Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Tale of Two Hospital Visits

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Karen Winslow, the sixty-two year-old Sunday school teacher for the Guppies pre-school class, recently checked into the hospital for a month long stay.

Karen had been diagnosed with leukemia. The first stage of treatment for her type of leukemia was an intense bout of chemotherapy. The chemo took seven days to administer and then three more weeks to recover from.

On the second day of Karen’s treatment, Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell and new young Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum came to the hospital for a visit. Michelle was nervous. She had not done many hospital visits and they made her uncomfortable. On the drive over Henry gently reassured her. “Just follow my lead,” he said.

They arrived to find Karen’s daughter Carrie sitting by the bed. Carrie was seven months pregnant and really starting to show. She was making an effort to be cheerful for her mom, but Henry could tell she was worried. And no wonder – Karen looked worn and exhausted, a dramatic change from only a few days before.

The four sat and made small talk for a while, though Michelle did very little talking. She sat next to the heart monitor smiling and nodding stiffly.

“Who’s going to teach the Guppies class this Sunday?” Karen eventually asked.

Henry glanced at Michelle. “Well,” he said, “we’re not sure yet. But don’t you worry about that. We’ll find someone.”

“Can I do it?” Carrie asked. “I think it might be good practice for when this one arrives.” She rubbed the bulge at her belly.

Henry thought the Guppies, particularly four year-old Mary Boyer, would be more likely to terrify Carrie about the prospect of motherhood than offer any useful experience. But he kept that thought to himself since he really needed a substitute. “We’d love to have you,” he said.

After a few more minutes, Karen informed them she was getting tired.

“Let’s pray and then we’ll leave you alone,” Henry replied.

They all stood around the bed, joined hands and bowed their heads. “Dear Lord,” Henry began…

And was interrupted by a loud alarm from the heart monitor. Michelle shrieked. Carrie shrieked. Even Henry shrieked, though he’d later deny it.

Karen opened one eye and looked at them. “What?” she asked. “I’m fine.”

A nurse dashed in and quickly solved the problem. Michelle had accidentally pulled a cord out with her foot. “You thought I was dead, didn’t you?” Karen asked Michelle. Michelle didn’t respond, but blushed cherry red as Karen guffawed at the mistake.

After things had quieted down, Henry finished the prayer. “Stay strong,” he told Karen. “And Carrie, we’ll see you Sunday in the Guppies’ room.”

Normally Henry’s concern about Carrie teaching the Guppies would have been well founded. But Carrie discovered the youngsters were as worried as she was by what was happening to their beloved Mrs. Winslow. They didn’t really understand things like bone marrow and radiation and even the word “cancer,” but they did understand that Mrs. Winslow was very sick.

Surveying the quiet, concerned little faces, Carrie had the excellent idea for the class to spend the hour making “Get Well” cards for their teacher.

“Be sure to tell Mrs. Winslow how much you miss her,” Carrie instructed as she handed out art supplies. “And make your cards really, really happy with lots of bright decorations to cheer her up.”

The effect of the project on the children’s attitudes was so positive that Carrie didn’t regret the idea even when Mary Boyer accidentally spilled gold and purple glitter paint on Carrie’s Prada handbag. In fact, it taught her an important lesson for her impending motherhood: young children and high fashion don’t mix.

Supervising the project raised Carrie’s spirits as well. And after some discussion, she convinced Pastor O’Donnell to let the class deliver the cards to Karen in person the following Sunday – with their parents’ permission of course. She had seen how much having visitors cheered her mother up.

A week later the Guppies gathered in a small knot at the door to Karen’s hospital room clutching their construction paper cards in carefully scrubbed hands, paper masks over their mouths. Karen was very susceptible to infection at this point in her treatment.

“Hello, Kids!” Karen beamed with a wide grin. The kids didn’t respond. Mrs. Winslow looked thin and pale, and there were dark rings under her eyes. She had wrapped a bright scarf around her head to cover the patches of lost hair, but even so her appearance frightened the youngsters.

Karen tried again, summoning as much energy as she could to increase the enthusiasm in her voice. “It’s so good to see you!”

Carrie stepped in, “Kids, who would like to give Mrs. Winslow their card first?” There was a long pause. “How ‘bout you, Sierra?”

Little Sierra Smith bravely stepped forward. Karen took the bright red card and fussed over every detail. As she did Sierra visibly relaxed. And as Sierra relaxed, the other kids started to relax as well.

One by one they came up to the hospital bed to show Mrs. Winslow their cards. And Karen fawned over each one.

Finally there was only one little girl left – Mary Boyer. “Do you want to give Mrs. Winslow your card?” Carrie asked her.

Mary chewed her lip under the paper mask, considering. Finally she nodded once quickly and stepped up to the bed. Karen took the card from her and commented on the deft arrangement of star stickers, the elaborate drawings of what appeared to be penguins, and the liberal use of gold and purple glitter. The whole time Mary stood stoically at attention.

Finally, Karen asked, “Is everything all right, Mary?”

Mary considered her response. Then blurted out, “This sucks, Mrs. Winslow.”

“Mary!” Carrie exclaimed, chagrined. But Karen just laughed.

“Yeah,” Karen said. “I agree. It does suck.”

Then Mary suddenly reached her hands up across Karen’s abdomen and buried her face in Karen’s side. It was as close to a hug as Mary could manage given her short stature and the height of the hospital bed. Karen wrapped an arm around Mary’s shoulders and hugged back.

Carrie stepped forward. “Remember what I said about Mrs. Winslow being fragile right now.”

“It’s alright,” Karen said quickly. Mary lifted her head. Her eyes were damp.

“Thank you, Mary,” Karen said softly. “Your visit really cheered me up. And don’t worry. I’ll be back to teach class again in no time. Until then, you be good for Carrie.”

“I promise,” Mary said.

Just then the nurse appeared with a tray holding Karen’s lunch. As she set it on a stand beside the bed, Mary’s eyes tracked a bowl in the upper left corner.

“You get chocolate pudding?” Mary said.

“I get some kind of pudding pretty much every day,” Karen told her.

“Wow,” Mary whispered.

She gave Karen one last squeeze and rejoined her classmates. As Carrie was herding them out the door Karen called to her. “Thank you, Carrie. This was just what I needed.”

Carrie smiled. She had not seen her mother looking this strong in days. She took Mary’s hand and led the kids out.

“I wish I got pudding every day,” Mary said. “Mrs. Winslow sure is lucky.”

“She sure is,” Carrie agreed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

No Tea and Sympathy

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Last Wednesday the church’s Senior Pastor, Henry O’Donnell, woke up with a nasty cold. He lay in bed for an hour coughing and sniffling and debating whether he could make it through a day of work.

He decided he could not.

He waited until just after nine when church secretary Tammy Billings would be in the office and called in. “I’m sick,” he told her. “I’m going to stay home.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Tammy said sympathetically. “What do you want to do about the apportionment paperwork? It’s due today.”

Henry moaned. He had been putting off the chore for weeks. Paperwork was the least favorite part of his job. And any paperwork relating to finance was the worst – especially this year when church income had fallen significantly. But turning the paperwork in to the district office late would only mean more headaches down the line.

“Okay,” Henry finally said. “I’ll come in and do it. But then I’m going straight back home.”

Henry dragged himself out of bed and pulled on sweats and a baseball cap. “Why does this stuff always happen to me?” he said to no one in particular.

“Good morning,” Tammy said brightly when Henry stomped into the office an hour later.

“Wish it were,” he grunted.

“Karen Winslow called,” Tammy replied, holding out a message slip.

“I’ll call her back tomorrow. As soon as I finish the apportionment paperwork I’m outta here. So please don’t bother me with anything that isn’t absolutely urgent. And why is it so cold in here anyway?”

“The heat’s on the fritz again,” Tammy told him. “The repairman’s coming to fix it tomorrow.”

“That’s just great,” O’Donnell muttered and lumbered into his office.

“You know he’s going to say we need to replace the furnace,” Tammy called after.

“Yeah,” O’Donnell replied. “We’ll do that as soon as someone dies and leaves ten thousand dollars to the church.”

Henry sat in his office coughing and sneezing loudly and with some regularity. Despite his best efforts, Tammy seemed oblivious to his agony.

After about fifteen minutes he trudged back out to the front office. Normally he drank coffee in the morning, but his throat was killing him. He opened the box of tea bags that was by the coffee maker and microwave on a credenza across from Tammy’s desk.

The box was empty.

He turned to Tammy. “We’re out of tea bags.”

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I used the last one.”

Henry eyed the mug sitting by Tammy’s computer. The tag of her tea bag dangled over the rim taunting him. “Are there more in the kitchen,” he asked.

“I think they’re in the storeroom downstairs,” she replied.

Henry watched Tammy clacking away at her keyboard. She showed no signs of volunteering to retrieve another box of tea in the near future. It looked like poor, sick Henry was going to have to do it himself. He coughed particularly violently as he went out.

“You do sound bad,” Tammy called after, not looking up from her computer.

Henry tromped downstairs where he discovered the changing table from the nursery had been moved into the hall and was blocking the storeroom door. He looked around hoping someone would materialize to hear him complain about the discourtesy, but he was alone. He shoved the unwieldy table back into the nursery.

The nursery looked like a disaster area. All the cupboards had been opened and the contents stacked in various piles around the room. Half full boxes cluttered the small table.

When Henry got back to the main office he asked Tammy if she was aware that someone had vandalized the nursery.

“Very funny, pastor,” Tammy said. “Karen started to clean it out on Sunday but then she got really tired. She said she’s been feeling tired a lot lately. Probably has something to do with Carrie and her husband living with them. “

Karen Winslow was a Sunday school teacher at the church. Her daughter Carrie was expecting her first child. It had been a year since the last infant at the church and the nursery had become a depository of odds and ends in that time. Henry had known the chore needed to be done for a while and was glad Karen took it on, but he hated when people didn’t finish what they started.

“How long is she going to leave it like that?” he grumbled.

“I’m sure she’ll finish it up this Sunday.”

“I hope so,” Henry said. “Do you know why she put the changing table in the hall?

“She says we need a new one,” Tammy replied. “That one is pretty beat up.”

“If she wants a new changing table she can donate one,” Henry snapped. He was certain the one in the nursery was fine. It was most likely just a case of first time grandparents wanting the finest luxuries for their little bundle of joy. The church couldn’t afford to buy a new changing table every time somebody had a baby.

Henry put a tea bag into his mug, filled it with water, and stuck it in the little microwave. He hit the start button.

There was a bang and a small shower of sparks. Tammy yelped.

The microwave sat silent, it’s digital display dark. Henry tentatively hit a few buttons. Nothing happened.

“I guess we’re going to need a new microwave,” Tammy said.

Henry started laughing.

“Why is that funny,” Tammy asked.

“Oh, just God’s little practical jokes,” he said. “You’d think if he was going to drag me out of my sick bed to come into the office to do paperwork he’d at least let me have a cup of tea.”

Tammy considered pointing out that his predicament might have less to do with God’s sense of humor than the pastor’s own procrastination. But instead she just suggested he heat some water on the stove in the kitchen.

“Nah, forget it,” Henry replied. “I’m just going to finish the paperwork and go home.”

The phone rang. Henry waited while Tammy answered it. After listening to the caller for a few seconds she covered the mouthpiece and said, “It’s Karen Winslow again.”

Henry sighed. “My throat hurts too much to argue about the changing table today. Take a message.”

Fifteen minutes later Tammy popped into his office. “Brought you something,” she said. She set a steaming mug of tea on his desk.

Henry beamed. “Thank you so much!”

“No problem,” she said. “I wanted a second cup myself.”

The phone rang in the front office and Tammy went to answer it. Henry picked up the mug of tea feeling almost giddy with anticipation. It was too hot to drink yet so he blew on it to cool it down.

Tammy poked her head back into the room. “Del’s on the phone now.”

Del was Karen’s husband. Henry wanted to talk to him even less than he wanted to talk to Karen. “Can’t they take a hint,” Henry asked.

“He insists it’s urgent,” she replied.

“Okay,” Henry grunted and picked up the phone.

“I’m sick and I’m having a really bad day,” Henry said by way of greeting. “This better be important.”

“Karen was diagnosed with leukemia yesterday,” Del said.

Henry closed his eyes. “I’ll be right there,” he replied.

He grabbed his coat and headed for his car. The cup of tea sat forgotten on his desk.

This story line will continue. For more information on leukemia, visit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Baby Shower

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. A few months ago church member Carrie Winslow-Lopez announced she was pregnant with her first child. Fellow member Missy Moore was inordinately thrilled by this news and thought the church should throw Carrie a baby shower. Missy and Carrie were not particularly close friends, but Missy loved planning showers of all types.

Carrie and her husband Carlos gladly accepted. Not only were they flattered at Missy’s thoughtfulness, but both had recently lost their jobs so they kind of needed the gifts.

Missy’s first decision was to make the shower co-ed. After all, she reasoned, why should the guys miss out on all the fun?

Kevin Boyer had no trouble coming up with good reasons. The primary one was that it all sounded like a lot of girly nonsense to him.

Kevin worked out an elaborate excuse involving an important weekend business obligation. Unfortunately his wife Jill knew Kevin’s only real obligation was to a televised golf game that had nothing to do with his job. She informed him he would, in fact, be attending the shower. “Why,” Kevin whined.

“Because it would be rude not to,” Jill snapped. “Besides, you’ll have fun.”

After arguing the point in vein for several days, Kevin finally relented and turned his attentions to convincing his buddy Thad to go as well. Kevin figured he’d enjoy himself more if his friend was also suffering.

Kevin certainly needn’t have worried that he would be the only man there. Carrie’s husband Carlos was naturally obligated to attend, as was her father, Del. And it would have been poor form for Pastor O’Donnell to be absent. Organist Walter Tibble happily checked the “yes” box on his RSVP. He had never been to a baby shower and was curious to see how they worked. Like most organists, Walter was a little weird.

Kevin may not have been exactly eager to attend but he did hold out hope for a fun afternoon. After all, since it was co-ed he assumed Missy wouldn’t make the event too girly. Those hopes began to fade, however, as he and Jill entered the social hall and found it festooned in pink and white ribbon and balloons with cardboard pictures of babies taped up every five feet.

Before long Kevin was huddled with the rest of the men in one corner of the social hall sipping punch while the women laughed and compared parenting stories in a ring of folding chairs Missy had set out.

One of Missy’s favorite things about showers were the games and she had a long list prepared. For the first, she gave everyone a pink plastic clothespin upon entering and informed them that if they said the words “baby” or “pregnant,” the first person who heard them got to take their clothespin and any others they’d collected. Whoever had the most clothespins by the time cake was served got a prize.

Walter collected the first clothespin among the group of guys when Pastor O’Donnell commented that he hadn’t attended his own wife’s baby shower. “You said a forbidden word,” Walter chortled. O’Donnell sighed and handed over his clothespin.

“I didn’t go to my daughters’ baby showers either,” Kevin immediately said.

“Clothespin!” Ralph shouted.

Kevin handed it over thankfully. He was not really a fan of party games.

The rest of the men were good sports and tried to watch what they said, but before long Walter had collected all six of the clothespins initially handed out to the guys. He clipped them proudly down the front of his shirt.

Then Missy announced that it was time to play “Identify the Baby Food.” She had peeled the labels off eight jars of baby food and everyone was to guess what the mush inside was from appearance and smell. While the other guests crowded around the row of tiny jars, Kevin excused himself to go to the restroom.

Once Missy tallied up all the entries, she announced the winner: Walter Tibble. Walter leaped to his feet with a victory whoop, hands thrust into the air. “He got a perfect eight for eight,” Missy noted.

“How do you know so much about baby food?” Jill asked in amazement.

“Clothespins!” Walter shouted in response to Jill’s slip of the tongue. He collected the three clothespins she’d acquired on his way up to get the prize for the baby food game – a jar of applesauce. Missy did have a wacky sense of humor.

The next game was “How Big is Mommy’s Tummy?” Each participant was to cut a string at the length they thought would encircle Carrie’s pregnant belly. Whoever got the closest to her actual circumference won.

Now it was Pastor O’Donnell’s turn to visit the bathroom. He didn’t need to, but nineteen years of marriage made him uncomfortable when it came to guessing the size of women’s bodies.

When the strings were collected and compared to the one Carrie had cut, they discovered Walter had won again. Walter did a little victory dance as he collected his prize – a box of multi-colored ribbons.

“Okay,” Missy said as Walter skipped away. “The next game is the Bottle race. We’ll see who can suck a baby bottle dry the fastest.”

At this point Thad noticed that neither Kevin nor Pastor O’Donnell had returned to the party. He decided to investigate.

Walter was the winner of the baby bottle race, too, though Del gave him a run for his money. After consuming so much liquid in such a short period of time, Del found he had to use the restroom. And it was at this point that people started to notice the absence of so many of the men.

But then everyone became distracted by Missy’s next game – a version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey where contestants tried to pin a paper baby on the pregnant belly of a blown-up photo of Carrie. Walter won again.

“Walter, maybe you should go look for the other men,” Jill suggested grumpily.

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily,” Walter replied. “What’s the next game?”

“Guess the Chocolate,” Missy said. That game involved candy bars melted in baby diapers. The goal was to guess what kind of candy bar had been used in each.

“I’ll find the other guys,” Carlos said, eyeing the diapers uneasily. Carrie caught his look and got a premonition of the coming arguments over who was going to change their baby.

Ten minutes later the women watched in disgust as Walter claimed yet another prize. Jill looked around. Walter was the only man left in the room. She had a nagging feeling her husband might be behind this strange phenomena and decided enough was enough.

She headed back to the bathrooms and was about to knock on the men’s room door when she heard voices from a Sunday School classroom a few feet away. She peeked inside.

There were all the missing men, perched precariously on small plastic chairs around a kid’s height table playing poker for thumbtacks.

Jill cleared her throat. The men looked up. “Hi honey,” Kevin said. “Look, we made up our own shower game.”

Jill simply glared. Without another word, the guys put away their cards and returned to the party.

As they reentered the social hall, Walter beamed at them, his prizes cupped in his arms. “I won every game!” he gloated. “I’m the shower game king, baby!”

“Hey, you said a forbidden word,” Kevin noted.

Walter’s face fell. He tried to protest that he had used the word in a context that gave it a different meaning and thus it shouldn’t count, but everyone backed Kevin. Finally Walter reluctantly handed over his collection of clothespins.

“Kevin wins the clothespin game,” Missy declared. Walter pouted while she presented Kevin his prize – a gift card to a local Italian restaurant.

“Now it’s time for cake,” Missy declared.

Soon the guys had reunited in their original corner. “I think I kinda like these co-ed baby showers,” Kevin said around a mouthful of cake.

Walter just grumbled to himself.