Before Adrienne, August 1985
I remember the day Mother and I moved to Birmingham.
As she drove into downtown, Mother said, “There she is Andra. Big B. Our new home.”
You named me An-dre-a, not An-dra, I thought to myself. Somewhere along the way, my parents shortened my name. We Southerners like to do that. We either shorten words: gettin,’ goin;’ combine words: gotta, gonna; or stretch words out with our infamous drawl: Hooowww yallll doinn?
“Andra, you payin' attention?” asked mother.
No but I said, “Yeah.”
I looked around. In a few months, my history teacher would tell me Birmingham was nicknamed the ‘Pittsburgh of the South’ because iron and steel production was the city’s major industry during the first half of the twentieth century. It showed. It’s not a picturesque place, but that day we watched as two rainbows painted the sky, splashing their colors across the dull gray of the metal buildings.
Mother said, “It’s a sign. God’s promise.”
Promise of what, I wanted to ask but didn’t.
Instead, I peered at the skyline, wondering about my new school, my new life. Moving to Birmingham was a chance to start over. My brother and father were becoming a distant memory. I was thirteen years old and for the first time in ten years, I thought I had my mother’s full attention. I was wrong. I didn’t know it yet, but she was pregnant with my baby sister.
Day 1: Wednesday, May 16, 2001
When I walk in the door and discover my fifteen-year-old sister Adrienne curled up in a fetal position on her favorite chair, two thoughts go through my mind. Something is wrong. Adrienne is crying and she never cries. And damn, I’m going to miss my four o’clock workout on the treadmill and another Law & Order rerun. Adrienne’s whimpering pulls my focus back to her.
“Where have you been?” she asks.
I see her hand on her lower right rib. She speaks between choked sobs.
“It hurts. I spent half … the day in the nurse’s office. I thought about calling you, but I knew … had to work. I decided to wait. I need to … the doctor, Sissy.”
She takes a breath.
“It really hurts.”
I know Adrienne is in incredible pain because she has never volunteered to go to the doctor. She hates doctors, especially dentists. She was overjoyed when Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid program) turned us down for her braces. Her teeth are not crooked enough to qualify even though she needs them. According to her dentist, she will develop a nasty cross bite, just like me.
I want to be sympathetic, but I am irritated. I blame Coachella, the outdoor concert my boyfriend John took her to a few weeks ago. Adrienne and John share a love of music so he takes her to concerts. For Coachella, Adrienne saved her money and we matched it so she could see her favorite band, Jane’s Addiction. I opted not to go. Twelve hours in the desert with 55,000 people is not my idea of fun.
Coachella, “the best American rock festival” according to Rolling Stone magazine, takes place every year at the Empire Polo Field in the town of Indio, which is 140 miles east of Los Angeles. Adrienne and I have driven through Indio many times on our way to visit my dad and stepmother who live in Arizona, but we don’t even stop to get gas in that town. Besides Coachella, I wonder what possesses 500,000 tourists to go to Indio each year. It can’t be the scenery.
Adrienne described Coachella as a modern-day Woodstock. Being in the front, she was pressed against steel metal bars all day. She wanted to see Dave Navarro sweat. I remember how she devised a way to sneak in a disposable camera. After the concert, John complained his ribs felt bruised. Exactly two weeks ago, Adrienne pulled her shoulder and went to her pediatrician, Dr. Nazzer; he gave her ibuprofen and sent her home. When Dr. Nazzer asked how it happened, Adrienne replied dance class, or maybe it was at Coachella.
I am not a big fan of Coachella.
I tell Adrienne to give me ten minutes. She is suffering but she waits patiently. Never complains. Not even once. Except for the recent shoulder incident, Adrienne has never been seriously hurt before. A few colds here and there. The occasional swollen tonsils, which I assume will need to be taken out one day. Many cavities. Getting her to brush her teeth is a constant battle in our house. She has never broken a bone. She passes her annual physical every year. Why do I make her wait? Am I upset my plans are ruined? Or is it that I don’t have sympathy for her if she cracked her rib at a rock concert? And what the hell do I do for ten minutes?
I am harsh about illness and injury. I expect people to be tough. I developed this character trait at a young age. Our mother never took us to the doctor when we were sick. She diagnosed us, gave us medicine, and cured us. She thought seeing the doctor was a waste of time since she was a nurse and knew a cold when she saw it. A sniffly nose was no excuse for missing school. I endured seventeen years of ballet with toenails falling off, shin splints, torn ligaments, and a bruised tailbone. One time my legs were so sore I crawled up six flights of stairs because the elevator had broken. Between Mother and ballet, I learned: pain is a part of life.
We arrive at the Empire Medical Clinic around 3:50 p.m. It is a slow day, and Dr. Nazzer sees Adrienne right away. He assumes her shoulder is still bothering her. Adrienne explains her shoulder is fine now and describes the new pain, which started around noon today. Why does he appear worried? He lifts her shirt to examine her abdomen. He touches it carefully, as if the pressure of his fingers will create holes in her skin.
“How long has this area been swollen?” he asks.
“A few weeks,” Adrienne replies.
He gives me an odd look. I tell him Adrienne only showed me her swollen stomach two days ago, but then, it didn’t hurt. He must realize Adrienne, like many teenage girls, is modest about her body, especially around her parents.
I am more concerned she has not gotten her period in a few months, a telltale sign she is either pregnant or something is wrong with her body. I grilled her not too long ago.
“Are you sure that it is not even possible? You and Eli seem serious.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I’m serious, Adrienne. You can tell me. I need to know if you didn’t take precautions.”
My voice trailed off, my mind turning over multiple scenarios and possible solutions.
“Sissy, for the last time, we are not having sex! Sex is gross, sweaty, and dirty. I have no interest in it. Do you believe me now? Can we drop it?”
I felt relief and anxiety at the same time. Adrienne couldn’t be pregnant, but why hadn’t she gotten her period? And although I am glad she isn’t doing it, doesn’t she seem to have an unhealthy attitude about sex? Where did that come from?
Dr. Nazzer leaves the room to make a phone call. Adrienne seems to be tolerating the pain well. She stopped crying a while ago. I am convinced she has cracked a rib. I tell myself that’s the only thing that makes sense. When he returns, Dr. Nazzer informs us he has called Dr. Brenner, a surgeon at Providence St. Joseph’s Medical Center, the only hospital in Burbank. He thinks we should go there, but he wants to arrange it ahead of time. I feel better because I know Dr. Brenner and trust him.
Last summer, after I had a stomachache for a few days, my best friend Anya drove Adrienne and me to the Burbank clinic where Adrienne gets her immunizations. I have medical insurance for Adrienne but not for myself so the clinic was my only option. John was at work. When the staff refused to see me because they didn’t handle urgent care, Adrienne took charge. She tried calling Anya at work. She asked the nurse if she could call a cab for us. Meanwhile, I was shaking all over, lying down on the plastic bench, the security guard’s jacket covering me but providing little warmth. Adrienne later told me my skin turned gray, and my lips were purple. I spoke but my voice was a whisper.
Adrienne finally got in touch with Anya, who picked us up and drove us straight to St. Jo’s. Dr. Brenner happened to be on-call that afternoon. He performed my emergency laparoscopic appendectomy, aptly nicknamed a ‘lappy appy.’ He inserted a laparoscope, a tiny camera, through a small cut he made below my bikini line. My appendix had already burst—probably while we were waiting at the clinic. The camera helped Dr. Brenner find the various pieces of my appendix, which he removed through my belly button. Sounds disgusting, but it worked.
During my five-day hospital stay, Adrienne amused me by drawing on the whiteboard in my room. She showed my appendix in various stages of life until its surprise death, ending with a tombstone etched with ‘RIP, Sissy’s Appendix.’ Being doped up on Percodan and Demerol didn’t stop me from cracking up. Adrienne can always make me laugh.
Dr. Nazzer mentions Adrienne needs some tests done. He does not elaborate. Unfortunately, Dr. Brenner is unavailable but another doctor is waiting for us to arrive. You should leave immediately, says Dr. Nazzer. He never gives us any indication what he thinks is wrong, only that it’s out of his league. I see the fear in his eyes. Does Adrienne see it too?
5:00 p.m.—the ER is busy. Having a doctor call ahead on your behalf doesn’t make a difference. Being seen in this ER is like trying to get a seat at the Burbank Olive Garden on any given night of the week. They don’t accept reservations, but you can call ahead and get on the list. What they fail to tell you is it won’t matter. You still have to wait your turn.
I call John from a pay phone. He is concerned but can’t leave work early. I want to yell at him. This is your fault. Didn’t you pay attention? Didn’t thousands of people pushing you and Adrienne against a metal railing seem like a bad idea? I hope he knows I will blame him when the doctor says she’s cracked a rib. Can’t do anything about it. We’ll tape it up. No dance classes until you feel better, young lady.
I keep checking in with registration, trying to make them understand how urgent our situation is. Even if she can’t be seen yet, Adrienne needs something, anything, for the pain. No, sorry. There are only a few people ahead of you, or, it won’t be long now. I swear they said the same words to me when I was curled up in a fetal position on this floor, pieces of my appendix already floating around in my body, convinced I would die from the pain. Different staff, same language: rehearsed sympathetic phrases to make the patient, parent, or friend go away.
An hour later, we meet Dr. Lin, who wastes no time in giving Adrienne pain medication. Morphine, I think. She feels better within minutes. After examining her and listening to our story, Dr. Lin fears Adrienne might have bruised her liver and could be bleeding internally. Bruised liver? Bleeding internally? Goddamn concert. Fucking metal bars. What was John thinking? I know he couldn’t have stopped Adrienne; she is far too stubborn, but I need someone to blame.
Dr. Lin orders a CT scan. Dr. Nazzer said some tests. This is one kind of test. Will there be others? I sign papers as a nurse preps Adrienne for the scan. Something about the use of iodine, which is needed to see the picture. I don’t read the fine print.
“Is,” the nurse looks down at the chart, “Emma allergic to iodine?”
“It’s Adrienne and I don’t know. She’s never been sick before.”
The nurse shrugs.
The test is more important than any potential allergy. I walk beside Adrienne’s gurney as she is wheeled down to Radiology. I’m not allowed to be in the room with her. Radiation exposure is bad for your body unless you need x-rays, tests, or treatments. Then, it’s okay.
Before Adrienne goes into the room, she leans toward me.
“Hey Sissy, watch it be cancer.”
“Bite your tongue,” I retort.
I hear her giggling as I watch the door close. I smile.
Adrienne and I continue to wait in a makeshift room in the ER. I call Diana to cancel Adrienne’s usual appointment. Adrienne sees her psycho doctor, her words not mine, every Wednesday evening at seven o’clock. Diana is a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) who specializes in treating teenagers. Adrienne has been seeing her for almost three years. Although Adrienne has never taken medication for it, she suffers from bouts of depression. Seeing Diana has helped her over the years, and it comforts me she has someone to talk to because I know she doesn’t tell me everything.
Next, I contact Anya and her husband Alex. Adrienne considers them her aunt and uncle, and they have always been my biggest support system. Adrienne asks me to call her boyfriend Eli, who has been waiting online for her. He sounds surprised, even scared. I reassure him.
“She was in pain but she’s better now. She had a scan and we’re waiting for the results. Yes, I’ll call you later. Don’t come to the ER.”
I want to tell him everything will be fine, but I can’t make the words come out of my mouth.
Time passes like a snail inching along the sidewalk. The pea-sized ball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach works its way into a golf ball. A nurse checks every half-hour to make sure Adrienne’s pain is under control. It is. What do we talk about? Definitely school. Adrienne is worried she won’t have time to do her homework. I say nothing. If she is bleeding internally, there will be no school tomorrow.
After several hours, Dr. Lin walks in. I have never seen the color drain out of someone’s face before. I thought people used that expression to be dramatic, but I am looking at a man whose complexion, normally beige with an underlying yellowish tinge, is now white. No, not white. Without color. His face is almost translucent. What he is about to say has nothing to do with internal bleeding. It is far worse. He doesn’t have to tell me to sit down because I already am. I reach over to Adrienne and grab her hand. Dr. Lin takes a deep breath as he moves closer to us. Working in an ER is supposed to consist of broken bones, chest pains, deep cuts, maybe an occasional gunshot wound. I believe he has never given this kind of news before.
Dr. Lin glances at Adrienne, but then turns to me.
“She has tumors in her liver and lungs.”
On an invisible cue, Adrienne and I look at each other and burst into tears.
My mind races. Tumors? What is he talking about? There must be a mistake; it’s a cracked rib. She had no pain before today. Tumors? Plural, more than one? How many? I’m afraid to ask. I squeeze Adrienne’s hand tighter. Malignant, benign. I associate these words with tumors.
Dr. Lin’s voice echoes in the distance.
“We’re not equipped to handle this situation.”
What does he mean? I hear myself ask.
“What does that mean?”
He has arranged for an ambulance to transport us to Children’s Hospital. Ambulance? Another hospital? I don’t understand. Everything is moving too quickly. The world is spinning like the teacup ride at Disneyland. I hate that ride; Adrienne loves it. Faster, faster she always screams while I promise myself I will never go on the ride again. Finally, the teacups slow down; the world comes back into focus. Dr. Lin says he is sorry and walks out.
“I was just joking,” says Adrienne, who has stopped crying.
“What?” I ask.
I have no idea what she is talking about. The words ambulance, situation, and tumors are doing cartwheels in my head.
“I was just joking when I said, ‘Watch it be cancer.’”
I look at her. I open my mouth to respond, and then, I begin laughing. The laugh originates from deep inside my solar plexus, dissolving the golf ball of stress, pieces of it flying out of my mouth. Adrienne joins in and together our laughter fills the room. The person on the other side of the curtain must think we are bipolar. Only minutes before, we were crying over the news of multiple tumors in two different organs and now we are laughing so hard I think I might cry again. I’m glad no one else is here yet. This moment belongs to us.
John’s arrival prompts me to look at the clock. It’s past nine. Less than six hours ago, life was normal, or so I thought. A visit to the doctor, a trip to the emergency room, and a CT scan have conspired to turn our lives into pinball-machine balls, as we are pushed and slapped around by forces beyond our control. Last month, I remember telling John that things seem to have settled down in our house. We are getting along better. We have two beautiful, smart, healthy, happy kids: my sister Adrienne and his son Adam. Life is good.
Anya’s husband Alex walks in next. He and John discuss what to do with my car while I ride in the ambulance with Adrienne. Nice, safe, practical talk. That’s good. Let’s all pretend we’re not afraid.
The ambulance shows up at ten. The ride itself is uneventful. I expected red lights and a siren, but I guess that’s only for emergencies. The EMTs do their best to make Adrienne comfortable. After some discussion, one of them comments she is fifteen going on thirty-five. Adrienne eats up the compliment and flashes a big smile. With teeth. I know she feels good because she rarely shows teeth. A photographer told her to smile big for a school picture one year, maybe it was third grade. When her smile revealed her two missing front teeth, the jerk said, oh, never mind. Some people shouldn’t work with children.
Without traffic, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is twenty minutes from our house in Burbank. Just over the hill. Out of the San Fernando Valley and into Los Angeles. We used to live in this neighborhood. I knew the hospital was there, but it wasn’t part of my existence. It is only blocks away from Barnsdall Art Park, home of the Ragan Art Academy. Adrienne took classes there for many years; she even completed their two-year art program. She was excited when she initially got accepted. At eleven years old, she was too young to be in the program, but her art teachers encouraged her to apply anyway. She submitted a painting she had done on wood inspired by the flowers and trees in the park. It was an atypical piece for her due to the style and subject matter, an Impressionist landscape. The square strokes of pinks, greens, and browns are reminiscent of Cézanne; it’s hard to believe a child captured that beauty. Adrienne hated the painting and gave it to Anya, who loves it.
During her second year of art school, Adrienne wanted to quit the Academy. She said the classes were stifling her creative abilities. Too much structure and direction. No freedom of expression. As a parent, it was a tough call for me. I didn’t want her to end up hating art, something she had been passionate about since she first held a crayon in her hand, but she had made a commitment. She needed to finish what she had started. I had allowed her to quit ice-skating a few years before. When she was nine, a coach noticed her natural ability. She took classes but when she couldn’t master a backwards crossover, she became frustrated. Ice skating lessons don’t have an end date, but the art program did. Adrienne resented my decision. Afterward, she swore never to do art again. I waited and watched. Before too long, she picked up a pencil and drew again.
I hit my head getting out of the ambulance. It won’t be the last time. We are taken to the fourth floor—Hematology/Oncology. Welcome to HEMOC, a nurse says. I struggle to think back to science class. Hema has something to do with blood, but what does Onco mean? I was a good student, but biology was my worst subject. I want to ask someone, but I am afraid of two things: appearing stupid and the answer. A nurse gets Adrienne settled in while Dr. Christina Coleman, the resident on-call, begins hammering me with questions. Most of which, I can’t answer.
“I don’t know if she’s allergic; she’s never been sick before.” Didn’t I just say this to someone else?
“Her father is dead. No, I don’t know his medical history.”
“No, our mother doesn’t live here.”
“Yes, I’m her legal guardian.”
“She’s lived with me since she was eight years old.”
“No, I don’t know. No. Yes. Maybe? Can I get back to you tomorrow?”
I tell her prior to the abdominal pain, Adrienne’s only symptoms were the pain in her shoulder and her lack of a period. Dr. Coleman informs me I need to bring in proof of my legal guardianship as well as Adrienne’s immunization records right away. I hope right away can wait until tomorrow. After an hour or so, the interrogation is over.
Dr. Coleman needs to examine Adrienne privately. John, Alex, and I, along with Anya who met us at the hospital, decide to get food. The nurse suggests McDonald’s, which is on the first floor. I have never heard of a hospital having a fast food restaurant, and I wonder if this is a new trend in healthcare. We rush downstairs because McDonald’s closes at midnight. We get there at 12:02 a.m. We are so tired, hungry, and frazzled, we don’t care where or what we eat. However, Adrienne requested a salad. We drive around until we find a Carl’s Jr. on the corner of Sunset and Western. They are closing but John and I convince the manager to stay open. We buy our food and return to the hospital. Famished, I eat my chicken sandwich in minutes despite its blandness and lack of mustard. Adrienne barely touches her salad; exhaustion overrides hunger as she falls asleep.
We speak in whispers. We don’t want to wake Adrienne. No one says the word. That scary word. If we don’t say it, it can’t be true.
Step on a crack, break my mama’s back. Step on a line, break my mama’s spine. I hear my voice as a child chanting this mantra as I walked to school. Sometimes, I broke the rules and stepped on a line to see what would happen. Cinderella dressed in yellow went upstairs to kiss her fellow. Made a mistake and kissed a snake. How many doctors will it take? I jumped to the beat of the rope determined to surpass the current record of twenty doctors.
How many doctors will it take? If you exclude EMTs and nurses, we have already seen three. I know what we are dealing with, but I don’t mention it. Anya is certain this is all a mistake; Adrienne is on the wrong floor. I want her to be right, but she’s not.
I make a list of clothes and toiletries. I write the approximate location of each item so John can find it, or maybe, I tell him where to look. In our relationship, I am the organized one, the administrator, he says. This label makes me feel like a school principal. Does that make John a teacher or a student?
“Where’s your kid?” asked the small boy.
He stood in front of me on the stoop of our apartment building. He was a pretty child with fine, straight, light brown hair tumbling down his back.
Before I answered, my eyes followed his hand to his father’s hand up to his father’s face. Oh no! He was that guy. My new neighbor. The one I had wanted to meet. I had seen him yesterday across the hall carrying two bags of groceries. He had not seen me. His curly, dark brown hair was almost to his waist. Too long I had thought, but his toned, athletic legs and tight, round ass were perfect. I felt like someone had reached inside my body and squeezed my heart. Some call it love at first sight. It was more than lust.
Adrienne and I had concocted ridiculous ways I could accidentally meet this man, including asking for a cup of sugar. Only, I didn’t cook. Now his kid was talking to me. I was wearing a baggy t-shirt, baggy shorts, and carrying a load of laundry from the basement into the building. I had been cleaning all day; my hair was a nest of dust. Combined with the dried sweat from the heat of early September, I looked fabulous.
“So, where’s your kid? Want a Popsicle? Mine is Donald Duck. Dad bought it from the ice cream man. Can I play with your kid?” asked the boy.
“Uh. Sure. Follow me. She’s inside.”
By the time John and I talked, Adrienne and Adam were engrossed in a board game. John was twenty-eight years old and worked at Bank of America. His son, Adam, was four and the product of a previous relationship. John had Adam every weekend. They had lived up the street prior to moving into our building that weekend. Our children knew each other before we had ever met; Adrienne and Adam had waved to each other as neighbors did. The four of us spent all day together. I wanted to impress this man. He commented on my movie poster puzzles from my two favorite movies of all time: Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
“They were both directed by Victor Fleming. Both MGM. 1939 was a good year,” I said in a witty tone I didn’t recognize.
I wondered why I was trying so hard. It had been a year since I had been in a relationship. I’d gotten used to the late nights in my tiny kitchen reading at my desk. Adrienne and I had moved into this small studio apartment after being evicted from Highland Terrace because I couldn’t afford the rent there. We had gone from two bedrooms, two baths to a no bedroom, one bath. From $950 a month to $475 a month. Located on the eastern edge of Hollywood, Lyman Place apartments had been the only place I had found that didn’t check credit. We had lived there for five months. We had a routine. I was lonely but I didn’t like change.
When John offered to make dinner, Adrienne said that would be cool before I could protest. After purchasing groceries, John sent me to the liquor store with specific instructions: buy Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. He was making spinach tortellini with Alfredo sauce, Adrienne’s favorite.
As I walked the two blocks to Captain Cork’s Liquor, I muttered to myself. What am I doing? I don’t even know this guy, and I left Adrienne with him. He could be a killer. Lots of Johns are serial killers: John Christie, John Wayne Gacy, No! Adrienne liked this John, which meant he must be okay. I needed to trust her instincts. Trust myself. John and I were supposed to be together.
John, Anya, and Alex leave. In Adrienne’s hospital room, I curl up in a chair, which is designed for sleeping because it extends out to accommodate your legs, but only if you’re short. Good thing, I’m 5’2”. I pull out my legal pad and write lesson plans to fax to school in the morning. They will need a substitute for the substitute, which amuses me. I began teaching in after-school programs and later substitute teaching so I could be on Adrienne’s schedule, yet neither one of us will be in school tomorrow. I only compose plans for Thursday and Friday. Everything will be fine by Monday.
As I lie down, I think about how much Adrienne and I despise this environment. Growing up, we spent countless hours in nursing homes and hospitals where our mother worked. She insisted we visit her because her girls cheered people up, especially the elderly, who either had no family or had families who wouldn’t see them. I danced for crowds of septuagenarians, while Adrienne acted like the adorable toddler she could be at times. Though we gave them brief moments of joy, Adrienne and I could not take away the loneliness we saw in their eyes. I always wanted to leave as soon as possible, as if their sadness was contagious.
Thinking about those isolated old people of the past makes me wonder if all parents stay overnight with their children. I slip my right hand through the metal bars to hold Adrienne’s left hand. How many times have I grabbed this hand to give encouragement, to allay fear, to say I love you? I seem to always be to the left of Adrienne. Does that mean anything? As I will myself to sleep, one thought permeates my mind, a stored bit of trivia, probably something my mother told me—benign tumors don’t spread, malignant ones do. I hold Adrienne’s hand all night long. Day 1 is over.