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The boy didn’t understand. That’s what made it so painful for Neanderdad and his mate. They had explained to the boy what was about to happen, but the boy couldn’t conceive of it. So the boy didn’t worry. He exhibited only the slightest apprehension and any concerns he might have harbored quickly evaporated in the bright heat of the boy’s natural ebullience. 

As they all departed for his date with destiny, the boy was as cheerful as Neanderdad had ever seen him. He practically galloped to the car; an epic hero about to face a dragon.  He buckled into his seat and flashed a winning smile. Then his parents, more aware of what lay ahead, grimly drove him away.

It was an impossibly beautiful day. The boy jabbed a thumb at the window of the car, pointing out the green mountains and blue sky.

“Whoa! Look! That’s really pretty,” he exclaimed.

Then he continued to chatter amiably from his booster seat. His parents had a hard time appreciating the scenery or sustaining cheery banter. The only hint that the boy made to what lay ahead was his occasional references to Gatorade.

“After they take them out, I get all the Gatorade I want?” the boy asked his mother.

“Yup,” she said. “Ice cream too.”

Then the boy flashed that same smile and turned to look out at the glorious world whizzing past. He found wonder in a passing tow truck, a red cement mixer and a glimpse of deer grazing on a hillside. He was living in the moment, thrilled with life and all that was in it. Neanderdad and his wife were quieter. They worried about edge cases and the unforeseen complications.  Was what they were doing the right thing? Were they leading their completely healthy son down a dangerous path?

“I get to watch all the Dinosaur Train I want, too?” he wanted to confirm.  This was out of the ordinary in their TV-averse household.

“Yup,” she said. “All the Dinosaur Train you want.”

Well, that was enough for the boy. The show was part cartoon, part educational program and part crack cocaine. The boy beamed. Neanderdad could almost see the boy thinking, “this is too good to be true.” And, of course, it was.

When they arrived at the hospital, the boy sprinted ahead of them, so great was his excitement. Neanderdad and his mate rushed to catch up, joining the boy just before he plunged deeply into the labyrinth of corridors with horrifying names like Intensive Care and Oncology. At the turnoff to their department, Surgery, the boy stopped cold. Before him, incongruent with the freezing sterility of the place, stood a huge model train layout. The boy’s mouth dropped open in wonder.

“Whoa,” is all he said, then he rushed forward to explore it.

“Its not running,” he pointed out, after inspecting the setup. He was disappointed. “Awww.”

Nonetheless, he carefully examined the diorama’s amazing detail. There was a complete small town, forested slopes, bridged-over ravines and a dark tunnel that ran under snow capped mountains. They were in a hurry to get to the boy’s appointment, so they shepherded him away from the train set with a promise that he could see it when they were done. He paused, hands on the protective glass divider, looking at it one more time, a look of intense interest on his face. Then he joined them for their journey deeper into the hospital labyrinth.

Eventually, they found their way to the pre-op room. It was a jungle of chrome and linen with polished white floors.  Tubes and wires hung from everything like vines. There was a persistent din of chirping equipment and murmuring technicians. The boy looked about, trying to figure it all out. As a nurse led them to a station, he paused to look at an extremely pale, bald child in a nearby pod, huddling with stone-faced parents. For the first time that day, a frown crossed the boy’s face. He looked up at Neanderdad in askance.

“What’s wrong with him,” the boy whispered?

Neanderdad shook his head that he didn’t know. When his son turned to follow the nurse, Neanderdad and his wife shared an anxious glance.

When the Nurse had gotten their son on the gurney, she enclosed it in a curtain, blocking them off visually from the rest of the pre-op ward. Though they were visually private, they could not escape the thousands of sounds—human, electronic and mechanical—that still surrounded them. The nurse put bracelets on each of the boys arms and asked them to confirm his identify several times.

“These are so cool,” he said.

The nurse gave the boy a hospital gown and a pair of socks. These the boy marveled over. The socks were bright yellow with strips of rubbery material embossed in rows onto the fabric, making them perfect for gripping the polished floor. The boy put the socks on and looked at them from every angle. Then he got down off the gurney and tested them out.

“These are really great socks,” he said, beaming.

Then came the series of procedures common to all hospital visits.  The boy was weighed. His height was measured. His temperature was taken. The nurse listened to his pulse and breathing with a stethoscope. Then she put a cuff was put on his arm and measured his blood pressure. The boy found all of these activities engrossing.

“What does that do? What does my heartbeat sound like? How does that work?” he asked.

After a series of deadly serious questions about allergies and the dangers of anesthesia, there was an interlude of humanity where the doctor brought out a selection of scented anesthesia masks for the boy to choose. He chose the Bubble Gum scent, then put the mask over his face over and over again to breath the sickly sweet smell.

“Which one of you would like accompany him to the operating room?” the nurse then  asked.

Neanderdad and his wife looked at each other, thinking the same things. First they both thought, “we both can’t go?” Then they both thought, “Me. Please god let it be me.” Neanderdad’s mate put the question to the boy. He looked back and forth at his parents absently, then jabbed a finger at Neanderdad nonchalantly.  The boy didn’t care, but Neanderdad’s heart lurched with gratitude.  But when he looked over into the eyes of his wife, her ashen face made Neanderdad’s heart lurch again.

“Mom okay?” He said, hitching his finger at her.

The boy shrugged happily. Neanderdad saw a flash of relief on his wife’s taut face. Then, after a last hug which left Neanderdad with something in his eye, the nurse wheeled the boy away, Neanderdad’s mate by his side. The last glimpse Neanderdad saw was the boy grinning at the experience of riding on a moving bed.

No aimless walk, no half-eaten breakfast, no distracted chat with a spouse can fill the slow-motion minutes that crawl by when a child is in an operating room. No electronic device, no trick of the mind, no spiritual mantra can divert the mind of a parent from darker possibilities. And no prayer can bring an end to the wait quickly enough.  This was the agony Neanderdad and his mate endured after she rejoined him in the pink-painted torture chamber that was the waiting room.

Finally, after a millennium, the surgeon came in to talk to them.  He was still wearing his scrubs and a surgical mask was drawn down around his chest.  He met them with that tight, impatient, impersonal smile that only people in the medical professional can produce.  Neanderdad and his wife practically engulfed the man. He assured them that everything went great, as if it was specifically his work they worried about and not the life of their son. Then the man started ticking through a number of minor details that an explosion of relief would forever blot from Neanderdad’s mind. Finally, the man motioned them to the recovery room and Neanderdad and his wife practically sprinted to their son.

They heard him before they even arrived to the room. The boy’s wail of anguish echoed down the hallways. It was a raspy, agonizing lament that hurt Neanderdad to hear.

They burst into the post-op room and rushed to the boy, who was struggling with an attending nurse.  Bright red blood was streaming from both nostrils of the boy’s nose. He was confused and continued to yell, eyes closed and face flushed with the effort of his protest. Even as Neanderdad and his mate smothered him with kisses and assuring words, trying to keep him from speaking through his shredded throat, he began to croak the same phrase over and over.

“My throat! My throat!

He didn’t appear to even notice them.  The boy simply continued to rock back and forth and yell.   Panicked at his son’s state, Neanderdad angrily beseeched the post-op room to take action.

Then an angel in scrubs and a flower-pattern hair net appeared, as if from heaven, with a popsicle.  It froze the pain in the boy’s throat just enough to snap him out of his rhythmic agony. The boy’s eyes finally opened and he beheld his parents. When his eyes came to rest on Neanderdad the Betrayer, a look of rage came flitted across the boy’s face.  It appeared to Neanderdad that the boy finally understood.

“I don’t want tonsil surgery anymore!” the boy croaked fiercely.   He had been delivered into pain and he did not like it one bit.  And no model train, no gatorade, no ice cream and not even Dinosaur Train could return to Neanderdad and his wife the trusting boy that had accompanied them to the hospital.