There is an anorexic in Bed 1; I hear her giving her birthdate to the pediatrician and work it out in my head. She is a few months away from her 14th birthday. She is painfully self-conscious as are the other two anorexics in the ward. We saw them earlier, about to sit down to morning tea. It was laid out in the playroom on the table, despite a notice instructing that no food or drink be consumed in there. Martin and I walked into the empty room and sat down at the table as Avery pottered about, helping himself to trucks and dinosaurs. Broom, said Avery. And, Rahr. And occasionally, a rasping wheeze, a bone rattling cough. We glanced at the meagre servings - not sure at first if this was before or after the meal. Processed cheese slices, individually wrapped servings of a crackers, oranges. The girls stood in the hallway, talking earnestly to each other, all of them radiating the same painful self-consciousness. It dawned on us that they expected to sit in here, but none of them were able to negotiate the complex task of entering the room with us already inside.
Avery found a black and white chequered flag and waved it in a surprisingly authentic figure-eight. He stumped out to the three girls and they studiously, painfully ignored his incredibly overt charm. He insisted on drawing their attention. One finally giggled nervously as I went out to scoop him and bring him back, plonking him next to the bins of toys again, wiping everything down that he'd touched.
A nurse came in.
'He is welcome to stay and play,' she said to us, 'but we need the table.'
Martin and I moved to the edges of the room. The girls came in and sat down. Almost immediately one complained about the orange, she doesn't know what to do with it. 'Oranges are for juice,' she said. 'You juice them, you don't eat them.' The other girls agreed, none of them, if they are to be believed, know how to peel an orange.
Martin and I took Avery back to the ward and left them to it, despairing over the impossible project of entering and consuming an orange.
Later the girl in Bed 1 was on her bed, drawing. The Happiness Trap sat on her bedside table. There were two 'get well soon' cards on her chest of drawers. She had a pillow from home, white with strong black geometric patterns and two teddybears, one large and brown, the other gaudy pink. She was settled in - for how long?
The doctors were visiting the ward. Our doctor examined Avery who, after waiting all morning to be examined, had just fallen into a deep sleep. His breathing was still ragged and there was still the occasional cough, but he had improved so much, I expected we would simply be discharged and therefore I was paying more attention to Bed 1.
The girl hid her drawing bashfully when the doctor showed interest in it.
'Wow, that's really good. Is that one of your special...things that you do?' the doctor asked. I got the sense she'd muddled up her syntax, almost got lost in the middle of the sentence. Awkward.
The girl shrugged. 'I always draw when I'm bored.'
'Do you want to talk about it?' the doctor asked, and she doesn't mean the drawing anymore. The girl was silent. 'Not today?' offered the doctor.
I was scribbling this down in my journal (despite the fact that there is a sign outside the ward saying No Recording Devices) so I didn't see her response but she isn't going to talk about it now.
'How are you feeling in yourself? Any aches and pains?'
'I'm still getting them. Eating. And drinking all that Sustagen.'
They exchanged a few more words, the girl had some work, some textbooks, she said.
'We don't want you to fall behind,' said the doctor. She patted the girl. 'You'll get there.'
I was writing this down when the doctor examining Avery said, 'Has anyone talked to you about his heart murmur?'
I put my pen down.
She explained to us that infants can get them when they are sick, or for all sorts of reasons, but it can also mean there is something structurally wrong with the heart. 'On his x-ray his heart looked a bit...' she trailed off - there was something she wasn't telling us. 'Big,' she finished vaguely, and she frowned, listening intently to her stethoscope.
They had taken the x-ray in case there was an obstruction that had caused his sudden severe retractions, which is what caused us to call the ambulance in the first place, our tiny boy gasping air in, his chest receding so savagely it threatened to disappear, his stomach ballooning, his narrow ribs protruding.
The doctor told us the next step would be an ECG which they may as well do while we are in the hospital and that she will have to examine him again when he is awake.
Martin had to move the car because parking is terrible in the area, mostly two hour. Before he went, he brought me a cup of tea from the parents room. He spilled a little on the floor and we had a brief bitter squabble, fuelled by exhaustion after a long night in emergency for both of us, and then the rest of the night for me sleeping in a fold out chair, tending to a fitful Avery every 45 minutes, breastfeeding him like a newborn every few hours. And then this new uncertain worry, scratching at our tempers.
I sipped my tea. Avery slept soundly. I heard the whirr of what sounded like a dial-up modem, the ding-dong ding-dong of someone summoning the nurse, and on another patient's television Homer Simpson declare: 'Boring!' My room was empty now, the girl in Bed 1 had slipped out unseen by me, maybe scared off by the intensity of our conversation, or maybe she was more polite than I had been and hadn't wanted to eavesdrop. The girl in the bed across from me, a seven year old with a broken wrist from a scooter accident, had gone home a few hours before. Her mum had been friendly, bought me a latte in the morning and wouldn't take my money (I was short anyway). In two weeks they were going to Thailand. Bed 4 had been empty since we'd arrived somewhere around midnight.
The hospital had that timeless, dreary quality of an institutionalised day. Early, when the night's long artificial twilight had finally given way to morning, Avery had looked out the window into the grey concrete courtyard and pointed up. 'Sky,' he said. The sky was the same colour as the concrete.
Avery woke up. Lunch arrived and Avery refused everything (even the jelly) except the mashed potato. The two doctors came back before Martin, while I was still shovelling potato into his mouth. As I was telling our story again to the second doctor (the short haired groovy one who had previously attended to the anorexic girl) the other one gets a call. She gets off the phone looking cheerful, embarrassed, mostly relieved.
'That was radiology,' she said. 'They mislabeled the x-ray.'
She listened to Avery's heart again. 'It's definitely on the left,' she told the other doctor.
It transpired that radiology had labeled the x-ray so that the heart appeared to be on the wrong side (the right instead of the left).
'There's no sign of the murmur now he's sitting up,' she said to me.
'Which means it's nothing serious. If it was something to worry about
it, we'd still be able to hear it.'
She listened a few more times, again expressing relief that the heart was where it was supposed to be. It does happen rarely, they told me. The night before the doctor in emergency had said that one in a hundred appendixes are on the mirror side - not to us, this was to the family in the next cubicle, whose son, as it turned out, did not have appendicitis on either side.
Avery coughed then, and the doctors were confident that it was croup. He got another dose of steriods and we were also given a script so we could keep them in the house in case of a relapse.
On the way out of the hospital I passed a board that had been put up for positive affirmations. I wanted to write my favourite aphorism on there, 'Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid', but I felt suddenly self-conscious.
'She was incredibly beautiful though,' said Martin, meaning the girl in Bed 1.
She made me hurt, as if all her raw nerve was somewhere outside her skin, and the signals from her brain were intercepting the signals from my brain. I felt her self-consciousness in the submerged part of my self, the stratum layer, that is and always will be thirteen, almost fourteen.
And with Avery bright and buzzing from the steroids, warm in Martin's arms,
we walked down the corridors, past the birth centre where Avery was born, into the empty space of the wide bright foyer, down the lift to Basement 3, through the
carparks and finally out into the wintery grey street, specked with a sort of pre-rain hanging motionless in the air. We walked down towards the bowling centre, where Martin had parked.
'Sky,' said Avery.