A glass of cold water washes away the bitter aftertaste of my first few sips of coffee. I used to love coffee—the smell, taste, even the ritual of brewing: grinding fresh beans, heating milk, but ever since chemo, it doesn’t taste the same. Yet I feel good to be back on the job. The worst thing about being sick is the outlying sphere you inhabit, losing that sense of who you are and where you belong. I don’t recognize my body anymore and yet I’ve chosen to keep it as is—no hot, itchy wig that makes strangers more comfortable than it makes me, no reconstruction, no prosthetics—I’m going flat.
Another taste and I look up to see a pale face smushed against the Plexiglass of the staff room, and jump, sloshing coffee on my sleeve. I’m a solitary fish in an aquarium. The kid laughs, dragging white palms over the transparent wall between us.
I plunk down my mug and step into the corridor.
Both of us a gangly five foot eleven, me and this kid stare into each other’s eyes. The teenager is slender and sinewy with pale, see-through skin, long platinum hair, and eyes of such a light blue, they look like washed seaglass.
“I’m Rachel Neuman, your recreation therapist.”
“Hell help the person who calls me Coll.”
“That’s just for dead people.”
“Sorry?” I run through the information I’ve just heard in the staff briefing about Collier Sampson: sixteen-years-old, been in the Children’s Psych ward for over two weeks, non-binary, prefers they to he or she. Doesn’t fit in with the other kids, not going with the program, alienated from everything and everyone. Maybe hearing voices.
And then my dark days on this ward come back to me.The hostility of the kids, the infectious sadness, the worry over whether I can do any good, or at least, do no harm.
I hold out my hand and Collier takes it in both of theirs which gives me a little jolt, but I maintain my demeanour. Normally, Collier’s gesture would be intimate, or histrionic, and I wonder what they’re playing at.
“Got some catching up to do, Collier, see you this afternoon for rec.”
I head back into the staff room, off balance, take out Collier’s file, and begin to read.
On my lunch break, I race across the line of buildings that form our new Super Hospital at the Glen site over to the Cedars Cancer Centre. Yes, breast cancer treatment is a triathlon: surgery, chemo, and now radiation, the final push. All free and readily available for someone who has been in dire shape like me.
I swipe my health card and wait for my name to appear movie-star-like on the big screen and go back to my treatment room, where I greet my technicians, two very young women. I’m forty-two and these girls don’t look any older than my kids on the ward.
I lie down in the twilit room, settling into the mold they’ve made of my body, staring up at the glassy ceiling panels illustrating an impossibly blue sky and white puffy clouds, as Sarah Vaughan sings, “If You Could See Me Now.”
I laugh boisterously and Melissa and Tam smile. “I know,” Tam says. “Sorry.”
“No, no, each day something…unexpected.”
“When you’re ready, put your arms up,” Melissa says, as Tam slides a support under my knees as if I am getting a massage. “We’re going to refresh your marks,” Melissa adds.
I raise my arms in surrender and grasp the metal holders as Tam opens my robe exposing my scarred, breastless chest.
With a pen, Tam marks my body to help position me for the treatment, not only my chest, now like a topographical map of a sun-scarred desert, but also along my flanks down to my waist and all the way up to the base of my neck. Melissa reinforces the marks with iodine.
Body as colouring book.
Above my head are the machines, spanking new and white, on long curved stems: one like a giant oculus, the other ones square-screened. They revolve around me like planets around the sun, alchemical flashes zig-zagging across their surfaces like green bursts of lightning, and I think, I’m alive.
When I get back, Cody is going room to room, rounding up the kids for Jenga. Our chief psychiatrist, Stavros, passes me in the corridor, murmurs, “Niimi meant business this time. Her mom’s staying in town, keeping her in ciggies.”
We are eight in the rec room including staff.
“I always set up Jenga,” says Niimi. “Ask Rachel!”
“How you doing Niimi?”
She shrugs, not looking at me, her black hair, slick as licorice, falling about her face, while she focuses on stacking the Jenga tower.
All of us on staff are worried about what will happen to Niimi a year-and-a-half from now when she ages out of the Children’s at eighteen. The adult psych ward is hell and we don’t have anything better for “young adults” who are really still like teenagers. Niimi has ongoing issues with alcohol, Adderall, Vicodin, OxyContin, anything she can get her hands on, not to mention her recent suicide attempt.
Donovan bumps the tower Niimi is building which miraculously remains intact.
“Quit it!” Niimi shouts. “I’m setting up.”
Donovan is one of the oldest kids at seventeen, beat up his stepfather for punching and kicking his mom, blacking her eye, and breaking her wrist. He’s lucky to be here with us, instead of in the court system, thanks to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder complicated by rage and lack of impulse control.
Donovan won’t take no for an answer and joins Niimi, placing three blocks adjacent to one another along their long side and at right angles to the previous level. Niimi jabs her elbow into his ribs, unfazed by his muscular build and scowling expression, just as Cody says, “Okay, enough guys.”
I see a couple of the kids are missing. “I’ll make one more round,” I tell Cody, get these kids out of their heads for a while. The teens often suffer from obsessive rumination: mind as swamp, thoughts quicksand. I am no stranger to this.
Shoshannah is in her room, staring out the window. I’m struck by how mature she looks for her age, something in the world-weary expression of her eyes and her stooped, concave posture, an attempt to hide her full figure. The girl’s only fifteen. “Join us for Jenga?”
“A building game.” I’m a fan, even outside of work. “A preschooler can play,” I explain, “but real skill and strategy are involved, and manual dexterity. Each time a player removes a piece and places another on top, the building grows higher yet more unstable—an awful lot like life.” My life, lately. I’ve had quite a few pieces taken away from me, not just my hair and breasts and health, I’ve lost friends. Good friends, or so I thought. Like my oldest pal from elementary school, Lisa, who cut me off when I tried to tell her how I was really doing to admonish me to stay positive! She warned me that my attitude would determine my outcome. Or Constance, who never visited or even called, but sent an email hoping you’re back to normal now. Hell no inconstant Constance! There is no normal now, just windows of hope between scans. Must remember there were other people who I never expected anything of who showed up, like Jared, a guy I barely knew from the gym, who just listened and let me vent. He’s become one of my closest friends. Why don’t I focus on that—instead of festering about the people who let me down—I’m lost in the labyrinth of hurt and rage some days. Today, for instance.
“Sorry, Shoshannah. I was thinking, just thinking.” Here’s some obsessive rumination for you.
“At home, Abba doesn’t let me play games. Do I have to?”
“Your choice.” Shoshanna was raised in the Satmar sect, I remember from my staff notes, but is eager to get a secular education. She ran away from home and when her father hunted her down, he admitted her.
Shoshannah goes back to gazing out the window, arms crossed, then joins me. On the way to the rec room, I stop in Collier’s doorway. “We’re playing Jenga. Like to—“
“Busy.” Collier is slowly and assiduously applying makeup. I have the crazy thought that I’d love Collier to put some good old maquillage on me, give me a makeover.
“Okay, we’ll catch you later.”
About a half-hour into the game with much laughing and kibbitzing among the players, Collier appears in the doorway, half-in, half-out, their face a mask of powder, contour, shadow and brilliant red lipstick. I motion and they come in, perching on the edge of an empty chair.
Shoshannah looks up. “Are you a boy or a girl?”
I’ve been asked that myself quite a bit lately.
Collier assesses Shoshannah with pale eyes, roving from the top of her head down to her toes, and then from her toes back up to her head, eyes intrusive as hands.
“Stop staring at me!” Shoshannah squawks covering her face with her palms.
“See.” Collier’s smile is a grimace.
She peers out through spread fingers. “I was just wondering if you were a boy or a girl.”
“Shoshannah,” I warn, “enough.”
Collier watches the game for awhile, then joins in, and as they slide out a midlevel block, the tower comes crashing down, pieces tumbling onto the table and floor. That’s when Collier starts laugh-crying and cry-laughing.
“Hey Bro,” Donovan says, touching Collier’s arm with surprising kindness. “It’s okay.”
I’m often moved by how the kids connect with each other, their empathy.
With aching slowness, Collier closes heavy-lidded eyes, says, “Don’t call me Bro,” then starts up again, this time just crying.
I am really out of touch, away far too long.
Donovan holds his large hands up into stop signs and backs out of the rec room, leading the way for the rest of the kids to wander off.
I sit down close to Collier and gently touch their thin shoulder, which makes me think of a bird’s wing.
Collier looks up at me with those seaglass eyes. “Are you new? You seem new.”
I can’t help chuckling. “Old, actually. In terms of this job, anyway. But I’ve been off the past few months.”
“I was sick.”
Their eyes expand. “Want to talk about it?” Collier has a slight smile, full lips together.
For a few minutes, their lips make shapes not sounds and I wonder what—or who—they hear inside their head. Maybe just their own voice. Talking to oneself is not necessarily a bad thing, or crazy. Trust me, I know.
“Let’s check out what’s cooking in the kitchen.”
Collier unfolds their reed-like frame and we walk side-by-side to the kitchen, where delicious buttery orange smells are emanating. “Muffins or maybe cupcakes?” As we peek in, we’re enshrouded in steamy sweetness.
“I’m hungry,” Collier says, “the meals in here are shit.”
I nod toward Lily who organizes cooking activities for the kids, as she pulls a tray of muffins from the oven. “We’ll see if we can taste-test.”
Lily hands us each a napkin, then plucks a hot cranberry-orange muffin from the tray, tears off the cap and hands it to Collier, giving me the bottom half. As we let the treat steam in our palms, visitors trickle in, a flow that will continue during the late afternoon, through supper, and well into the evening.
A stout woman is buzzed into the ward. Dressed in dark, modest attire, head covered with a scarf, and bearing a large carton in both arms, she introduces herself as Sarah Cohen, Shoshannah’s mother.
Given the okay, Mrs. Cohen takes the carton of Kosher food back to Shoshannah’s room as a rush of other visitors arrive. I recognize Niimi’s mother, Koko, from the last hospitalization, looking more like a sister than a mom. It’s not only her youthful attire of leggings and sweater, but her fairly unlined skin and glossy black hair, just like Niimi’s. She had Niimi as a teenager so she is young.
Koko’s brought cigarettes and Cody gives them a pass to go out on a fifteen-minute break in the fresh air. As they head out to the elevator, Niimi glances my way, taps her heart with a bunched fist, then chants something under her breath. I try not to show my disapproval—about the cigarettes. My philosophy is that life will fuck you over on its own without you helping it along the way.
Another woman comes in as they go out. Her face is haggard and bruised, framed by sawed-off bleached blonde hair, and she is dressed haphazardly in a patched flannel shirt and torn corduroys, which hang off her thin frame. Her left wrist is in a cast. She holds a brown paper sack in her trembling right hand, its top rolled down, and introduces herself as Maureen, Donovan Walsh’s mother. I ask for the sack, unroll it and see the bag is filled with socks of every colour, texture and weight. Here on the psych ward, we have our own version of ‘The Things They Carried,’ like in that classic Tim O’Brien story where each soldier keeps a talisman to help get him through the Vietnam war. These kids have their own private wars, their own special things.
I, too, need a talisman.
I spot Collier pacing the corridor, lurking in doorways and listening in, lips working, as Donovan shouts, “Can we have some privacy, man!”
“Don’t call me ‘man,’” Collier snaps back, as I rush over to head off the conflict.
“Hey Collier,” I say, my hand on their shoulder, steering them out of Donovan’s doorway. “I’m going to set up tomorrow’s activity. Give me a hand?”
“Why would I want a visitor in here?”
“I know our policy is frustrating: no friends or lovers, at least right away.”
They make a little of shoulders, then hips. “Well, let me count my friends and lovers. And we can’t have our own phones. It’s medieval!” Collier covers their face with long pale fingers, head shaking with disdain.
“So you going to help me, eh?”
“No, c’mon, I’ll show you.”
Collier pauses, hand on bony hip, then walks beside me down to the rec room voguing like the street models in Paris Is Burning.
My health problems were spotted eleven months ago with an ultrasound early one morning before work: cushiony table, crackling tissue beneath my back, warm gel, smooth glide of the transducer, little beeps like electronic music….
“Ms. Neuman. Ms. Neuman?”
I turned toward the voice, waking not as easy as sleeping. There’d been some dream, trying to catch it like silverfish in an open palm. I can fall asleep anytime, anywhere. It’s my gift.
“Easy. Don’t want you tumbling off the table. Doctor would like to see you.”
“Bonjour! I’m Dr. Pelletier—I’d like to have a look at you.”
She had a lovely, lilting voice, as she took the transducer from the technician and glided it over my right breast. “You have many cysts, do these bother you?”
“Yeah, a bit.”
As she continued, so did the little beeps. “You have a lot of heterogeneous material in your breasts.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have busy breasts.”
We both laughed. Such a charming phrase, only a Québécois doctor would come up with it. As she slid the transducer up toward my armpit, I felt pressure, a stab of pain, and all at once, she turned silent, serious. “There is something new, just here. A lesion.”
“What do you mean by a ‘lesion’? Should I be worried?”
I know I should be grateful that the breast centre fit me in so fast. I am I am I am.
My second afternoon back at work, Cody and I gather up the kids for a writing/art project. Each person has their own journal (courtesy of Dollarama), coloured pencils, scraps of many-textured fabrics, glitter, and marking pens. The task is to scrapbook and write about an important milestone or turning point in one’s life—open-ended so there is plenty of leeway for the imagination, but with a bit of structure. We talk about what we mean by milestones or turning points, or attempt to do so before the kids get Bolshie.
“This is a jive project,” Donovan scowls.
“Milestone? Turning point?” Niimi mocks, “You like your words.”
Shoshannah runs her fingers through the pots of glitter and fabrics, lifting up one marking pen and then another. “It’s too personal. Why would I get into all this—with you guys?”
Collier seems in a trance, a somnambulist, following Shoshannah’s lead by touching everything, putting glitter in with the fabrics, interleaving fabrics with the pens. I feel my face grow hot—don’t know if it’s anger or a hot flash from the hormone blocker that shuddered me into immediate menopause with all of its accompanying symptoms. Hey, it’s taken lots of time to pick up all these supplies, to set up the project, but I reign myself in. “Collier, you want to get started?”
Collier sits down and begins to work while the others linger in a huddle, watching, and then slowly, one by one they join in, except for Donovan.
I work my way around the table, see how everyone’s doing, as Cody heads out for his break. The kids are absorbed for about twenty minutes or so when I hear scuffling from the corridor. There is a clomping, like horse hooves, and then an over-ripe, rank odour so powerful I nearly gag, the scent of something edible and sweet gone to rot.
A woman squeezes sideways into the doorway of the rec room, speaking in a high, shrill voice that does not go with her massive body.
My group except for Collier look up, too stunned to speak. Collier digs both hands into the green and blue glitter bowls, clawing as if seeking the roots of a tree, their head bowed, eyes squeezed shut. Instinctively, I go around the table and stand protectively behind them.
“Who’s in charge here?” the woman demands. “You? Lady!”
“We are in the middle of an activity. Can I help you?” Unfortunately, on the Children’s Ward visits by family are permitted and the hours are flexible.
“I’m here to take Molly home.”
“We don’t have a Molly here. Perhaps you are on the wrong ward.”
“Come on, Molly!” The woman attempts to squeeze around to the far side of the table, but her girth will not permit passage. Her body odour is more powerful now that she is in the room, rather than out in the hallway. She backs out and faces Collier who refuses to open their eyes and look at her.
“Molls! Let’s get out of this loony-bin. You don’t need any more crazy, Jesus, I’ve spent my whole life running from crazy. We can start fresh, travel the world, eat ice-cream and cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t believe in school, especially high school, never learned anything there—”
“What is your name?” I ask.
“Louise but everyone calls me Lou, Lou Samson. Molly is my niece and I am her only living relative. She’s going to come live with me now and have a normal life.”
Normal life, right.
Collier sinks lower in their seat, face buried in glitter-crusted palms.
“I’m sorry but you can’t take any one out of the ward. When a child is ready to go home we have an exit process.”
“Well, then, I’m happy to wait.” She folds her arms across her shelf-like bosom, plants her feet wide apart and stands there.
I call Cody who comes back to the rec room and takes over, while I shepherd Collier to safety in the staff room. Glancing at my watch, I see that Stavros should be here any minute, making rounds. He’ll evict Louise Samson.
No sooner do I get Collier settled in the staff room with a glass of cold water when Louise flings open the door and heads straight for Collier, reaching out a hand to stroke their cheek. Collier recoils, darting out of reach and Louise leaves her arm extended in the empty air, the wrist oozing bangles of flesh from a too-tight plastic watch.
“Babygirl, I’m here, your Aunt Lou.”
Collier curls into a ball.
“We have a waiting area,” I say. “The doctor in charge will be here soon. I’ll make sure he sees you.”
“I don’t need a doctor,” she declares calmly. “I’m fine, but I could use a glass of water if you would do me that courtesy.” She smiles broadly and I notice that she has surprisingly well cared for teeth, straight and white, and a smile that would be pleasant if she were.
“This is a hospital, Ms. Samson. There are rules. If you don’t obey them, I’ll have you escorted out.”
“Maybe you don’t know the whole story of us. My brother Logan was good with his hands and built Molly a treehouse. When it was finished, Molly’s mom, Aurora, climbed in there and set up housekeeping. She refused to come down, but Molly catered to her mom, brought her food and whatever else she asked for. Sometimes, Molly stayed in the treehouse, too, and that treehouse became their whole world. Both of them suffered from the sads. Molly’s mom, Aurora, crazy bitch, jumped. Took her own life.”
That well-worn phrase, took her own life, got inside my head and I had the thought that it was not a euphemism, it embodied power: agency and choice, possession and relinquishment, affirmation as well as negation, presence and absence.
“After he lost Aurora, Logan took off. Molly was shuffled around to one foster family and then another. Of course, no need for that. I can take her in, but child services—she’s my girl, right Molly?”
Collier raises their head and stares straight into Louise’s eyes, so narrow and squinting, I can’t make out their colour.
“I’m not a girl. I’m not your girl. And men are dicks.”
Louise lets out a raucous laugh. “I couldn’t agree more, Molls. We’re both Feminists. So tell me, why do you want to be a dick like your dad?”
“Then what are you?”
Collier’s lips curl into a secretive smile, while their aquamarine eyes remain grave. “I am.”
What I am, I finish silently, and feel a rush of blood in my veins making me warm, light-headed.
“Who are you, tell me who you are,” Louise insists.
“Molly, stop talking nonsense.”
Louise approaches Collier, and before they can get away, she’s got her arms beneath Collier’s, just as Cody appears. Spotting him, Louise drops Collier who crumples to the floor, knees to chest, head buried in their arms.
Cody has Louise in a grip tight as handcuffs and is hauling her towards the exit. “You need to leave the ward, Ma’am.”
“Nature calls. Could you let me use the washroom?”
I call Security.
Louise manages to overpower Cody, breaks free, and shuts herself into the bathroom in the hallway. Stavros and three guards appear on the ward. They rap on the door, then force it open, as Louise bursts out of the washroom like an earthquake. She is grinning as if she’s just won the lottery.
All at once I smell smoke, see red-orange spears of flame. One of the nurses presses the fire-alarm, while two security guards flank Louise and rush her outside. The third guard grabs the fire extinguisher near the exit and puts out the flames.
The kids are panicked and wild with all the noise and hubbub, running this way and that, and Stavros shouts to me to take them outside, while building maintenance checks out the ward for safety. It takes most of us on staff to shepherd the kids to our rooftop terrace.
Once we’re on the roof, the kids fan out. The terrace, protected by a high, grilled guard-rail, is our sanctuary with its basketball and shuffleboard court, bins filled with balls, Frisbees, and other toys, and a flower and vegetable garden the kids take care of in these brief, warmer months.
Cody starts to organize a game of H-O-R-S-E, as Donovan gets shuffleboard going. I look around for Collier, can’t find them for a moment and feel frantic until I spot them in a far corner of the terrace crouched into the protective railing. I go to Collier who is crying and trembling.
I shuck off my fuzzy sweater and cocoon Collier inside of it until their crying slows and their slender body unfurls like a plant in the sun.
It’s twilight, the sky indigo, but there is still enough light to see an aerial view of the city, this day both endless and instant. In the corner near Collier, the flower and vegetable garden planted by the staff and the kids on the ward, is just beginning to bud.
“I get beaten up every fucking day,” Collier tells me. “The teachers don’t do anything.”
I nod, listening.
“Girls kick me out of the girls washroom and boys boot me from the boys. I piss outside in the trees like a dog.”
“It’ll get better,” I murmur, what my Dad always said to me growing up when I suffered, simple, well-worn words that soothed me so deeply and beyond measure, though I know, here, now, it’s a reckless thing to say.
“I was glad when social services took me to The Children’s. Got to rest.”
My eyes sting but I hold myself back. What good would my tears do for Collier?
“It’s cool up here. I wish Morgan could see it… she’s gone.”
We sit for awhile, quiet, the other kids playing games or lifting their faces to the brightening moon as Collier tells me about their best friend Morgan.
“Why do you have no hair?” Collier asks me.
“I had cancer.”
“And that’s why you’ve got no—”
“Life had its way with me, Collier. It does that. I’m not where I am by choice, but hey….”
“Do people ask you if you’re a man or a woman?”
Collier’s eyes are full on mine and I don’t blink or look away.
“It’s happened. Being different, it’s a free ticket to mass invasion.”
Collier smiles, an unguarded grin, and we share a moment of communion. I have no idea what will become of Collier, or me for that matter, but for the moment, a wild wind shakes the budding branches into a gorgeous frenzy and blows through the rooftop terrace like a blessing.