at age 25, just after getting married. Then Tom’s brother Edward died from an aneurism at age 30. Then Tom’s father, followed by her father, both at 56, from heart attacks.

Why hadn’t she guessed this would be coming, before that July day?


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As the doctor spoke, she looked at Tom to see what he was thinking. There was no color in his usually ruddy cheeks. He was shaking. He was looking at the floor. He didn’t look up as she stared at him.

Neither heard a word the doctor said about the tumor in Dan’s salivary gland. As they left, they did not speak to each other. They did not speak in the car for most of the way home. Tom drove, like always. She stared out the window at the corn fields, seeing nothing. The only noise was from her lighter, as she chain-smoked.

Finally she said, “I’ll have to call Kitty and tell her.”

***

After that, the nightmare that had begun on the afternoon of July 1 never let up. Dan had radiation on the side of his face where the tumor had been. He had a seven-inch scar down his left cheek from the surgery.

He had several teeth pulled, because the radiation was going to make them fall out anyway. He went to his childhood dentist, a family friend they called Westie. Westie pulled all the teeth starting from Dan’s upper back molar to his canine tooth on the left side. Dan seemed stunned by this. But he never complained, he just ate chocolate pudding and drank strawberry malts until his mouth was less sore. The plan was to have his missing teeth replaced with a bridge, when the radiation was finished.

The cure was taking him apart, piece by piece.

He tried to stay in college in Ames, and friends took him to the treatments. Betty continued her work at the courthouse, in the Recorder’s Office. She stopped sleeping.

All she thought about was this cancer, and what it was doing to him. She never spoke to anyone about the details except the doctors. When asked, she said he was going to be fine, as soon as the treatment was over. She was surprised how easily convinced Tom and Kitty were. It helped her convince herself.

And Dan. He was the most important one. He had to believe she could get him whatever he needed to get well.

Dan never asked any questions. He just did what she or the doctors told him to do. He was mostly silent. He wasn’t hungry. Her obsession was getting him to eat. She thought of something new every day that might be the thing he’d eat and eat and eat. Malts. Chili dogs from the A&W. Taco pizza from Happy Joe’s. The hamburgers and fries he’d grown up on from the country club. Kraft macaroni and cheese. More malts. Steaks. Maid-Rites.

But all he wanted, day or night, were grape popsicles. Betty told him he had to eat to keep his strength up. She decided it was the radiation that was zapping his taste buds. As soon as that ended, he’d be hungry again.

***

By November, the radiation was done, and it was time to see what was next. Dan was tired. He was scheduled for a CAT scan right after Thanksgiving, to get the all-clear signal and be finished with this. She and Tom would take him. Kitty was in college in Iowa City again, for her junior year. She called home often, and was always told things were fine, and not to worry.

The November scan showed he had cancer in his lungs. Dan didn’t seem shocked. He had no reaction. He seemed resigned that these things might keep happening to him for a while, but then he’d get better. Chemotherapy was the only treatment the doctors discussed. In quick succession, Betty and Tom sought second and third opinions at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and at MD Anderson in Dallas. All concurred. Chemo began in December.

After three months, the chemo was finished.

Dan changed from a 6-foot tall, 175-pound golf champion with a full head of dark brown, curly hair into a bald, 130-pound 22-year-old who was sick all the time. He was in the hospital for most of April and May. His skin was translucent, his eyes hollow.

Kitty took care of him at home through June and most of July during the day, as asked. She sat with Dan and got him what he needed, trying to cheer him up and make him smile, or at least talk.

He didn’t cheer up. He was quiet, tired and in pain. He had a racking cough that caused him to spit phlegm into a small blue kidney dish from the hospital. Betty couldn’t wait to get that out of the house when he didn’t need it anymore. It made her stomach hurt to look at it.

Mostly he slept. He was arranged on the couch in the living room. He wore green pajamas, and was covered with a white flannel hospital blanket. He began watching Guiding Light at 2:00 every afternoon, and soon both he and Kitty were hooked on it. Some nights he even slept there, with the TV on.

She knew better than to be blindsided by anything. Life is hardly ever kind.

He had so many friends. But only two of them came by to see him, Mark and Bud. This filled Betty with rage, and she planned to let every non-visitor hear what she thought about this, and soon.

Dan was so much fun, so carefree. Everybody, everybody loved him. His classmates, his teachers, his coaches. He made them all laugh. He had a dry sense of humor, a quiet but sarcastic way of summing things up, leaving no room for anyone to top him.

He’d had a few girlfriends. None currently though. Betty was happy about that. Most of them got on her nerves. The nurses adored him. Two of them even drove from Ames to their house in Carroll to see him on their day off, while he was home during June.

She focused on that as she drove: the kindness of the nurses.

It really was hot in the car. She looked to see if there was an air-conditioner, she couldn’t remember. It didn’t look like it. Now she was about 20 miles from the hospital. She’d get a cool drink in the cafeteria when she got there, on the way up to his room.

“What. THE HELL. “

All at once, the car became unbearably loud. It sounded like a truck. When she accelerated, it was worse. She glanced in the rear view mirror, and saw the car’s muffler lying on the road. She pulled over and ran to it; never once thinking another car might be coming. She kicked it over to the ditch, and then bent to pick it up with both hands.

This was a mistake. A searing pain exploded through both palms. She dropped the hot muffler on the ground and screamed. Tears shot from her eyes.

She felt cars whooshing by her on the highway. The noise and closeness of them terrified her. She ran back to the car. It was still running. She could just put it in gear, and drive on to the hospital. As soon as she reached down to shift, she screamed again. Touching either of her hands on anything was agony. But there was no time for this.

If she held the wheel between the tips of her fingers and thumb, it was less painful. If she didn’t have to turn very much, it might work. She was further distressed to find she couldn’t manage a way to smoke. She reached the hospital, ignoring the heads turning in the direction of the rumbling car, as she looked for a spot in the lot. She parked and ran inside.

The stale hospital smell was almost a welcome relief from the heat. When she got up to Dan’s room, Angie, one of her favorite nurses, was coming out.

“Oh hello, Betty! Welcome back.”

Seeing her red face, Angie asked, “Are you all right? Are you ok?”

“Almost,” Betty said, turning her palms upward for the nurse to see. Both hands were covered with blisters, from the palms to the middle of each finger. She could see exactly where she’d picked up the hot muffler, and thrown it down without putting her hands all the way around it.

“Omigosh. What happened?”

“The muffler fell off the car, and I picked it up. I know better than to do that again,” she laughed bleakly.

“I’ll get you fixed right up.” Angie hurried off.

Betty walked into Dan’s room. It was dark; the shades were closed. He was sleeping. His friend Mark sat beside his bed. Mark, who’d been available day in and day out, taken him to treatments, told him things that made him laugh, or sat without talking, like now.

She’d been gone almost four hours.

“Has he eaten?”

Shaking his head, Mark looked at her. His blue eyes were red. He looked tired and scared. His blond hair hadn’t been combed for days.

She put her hand on Dan’s forehead, and then quickly pulled it back when she felt the pain again.

Mark looked at her, puzzled.

“I burned my hand. Hands.”

“What? How the hell?”

She told him the story and he managed a wry laugh, because he knew that’s what she wanted. They looked at Dan and wished he could laugh too. He didn’t seem to hear them.

The nurse came back with ointment and bandages for Betty’s hands. She sat down while they were applied. Having them wrapped seemed to lessen the pain.

“He has a high fever again,” Angie said.

“How high?”

“101.”

“That’s not so bad.”

“The doctor will be coming by soon. He wants to talk to you and Tom again.”

“This afternoon?”

“Yes. He came by this morning, but you were gone.”

“Where is Tom?”

“I’m not sure. He was here a little while ago.”

Betty looked for him in the family waiting room, where they knew a few families after spending so much time on this floor, but none were around now. Tom was there alone. He was sitting on the stiff blue couch, his hands on his knees, looking straight ahead. She stood in front of him.

“I’m back.” She didn’t mention her hands.

“He’s bad again. He doesn’t want to be awake.”

“It’s not that he doesn’t want to be awake,” Betty said “He’s getting so much pain medication he can’t be awake. It’s all he wants right now. But as soon as we can get him to eat, he’ll feel better.”

“What are you getting him to eat?”

“I was thinking about steak. He hasn’t had that in a while. He loves the steaks from Palma’s – that steak de burgo. It’s his favorite. I’ll run over there and get one later. “

They were silent.

Dr. Smith, Dan’s doctor, appeared at the door.

“Tom, Betty. I want to speak with you today.”

He motioned for Betty to sit. Betty stared at him.

“I’m afraid there’s nothing else to be done for your dear boy. I wish I had better news. He’s fought this for many months. I am so sorry. We all are very fond of him and his wonderful spirit here.”

“What do we do?” Betty asked, without looking at Tom.

“It’s not what we will do. It’s what he will do. We’ll keep him comfortable. I can promise that.”

Nobody said a word. After he shook Tom’s hand and gave Betty a little hug, Dr. Smith left them alone in the room.

Without looking at Tom, Betty walked back to Dan’s room. She sat in the vinyl chair by his bed.

He was lying on his back. He was breathing steadily, but softly. She stared at his shiny head, with its spiky strands of hair starting to grow back. He rubbed his head constantly while on the couch at home, like he couldn’t believe how it felt. She reached over and touched his hand. She was sad her hand was wrapped in a bandage, and that was all either of them might feel.

Kitty came into the room. She finished all her errands back at home, including getting a new haircut. She had on a new striped shirt and the baggy bell-bottoms she wore almost every day.

“Hi! How is he? What happened to your hands?”

“Come into the hall,“ Betty said, in a low voice.

Once there, she told Kitty, “He’s not getting better. He won’t get better. The doctor told us there’s nothing else they can do for him. He’s taken a turn for the worse today.”

“Wait. What does that mean?” Kitty was confused.

“It means what I just said, “ Betty snapped. “Don’t you get it? He’s much worse and there isn’t anything else to be done for him. You need to stay here now and not leave again. This is serious.”

“Serious? You mean he won’t be coming home in the next couple of days?”

“No.”

Betty walked back into Dan’s room, leaving Kitty in the hall.

Tom followed Betty into the room this time. He sat in the corner chair, stricken. No one spoke. Mark was still there, also sitting in silence.

Kitty headed straight to Dan’s bed and put her hand on his forehead. She talked to him softly, as she brushed her hand over his new hair.

“Pretty soon you’re going to need a haircut. And my friend Beth is just the person to do it. She can’t wait.”

Kitty smiled at him and sat on the edge of the bed.

He opened his eyes and looked at her. His eyes were swimming and his pupils were huge. He didn’t speak, he just stared at Kitty. She kept stroking his forehead. The other three in the room watched them. Mark stood up and put his hand on Kitty’s shoulder.

A priest none of them had ever seen before walked in the room. He was carrying a Bible, some bottles and a cloth.

“What is this?” Betty asked, alarmed.

“I’m here to perform last rites,” the priest-stranger answered softly.

“I’m not watching that,” Betty announced, and exited.

Tom, Kitty and Mark were left to witness the priest anointing Dan’s forehead with holy water, and the sign of the cross.

When asked, she said he was going to be fine, as soon as the treatment was over. She was surprised how easily convinced Tom and Kitty were. It helped her convince herself.

“Through this holy unction may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed,” he droned.

He stood silently for a moment, then asked, “Are there any questions?”

No one spoke, and he left.

“Extreme unction,” Tom said. “It’s called extreme unction. It’s one of the sacraments. You’re not supposed to see your child receive it. This isn’t the way things are supposed to happen.”

A nurse entered, and said, “He’s sweating so much. Give us a second to change his gown, and get him cooled off a bit. You can all step out and we’ll take care of him.”

The three of them walked into the hall, where Betty had been pacing back and forth. Kitty leaned against the wall. Tom and Mark stood together, talking quietly.

“What’s going on now?” Betty asked.

“They’re making him comfortable,” Kitty answered, with her eyes closed.

“What? What does that mean?”

The nurse came to the door and said, “You should come back, I think he may be gone.”

All four rushed to his bedside. The nurses had perfectly tucked him under the sheets, arms and all. He wasn’t breathing. He had a glow, a shiny transparency, about him.

Tom stood next to the bed, looking at his son in disbelief.

Kitty kissed him on the cheek through tears.

“What? He died? He died? While we were out of the room? Just like that? This makes no sense!” Betty was talking between deep sobs.

No one looked at her.

Her sobs were the only sound in the room.

The fluorescent lights made them all look blue.

“He never saw me cry,” Betty finally said.

* * *

Kitty Sheehan is a writer, editor and teacher in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Editor: Sari Botton