Some Kind of Friendship….
I was totally bored that Saturday mid morning, but happy.
Full time nursing school students working outside the scope of school rarely enjoyed downtime, so along with being bored, I was grateful.
Sometime in 1979 or 80 ( the actual time frame escapes me now), I was cruising the square framed halls of Boston’s renowned Joslin Clinic, trying to find something productive to do. Mercifully, following a grueling week at the nursing school educationally and nearly physically attached to the clinic (New England Deaconess Hospital), I had been “assigned to glide”; that is, sent to Joslin on my weekend nursing assistant job. Good thing too…I needed the rest.
With so many students for so few coveted positions, occasionally we were placed in the plush assignments, and I was thankful to have drawn such a lucky score on such a rough week.
Not a whole lot to do in the way of patient care at the clinic. All patients were expected to care for themselves, learn how to manage their diabetes, do their own chores and get themselves to class. Nurses and ancillary personnel functioned primarily to teach and administer meds or treatments as needed. Patients were also expected to medicate themselves and do their own blood and urine testing. So what was a novice nursing student supposed to do under those conditions?
I wasn’t exactly upset at having been given the opportunity to socialize with interesting people of multiple ages, nationalities and cultures, and decided to make the most of my time. It had been a horrific week in my ICU rotation. Embarrassingly, I had even been yanked out of class and personally quizzed, every nursing students’ biggest nightmare. I was only just getting over the humiliation I felt over freezing when directed to orally trace a drop of blood through the body. All I was certain of at that moment was that any blood I had had dropped to my feet, which felt like leaden weights. Needless to say, I needed a break from school and such an awful experience.
Even reliving the event made me shiver with an unpleasant mixture of fright and disgust.
So, at the Joslin, where my most challenging task might be to ferry a specimen to the lab, or sit in on a patient lecture where I might actually learn something, I was at that particular moment, utterly blissful.
Just as I was thinking of taking myself to lunch and meeting up with unfortunate friends charged with the task of “really” working that day, I happened past the Joslin cafeteria, where I spied a petite freckle faced little boy approximately ten years old, seated by himself. Something compelled me to sit down beside him, although to this day I can’t come up with the exact reason why. I simply knew it was something I was supposed to do.
He eyed me carefully while eating some crazy oatmeal peanut butter concoction. Long a veteran of attempted gross outs perpetrated by my four brothers, I quickly offered that as far as odd food combos I much preferred either mustard on potato chips or peanut butter and sweet pickle sandwiches.
“You have to make the food interesting SOMEhow,” he giggled. We both erupted in laughter and he slid over to make room for me at the bench.
The little boy, “James” seems lonely, but what a wit. We become fast friends and the rest of my day passes so quickly that I can’t believe it is time for me to go. I want to stay and continue the visit, but he has class and I have homework so we have to say goodbye. Neither of us wants to. I tell James that my dad has a rule that we never say goodbye. We say so long because goodbye is too final. I think that is a great rule and tell James so. He doesn’t say anything, but he does stare at me long enough to thank me for hanging out with him.
I suggest we exchange addresses and keep in touch. I know as soon as I say it that he doesn’t believe me. It becomes my mission to prove otherwise. There is a resigned edge to his voice as he quietly agrees to be my penpal. As he walks away to the kids nutrition class, I surprise myself with a loudly delivered, “Hey!”, “You forgot my address.” I press the folded piece of paper into his hand and tell him not to lose it. I remind him that my mailbox number at the school is 29. Although he is skeptical towards my intentions, I am acutely aware how his impish smile fairly lights up the room and brings countless rays of sunshine to that cloudy Saturday afternoon. I have absolutely no idea of the adventures which will follow and connect us through the tangled mazes of our lives.
I make a mental note to start a letter to James as soon as I return to the dorm. I keep my promise.
Throughout that year, we exchange letters and pictures. We discover we both love to draw. Despite our considerable age difference of ten plus years, we also discover we are both possibly the two sappiest people on the planet.
His mom allows him to visit my roommate and I at the dorm during his all too frequent sojourns at the Joslin. He is the king of our dorm for those afternoons. We take him to the cafeteria to enjoy the “delicious” hospital food. He teaches us about juvenile diabetes and seems to know more about the subject than most doctors. He DEFINITELY knows more about it than we do, which is something we noticed about nearly all of the children at Joslin.
He is no longer lonely during these times. Neither am I. Until it is time to return to school and home.
In the middle of the night sometime afterward, I receive a call from the hospital. James has just been admitted in ketoacidosis with a blood sugar over 1400. He insists that the staff call me. He wants to know why I am not already there. He doesn’t understand that I don’t know everything. He doesn’t understand that I am just a kid too. In his eyes I am invincible. I have never been invincible to anyone before.
Though we have clinical in a scant few hours and skipping it is not an option, my roommate and I throw on some sweats and race over to the all night pharmacy attached to the clinic, where I select a tiny stuffed dog. We take it to James. I tell him its’ name is MarJim, after the two of us, so that he will never be far from me wherever he is. I want him to believe he will never be lonely as long as he has a thought of me with him.
James is thrilled to see me and is conscious despite his high blood sugar. I fight to remain awake seated next to his stretcher and strain to keep leaded eyelids open as he chatters away. As the insulin drips into his system , James gets quieter and quieter, but continues to clutch my hand and hug MarJim close as he eventually drifts off to sleep. I have to leave but whisper that I will be back as soon as I can. And I am.
As time passes, we are back and forth in touch, but as life intervenes, our worlds change and our contact lessens.
Suddenly the little boy is 15. I am a young single mom, age 27. I can’t recall how he found me, except that he remembered my hometown and somehow negotiated the right road back to me. It was not to be the last time.
But I digress.
There is an anxious phone call asking me to pick him up at a bus station a town or two away. He is visiting friends, he says, and just wants to have an opportunity to see me after all this while. Maybe we could have oatmeal and chocolate he jokes with a not so innocent chuckle .
Although I don’t know the way and am more than a little terrified to travel to the area in question, which isn’t in the best part of that town, I readily agree, scoop up my three year old son, and bravely risk the trek.
Gosh, he is no longer a little boy, but a man child. A child/man actually, complete with multiple earrings and Mohawk hair. I am only briefly taken aback because it is the same old sappy Jim behind all that. He hugs me as though he doesn’t ever want to let me go. I feel trembling and sense there is something I should know. I ask him if he is ok. He assures me that he is but I don’t fully believe it. He swears all is well and he is simply visiting friends and away for the day to see me. I don’t get a great feeling from his explanation but respect his reticence. I am just so thrilled to see him again. It is as if no time at all has passed.
James shows me a notebook filled with poetry that is disturbingly dark and filled with pain. It hurts me that he hurts so much. He IS 15 after all, but I still wonder if he wants to tell me something, or perhaps hopes that I will simply guess.
His work paints a picture of someone who is lost and confused. Misunderstood. Sad. Lonely. All the things both he and I sadly understand. I promise myself to keep in better touch afterwards.
I can’t know that I will not be able to find him.
No one can know the depth of his pain.
But I suspected.
After dinner and a too short visit, my little son and I somehow brave the one way streets in an unfamiliar town to drop James off at the bus stop. “Where are your friends?” I ask, not wanting to leave him there alone. “You worry too much,” he counters. “I’ll be fine.” “They’ll be here soon, honest.” The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach makes me wonder just how honest he is being with me, but against my better judgement, I drive off with a glimpse of him , all alone, waiting in front of the station. I have that sinking feeling again, but it isn’t because I’m frightened that I am in a questionable area of town. It’s for James. I plead for God to protect him, and drive away toward home. He is again part of my recent past.
Jim often occupies my thoughts over the years, especially whenever I come across the provocative notebook of poetry he unwittingly or knowingly left behind. I love him in absentia and keep him in my prayers. Sometimes when sifting through treasured memorabilia. I re read the little boy letters and touch his school photos. Every December on his birthday I send him a silent wish for goodness.
I occasionally curse myself for not following my original instinct and keeping in better touch. I wish I had waited for his friends to show up before I drove away.
More years pass and so many things happen to the good and bad. I don’t think of James as frequently but he floats in to my mind often enough to continue to be included in my prayers.
One night I can’t sleep and decide to log on to the computer to do some writing. It seems to soothe me somehow. There is a foreign email from someone who identifies himself as that little boy from so long ago. . He has been searching for me to no avail. Somehow he managed to locate me through an extensive search network and a smattering of good luck. He begs me to read his note. I am enthralled by what jumps back at me.
The words before me blur through tears which cloud my vision. He hoped I would want to resume contact but would understand if I did not. After all, it had been such a long while. Whatever the outcome, his email continued, he needed me to know how much my presence in his life had meant to a frightened, lonely little boy. He still had MarJim. He still had hope and, he eloquently pleaded, he hoped he still had me…
Through my tears I went on to read how the teenager who visited me that day so long ago was NOT visiting friends. He was a runaway. He had fallen on unspeakably horrible times and had nearly lost his way and his life as well.
Had he known the degree of danger he had placed me by asking to be picked up at that sleezy bus station, he never would have called. Yet, I am so grateful and happy that he did.
Since that meeting, he had admitted to himself and the world that he was gay. He had undergone cardiac bypass surgery and not one but two renal transplants. He was now happily residing with his partner of nine years, which was longer than my husband and I had been together. He wondered if I could still care. I wondered how he could even remotely doubt that I would.
That is precisely why, last week, after a particularly horrific night shift, after almost a year of James and I reconnecting over the computer and phone, I did not hesitate when notified that he was due to receive a pancreas transplant.
On Nurses Day, of all days.
A donor pancreas had become available. They wanted James to come to the hospital asap. He was afraid. He wasn’t sure that he could do it. “It’s Nurses Day,” I reminded him, “and you are going to be on the floor that I first was assigned when I graduated.” “If there are omens, thank heavens for good ones.” “The angels are watching over you.”
Still, we both knew we had to see each other “just in case.” So, with a mixture of my husband’s concern and blessing, I showered off much of my night shift fatigue and anxiously drove the seventy or so miles to see James.
The massive, all encompassing, lingering hug he delivered dissolved our years apart.
“You are my angel, “ he whispered, and then, as now, I voiced a silent prayer of thanks to God for keeping us, if not always on the same path, then similarly aligned so our lives were destined to touch when needed.
There is no one in my life quite as special, unique or as beautiful as James. He is a deep, silly, crazy, kooky, wild, sweet, risqué, wonderful amazing person whom I somehow managed to affect AND effect in some poignant way. I still don’t know why. The remarkable thing is that he still hasn’t realized that it is he who is the treasure.
Thankyou God, for gifting me with his friendship and love; for directing me to sit next to him all those years ago, for sending him back into my life when he needed comfort, but most especially, for keeping him safe and warm as I have always asked.
Sometimes, nurses really CAN have it all…
For James, with love and admiration, for always…
By; Martha J. Crowninshield O’Brien R.N>