It was as if her soul had cruelly been branded “Kick Here” at birth. It was not that she was dealt bad cards so much as she never had much of a prayer to be in the game of life. Alcoholic and abusive parents spawned this only child almost three decades ago and rendered havoc on her congenitally frail spirit and teetering health. Not surprisingly, she was cursed from the beginning as a severe diabetic. This had withered away her adolescence in angry diabetic comas and multiple illnesses as her family rambled helter-skelter across the country, lashed to the whims of a drunken, oft- unemployed father.
Now a mother herself, Maria was at most a trembling waif of a young woman. She had been murderously robbed of childhood innocence, weaned on despair, suckled on disappointment. Against the odds for severe diabetics, she had amazingly survived pregnancy with very healthy twins.
She had escaped her hell of a family only to find herself in a ramshackle marriage to a pestilence, not a man. A wife beater and child abuser, her enlisted military husband was a belligerent, brooding hulk for which fatherhood was a grave inconvenience and a blot on his life.
I have come to believe that it was not by chance that one of our sage senior physicians happened to pull ER duty the day she walked the miles to our hospital carrying her precious cargo shivering in her arms. Both of her babies had fevers, and to the discerning eye, it was clear that evil had pitched its tent in their home. Incessant apologies from a terrified, tearful mother, as well as classic fractures and scarred, blistered skin from burning cigarettes having been pressed into innocent skin, wailed as a wounded plaintiff cry for a savior, for justice. Clearly both she and her children had been abused. She collapsed out of catharsis and experienced at least a momentary reprieve from fear and overwhelming grief when the emergency-room team were marshaled to gather them all into our protective bosom. Simultaneously, the search was set for her stain of a husband.
In short order, it became painfully clear that the tragedy had no bounds. It was soon obvious that Maria was ill. Evaluation in the emergency room showed that she had rapidly worsening kidney failure from what was soon learned to be malignant masses in her abdomen that were choking off her kidneys and eating voraciously through her pelvis.
I was drawn to this wounded pup. The ache of seeing such unfairness from a world that offers no guarantee of freedom from suffering was a constant companion for many of us tending to her care. Our clinical bond and trust falteringly evolved. Leveraging the lifeboat of her children, I painstakingly strained to encourage in her a glimmer of hope, and perhaps flame, the fading flicker of her fight for her life, for her children. We all have bucket lists of dreams unfulfilled and longed for. Her dream was common enough. She longed to simply play with her children, to frolic with fantasy, unburdened by dread. Now she was resigned to a painful death; it was all she expected. Only the irrepressible devotion to her babies and the possibility of their future being so uncertain carried her on. However, it quickly became clear that the cancer would agonizingly strain the last beats of life from her.
We raced through the diagnostic evaluation and made a hurried dash to save her kidneys and numb what had to be blinding pain. There was never the slightest whimper, the faintest flinch from her. Through wounded eyes, she watched, disaffected, rallying only when her babies were safe and near. It was for them that she allowed the tubes to be inserted into her kidneys; for them she tolerated the invasion of her belly to knit together her perforated, strangulated bowels; for them she bloodlessly whispered a vacant yes to chemotherapy. If only she could have had just a moment’s peace.
A few years ago, I suffered through the disaster of a rental condominium in Orlando that only Erma Bombeck could rightly do justice. It was absolute architectural anarchy. If water should have passed through it, it did not, if designed to support weight, it would not, if it had been controlled the environment, it could not. It was simply a massive disappoint and grand inconvenience.
Therefore, one day the stuff of fairy tales landed in my mind. I fashioned a story and made the calls. Perhaps I was serving my need to somehow save her, perhaps not. By the time the smoke cleared, it was all arranged, clearly by the hand of a force far greater than mine: airfare, a rental car, lodging, and Disney World admission was waiting, free of charge for Maria and her babes.
Yet she was giving up and dying. I eagerly told her of the scheme to whisk her away to fantasyland. I was stupefied by her visceral response. Life beamed in her eyes, and for the first time of what was to become an adorable habit, Maria smiled. I could almost hear her soul snap into action, barking orders to finally fight the beast eating her body. Her husband safely spirited away, a battered and bruised young, very alive mommy made it home for a long weekend for the first time. Irrespective of my personal faith, I was ill prepared for what lay ahead for Maria and her children.
A few Mondays later, my nurse hovered in my doorway, seemingly buoyed by joy, wet-eyed, and spiritually transfigured. Stammering, she said, “It is Maria … Maria, she … ah …she is so alive.” I am sure I fumbled out something only to have my nurse say, “No, it’s Maria; you don’t understand what’s happened.” In an instant, she was gone and I was confused.
Then I saw the glow of life as never I have seen before. Guided by grace, this beautiful woman glided into my office and settled into the chair. I was steeped in the warmth issuing from this vision. It looked like the Maria God would have fashioned were he to meddle mercifully in her miseries. She spoke serenely. “I stopped taking the narcotics; they made me sleepy. And I have no more pain. I am eating everything in sight, and my sugars seem okay. Doctor? Doctor? Are you okay?” Aghast and afraid that I might burst the bubble, I beckoned her in to the exam room. It was normal, unbelievably normal.
A lump was growing in my throat, and my voice grew strangely hushed. I vaguely remember calling the chief of radiology for the urgent CAT scan, but I do remember his return call after it was done He was incredulous, questioning me. “I do not know what you pulled, but the scan I have here—well, it’s normal. No tumor, and healing bone.” Gone, too, was the bowel obstruction, the blocked kidneys—all of it, gone. The physical exams, CAT scan, blood tests—all were normal. Softly, before I could gather myself, she spoke as if the hand of God were gently stroking my disbelief. “I know,” she said. And then she was silent. I was in the presence of grace.
I had no problem getting through on the phone to make all the arrangements final, and in moments, it was done. She would leave for Orlando that weekend. The sweat of my soul slid down my face as my nurse handed me a tissue and floated out with our miracle.
On a Monday, some weeks after the joy of a lifetime with her children in Orlando, Maria appeared in my office. She was gaunt, wasted, and desperately pleading.
“Tell me my babies will be okay,” she said. “Tell me what will happen to them. Tell me.” We spoke until the ache lifted from her spirit and she reached some manner of closure with the cancer that had so quickly returned to ravage her body. Abruptly, she stopped, rose to face me, and gently put her arms around my neck without a word. I saw that she knew it was over and her children would be safe.
There was no sorrow that Friday in the hospital. Her babies lay besides her in her arms, sleeping, as God called his angel home.