Another Summer



The Orchard


The Fisher's Tale

Gate 10


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Another Summer


Walking around Astoria Park, she kept to the path. The long grass was already worn threadbare to yellow fibers by the beat of countless feet, strolling, running, heading for the pool.  Her goal today was to walk some figure-eights around the massive piers of two bridges, from the Hellgate’s brick archway, down along the East River to the blue steel pillars of the Triboro. The wind had picked up, freshening the humid air, and clearing a wide prairie of sky between storm fronts. Manhattan stood clear and sharp across the water.

Making her second circuit along the waterfront, she heard a familiar tootling melody, the theme song of countless summers. Mr. Softee was making the rounds. ‘Doodle-a-doodle-a doo-doo-doo. . .’ Kids were running and skipping up the sidewalk to the truck, jumping around, dragging a parent by the hand. Even with a magic flute, no Pied Piper could compete with the lure of ice cream on a summer day.

She suddenly recalled Eddie Murphy onstage, sweat pouring into his shiny, black, leather suit, rhapsodizing about the siren call of the ice cream truck in the projects. “Kids could hear it from blocks away, and they would lose they fuckin’ minds. They couldn’t hear they mother callin’, but they could hear the ice cream truck. ‘Ice cream! ICE CREAM! Maaaa! Throw-me-down-some-money! Throw. Me. Down. Some. Monnnnneyyyy!’”

When she was growing up on the fiery streets of Chicago, she could hear the melody from the next street, and would sprint back home for spare change, heart pounding, hoping that she could reach the truck before it drove away. Once she earned a quarter by sweeping out the stoops and concrete back yard of the apartment building next door. After sweating for a very long hour, the super gave her a pat on the back and enough for two cones.

But the last time she bought an ice cream cone was exactly two summers ago, today. It was the last one she would ever eat.  That Mr. Softee truck was on the corner of Union Square, where the farmer’s market was in full swing. A tanned woman in pedal pushers walked past with bulging bags, celery and beets bursting from the tops.  An older Asian couple cradled boxes of basil.  Two people lost in their own music waited for ice cream while the sun poured down. One was skinny, one was fat. They ordered the same thing.

When her turn came, she asked for a small chocolate cone, no sprinkles, and immediately began rotating her cone to keep the drips in place.  She used her clumsy left hand to steady her right, and slowly limped towards the clinic, putting off the appointment as long as she could. The melting ice cream was so much richer than frozen. It gathered in the bottom of the cone, in the waffle-like inner chambers, and slowly softened the crunchy shell. She leaned against the brick wall outside the clinic, grateful for the support, until she had finished the last gooey bit.

-  -  -

It was a short step from wishing for an ice cream cone to remembering why not. After the clinic, a week in the hospital, spinal tap, and MRIs. Then a month of steroids, chat rooms and self-help books. She finally got her diagnosis.

Dr. Harvey was a bulky man. In 1890, he would have been called ‘substantial.’ His expensive suit pushed out his casually draped white coat.  Harvey quickly flipped through the pile of  negatives, not bothering to clip them to the light box. He plucked six black sheets out of the pile and held them to the light. He said, “Yep, you’ve got it.”

“Huh? What?”

“Multiple sclerosis.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yes. It’s classic. See these lesions, here on the brain? And there’s a nice one, in the cervical vertebrae.” She peered over his shoulder anxiously. They were faint, cloudy spots. They looked like distant galaxies.

“What’s the next step?”

“Hmmm? Oh, well, I’m sure you’ve done the research. I find that most patients have. We need to get you started on one of the ABC drugs.”

“But I’m really concerned about the side effects. What else can I do? What about changes in diet? I’ve been reading about how critical vitamins and essential fatty acids are. What about avoiding allergens? What about exercise?”

“Yes, well. We find that the placebo effect has some value. Patients who make the changes you’re talking about, and really follow through on them, often see some improvement.”

“How much improvement are we talking about?”

“It could be as much as thirty, thirty-three percent. That is, a reduction in the number of actual exacerbations of the disease. But there’s no guarantee. You really need to start the injections.”

Thirty-three percent was a significant number, which echoed in her head.  She had read that only thirty-three percent of MS victims were men. Unfortunately men deteriorated three times as quickly. What did that mean to her? Her hands and feet had already become distant objects, and walking was torture. Her immune system had staged a coup, pushed over the edge by a unknown combination of factors. Chronic stress, allergy, inflammation or exposure to toxins may have set the stage for a simple virus to reprogram her immune system. The troops were attacking their own government – and instead of destroying the invading virus, they were dismantling her brain.

The future narrowed to a crooked path in a dark place. She spent the rest of that summer indoors, quit her job, unplugged the phone and watched every single episode of Babylon 5 and Firefly back-to-back. She wept over her withered dreams. Plans for painting and teaching seemed pointless. Winter had come early. When her email and voicemail filled up, old friends actually mailed hand-written letters of concern, postcards from the land of health. For the first time in her life, she prayed. Every so often, she would hear her mother’s voice in the darkness, saying, “You just have to put one foot in front of the other.”

She ran out of misery after two months, and thought about how her mom had gotten through abandonment, bankruptcy and divorce, just by putting one foot in front of the other. She clenched her fists and began staying up all night, sifting the Internet for causes and cures. Nobody had an answer, but everyone had ideas. The real trick would be keeping the army of immune cells on stand-by, instead of on Red Alert, for the rest of her life. Known allergens were off-limits. With visions of life in a wheelchair dancing in her head, she gave up gluten. That meant wheat and barley. No more crusty French bread, no pasta primavera or sizzling pizza Margherita. No chocolate cake. And no lactose, the natural sugar in milk. No more café lattes, cream cheese on a bagel, no gouda or brie. Certainly no more ice cream cones. But the sacrifice seemed pretty small.

She spent the last of her money on vitamins, fatty acids, herbs and medicinal mushrooms, and started pushing herself to walk, a little further every day.

-  -  -

A sporty red convertible rolled past, top down, pounding out rock and roll. She shook off the past two years, the way a dog will shake off cold water, and kept walking. By now, all the kids were clutching vanilla, strawberry, chocolate ice cream cones. Some were still running around, balancing cones that seemed far too large for them. She smiled. A sugary, air-conditioned chill wafted out the window of the ice cream truck as she approached. Dads and granddads sat in groups against the wall, backs to the East River, and gossiped in Spanish while they listened to the radio and spooned sweet treats from a cup. One copper-skinned mom, wrapped in a purple sari, clutched her dimpled toddler to her hip and thoughtfully licked a fruit pop. A college-aged couple jogged up to the truck, reconsidered, and kept going. As if their departure were a signal that the sidewalk market was saturated with ice cream, Mr. Softee started his engine and pulled away from the curb.

A cool breeze lifted her shirt. Doodle-a-doodle-a-doo-doo-doo faded up the street. In its wake trailed the sounds of kids shouting, salsa on the radio, the horn of a tugboat on the water, and the oceanic murmur of traffic on the bridge. The freshening air rustled bright leaves overhead. She laughed out loud, picked up her pace, and started running.

© Li Gardiner, July, 2009