When I awoke late at night screaming in pain, my parents knew to knock on the door of our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Eton, to use their phone to call a taxi. We didn’t have a phone then. It was 1949, and I, at seven years old, had just shown the symptom that our doctor, who had visited our home on 40th Street earlier that day, warned my parents about. In those days, doctors carried a small black bag and made house calls. He had given me medicine for a pain on the right side of my belly that I had been complaining of. Then he told my parents that if I awoke at night, screaming, to send me right away to the hospital. He said that it might be more than a stomach ache.
At first that day, my parents, especially my father, didn’t even want to call the doctor. He was sure that all my complaining was probably about nothing more than an ordinary stomach ache. And that it would go away if we just let it alone. He said it with a tone of annoyance, if not disgust. At my being such a cry baby.
But the pain didn’t go away, and I didn’t stop crying. So eventually they called our doctor. Who said my pain might indicate a ruptured appendix.
On the operating table, the doctors or somebody put a mask on my face and gave me ether. Of course I didn’t know what ether was at the time; I didn’t know anything, except that I was on a table or something and somebody put a mask on my face and I was in the black sky with a million stars and I was falling falling down into nothingness. And in that black nothingness was the horrible smell, which I recall as a combination of menthol and rancid split pea soup. And I was falling downward forever in the sickening blackness.
I guess that was a dream, although it didn’t feel like one. A dream was supposed to be different. Like a dream in which I had a pet dog, which I always wanted but couldn’t have. Because my mother said she hated dogs. She was afraid of them, she said, and dogs ruined furniture, and were dirty. And the last thing she needed was to clean up after it.
Anyway, after the falling-in-the-black-sky dream, I awoke in a strange white bed and had to go to the bathroom. But I didn’t know where I was, until some girl told me I was in the hospital. She was maybe two or so years older than me, or at least she was much taller than me, which I could see even though both of us were lying down. She was in a white bed, just like mine. In an all-white room with white walls. She said I could use the bedpan that was under the bed. Or I could call a nurse who would help me get to a bathroom. I felt I couldn’t wait, so I reached down and then peed in the bedpan. But I was embarrassed, because she saw me peeing. So I closed my eyes and pretended. . . . I don’t remember what I pretended. Maybe that I wasn’t there.
The following day, the girl in the bed next to mine was sitting up and sucking her thumb. She was nine years old, I found out later, two years older than me, and sucking her thumb. That made me very scared, but I can’t say why. Maybe I thought that I would become just like her, a thumb-sucker. But that’s only what I surmise now, thinking back. At the time, I just wanted her to stop sucking her thumb. But she wouldn’t, and I stayed scared.
So when my mother came to visit me later in the day, I cried and cried and pleaded with her to take me home. She said she couldn’t until a few days later. But I kept crying, so to get me to stop, she promised that if I were a good boy, and stopped crying, she would get me a pet dog when I got home.
Certainly, that was a big thing for her.
When I got home, sure enough, there was the dog. I fell in love immediately, and called him Skippy. I didn’t know what “breed” he was; in fact, I didn’t know there were breeds. Let alone what breeds meant. Today when I check page after page of dog pictures on Google, I can never find Skippy. Maybe he was something called an American Staffordshire Terrier. Or a German Pinscher. Or a Jack Russel Terrier. Or a mutt.
Tawny, like a lion. Playful, like a friend. Excited, like a little boy just like me.
All I knew was, Skippy was my dog. I wanted like anything to take him outside for a walk. But I'd have to wait, because I had to stay indoors for two weeks, doctor's orders. Every day, for the next two weeks, all I could think of was taking Skippy for a walk.
Then the big day arrived. I could go outside, because the jagged scar on the right side of my belly, where my ruptured appendix had been, was healing. I couldn’t wait to take my dog for a walk. I was so excited I could hardly think.
That morning, my mother said she had to go to the grocery store, and would take Skippy with her. When she got home, she said, I could take Skippy out myself. About a half hour later, she came back.
Where’s Skippy? I asked. She said he was probably stolen. She said she had placed his leash on the doorknob of the grocery store before she went in to buy stuff. When she came out, he was gone. She said she looked up and down the block, calling his name, but she couldn’t find him. She said she saw a truck driving away, and she was convinced that the truck driver had seen what a beautiful dog Skippy was and stole him and drove away. She said she was so sorry. So so sorry.
Children, especially very young children, tend to accept as truth whatever they are told. So for some years afterwards, I used to think that someday I would find that truck driver and kill him and get my dog back. Only sometimes, in the back of my brain, I remembered how much my mother had hated dogs. And that she saw how much I was attached to Skippy.
Which in her mind, I think now—I really think now—she experienced as a detraction from my attachment to her.
Maybe that was it. Or maybe it was the truck driver.
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