An Irish family, torn apart. Mother and three children making a new life in America and the struggles that ebbed and flowed throughout this childhood.
Art: Hands up by GaliaG on FanArtReview.com
After a couple of years of learning to live in America, I found things at times daunting and at other times, astonishing in many ways.
Located just a couple of blocks from our home, on Haven Street, was a public swimming pool. Arlington Elementary school was out for the summer the first week in June, and we went back to school after Labor Day. The swimming pool opened the first Saturday in June at 1:00 PM for open swimming, but what was incredibly special, was the swimming pool provided swimming lessons for several age groups.
Having turned ten-years-old in March and already a surprisingly good swimmer, summer was going to be set. However, I wanted to get in more pool time than just the open swim time. The American Red Cross conducted a Junior Lifeguard training program that was a summer-long program that required 30 hours in the pool in two -hour training sessions. The rub for me was the age requirement. To get into the program, one had to be eleven years old. I was already spending time together at school with students two and three years older than me, so age restrictions really did not make much sense to me. So, I gathered the required paperwork that required parental approval by signing the documents. These signed papers had to be given to the American Red Cross instructors. I took the document home, sat at the kitchen table, filled-in all the required information, then told my mom that I wanted to take junior lifeguard training. I showed her where to sign the document, which she did. What I had not pointed-out to her (she could hardly read any English) was that I had fudged on my birth year, one-year.
At which point, I rushed back to the pool and gave the documents to the instructor, who looked over the paper, looked at me a bit closer, I felt, then the others, and said, “Okay, be at the pool next Monday at 9:00 AM.” I felt like I was floating on clouds! I was so excited about this extra pool time and didn’t give the age discrepancy another thought.
On Saturday, my grandfather, who had purchased paint for the outside of our house, decided that I was going to do all the window casing with the new trim color. It was a very lovely sunny day, and helping my grandfather do anything around the house just felt like the right thing I should be doing. Grabbing a bucket of the turquoise toned paint, a couple of paintbrushes and some trimming tape, I went to the side of the house. Getting everything in place, I set-up the ladder against the first set of windows and began taping-off the glass around the window frame. Once I got all the taping done, I was ready to get going on the painting. The ground under the window was flush with low growing shrubbery and I found it challenging to get the ladder to sit flat without a wobble. Not giving this much thought, I went ahead, got the bucket of paint on the ladder's shelf, climbed up and began painting the trim. To get to the top of the windowpane, I needed to get up onto the top step. Just as I bent down to dip the paintbrush into the bucket of paint, the ladder suddenly wobbled and tilted at such an angle that I lost my balance.
A tightening in my chest was a strong indication that what was about to happen wasn’t going to end well. I thoughtfully grabbed the paint bucket, thinking at the time, I would salvage the paint going down. Along the side of the house was a 2 foot-wide paved walkway. As I plummeted to the ground, with the bucket in my hands, I hit the walkway with both hands buried in the bucket, and both of my mid forearms bent in a way that looked almost cartoonish. The reality was, I broke both arms in the fall. The paint was splattered across my chest, my arms, and my face. I have no idea if I passed out immediately or at the moment that I attempted to extract my hands from the bucket. Whatever of those moments were first, I did pass out! Sometime relatively soon, my sister, Millie, found me on the ground in a visible mess. She screamed and my grandfather and my mom came rushing to the side of the house. After one look at my arms, my grandfather grabbed some wooden shingles from the shed, had my mom tear a sheet into strips of cloth, and he went ahead and splinted my arms, paint and all. Then trying to get off the ground, I passed out once again. When I came to, I was in the front seat of the car, with a large pillow in my lap, my mom in the back seat, and grandfather rushing across town to Sacred Heart hospital.
Upon arrival at the emergency entrance, my grandfather went in and got the medical staff to come out and get me into a wheelchair. As I moved from the car seat to the wheelchair, I started laughing uncontrollably and broke out in a drenching sweat that became soaked top to bottom. The emergency room staff removed the homemade splints and saw at once that I had bi-lateral compound fractures. The ER doctor looked at the arms and told the nurse, “to get me to the radiology department stat.” When I returned, he instructed the staff to try and get the drying paint off my hands and arms. About 45 minutes later, I met Dr. Wallace, who was an orthopedic surgeon. He told us that I was one remarkably lucky lad. The fractures would not require surgery. However, I was going to have to be put to sleep to reset and align the bones properly and to build a body cast that would incase both arms at a vertical level and surround my whole upper chest to provide stability.
When I woke up a few hours later, I felt like a freight train had rolled over my entire body. As my head cleared, I found myself in a bed with the head fully upright and I realized that I felt totally trapped in a cage. Dr. Wallace dropped into the hospital ward in the early evening and proceeded to explain the resetting of the bones and then made the striking statement, ”Jimmie, your summer is going to be long and challenging. You will be in this cast setup for 3 months.” I instantly thought "this is God’s punishment for lying about my age. My summer vacation is doomed, my junior lifeguard training is not going to happen!" Then, as I looked left and right at my arms girded in plaster, I suddenly realized I was not going to be able to feed myself and I felt heartbroken.
The first six weeks following the fall were the very worst! My hands were cast in such a manner that I could not wriggle my fingers. The simplest of things, brushing my teeth, combing my hair, wiping the perspiration from my brow, cleaning my behind, feeding, and drinking was not possible by myself. I was dependent, needing help 24/7. I learned a thing or two about myself that summer. One I did not like, in fact, hated, having to be waited on for everything and second, my sister Millie was a godsend to help me get through the troubled days.
After six weeks, going into town to see Dr. Wallace was a long-awaited event. The radiologist took x-rays. When Dr. Wallace came in, he said, “we have some good news and some not so good news. The bones in both arms are healing, they are straight, and I can see good new bone growth, but I was hoping we could reduce the need for the body cast. However, I don’t feel we can take the risk of your arms not being completely immobile and slings will not work. I can give you some more mobility with your hands by cutting away the cast from the fingers but not the wrist.”
So, we went into the casting room, where he grabbed a saw and began to slowly remove the cast to expose my digits on my hands for the first time in six weeks. The feeling was indescribable! I sat in the car all way back across town just moving my fingers. This was such a simple change, as I was still unable to do self-care. However, what having my fingers available did do was allow me to hold a book in my fingers and I spent every waking moment with a book, and I read and read and read.
On occasions, when I just felt like I had to have some kind of summer fun time in, my little seven-year-old sister Millie and I would walk to the local park, Harmon Field. It was about ten city blocks from the house, and we had to walk past the swimming pool, which was a double whammy to my psyche. Not being able to swim, compounded by my lie was burdensome!
The park had swing sets, and I could balance myself in the saddle seat of a swing and enjoy the moment being out of doors and feeling somewhat normal.
Of course, the local bullies were all around the park throughout the summer and the heckling and sneering were quite abundant. So much so that my little sister must have had enough. One day, as we were just arriving at the park, the regulars were in full force and the heckling started. The next thing Millie charged over to the crowd of mostly boys and began pummeling the boy that had the loudest mouth and beat on him until he, with a shocked look, backed away and told the group of guys to just let us be. I was so impressed with her, from that day forward I nicknamed her Guardian Angel.
As summer was winding down, school chatter started circling around the neighborhood, and I was anxiously hoping the casts were coming off. The school was to begin on September 8th, and we had an office visit with Dr. Wallace on Friday, September 4th. The standard order for new x-rays took place and then the long wait to be escorted into the examination. When we were called back, the nurse had a pretty great smile and said, “Dr. will be right in, but we are moving you over to the casting room.”
I knew at once that some part of this terrible cast was going to be no more! Dr. Wallace came in, smiled, grabbed the saw, and started cutting away the cast. He began across the back and then came around to the front and cut open the cast. He then started to cut away the right and left arms top and bottom. As he was cutting away on the arms, his nurse began cutting away the padding front and back and, oh my gosh! The smell will never leave my memory cells. Twelve weeks of accumulated sweat and decaying skin and general body odors permeated the air. It was pretty awful. However, the sheer joy of having this burden removed was far overweighing the dreadful smell. I literally felt like a thousand-pound elephant was finally off my chest. My upper body and my arms were sheet white. My arms looked like spaghetti noodles. They had lost so much muscle tone.
I heard Dr. Wallace talking about exercises and limitations and on and on. What I was focused on at the moment was getting my independence back with school starting in four days.
And the beginning of a new chapter…..