“Mom, my stomach hurts,” Ryley said as he climbed in the van after school last Tuesday.
If I had a yellow feather for every time a child climbed into the van after school saying their tummy or head or big toe ached, I could make Big Bird. Sadly, my first reaction wasn’t concern or worry. An aching tummy usually means someone needs to spend time in a room that echos on a seat that flushes. That’s all.
I dropped him off at home with advice to visit the bathroom and maybe eat some crackers. I had to take Joel to get a Halloween costume. It was Halloween Eve and I knew we were going to run out of time making his costume. It would be a store-bought year, at least for Joel. We drove away. I had a clear conscience, barely thinking about Ryley’s tummy while we did some last-minute holiday shopping. I bought candy to hand out and an after school snack of cupcakes. When we got home, I asked about Ryley and was told he was in his room, doing homework. Did he want a cupcake? He didn’t. In retrospect, that should have been the bright red, 10-story high flag.
In the next 12 hours, we’d confirm another case of appendicitis—our second in four months. Ryley kicked his appendix to the curb at around 11:00am on Halloween morning. While he was in surgery, a Thriller flashmob invaded the hospital atrium. It’s odd to watch hospital personnel dance to a song about rotting inside a corpse’s shell while your oldest baby boy is unconscious one level up:
For the past several weeks, I envisioned Halloween unfolding a certain way. Archie and Teddy were going to be Mario and Luigi. They’d wear puffy cosplay hats and fuzzy mustaches. They’d be thrilled, they’d look adorable. Baby Oliver was going to be a lumberjack. Beatrix was going to be a doe-eyed penguin. Tommy settled on being a Wii remote. He and my husband made his costume together. Darth Vader came to life in Joel. The big boys and Aidan were on their own regarding costumes. I had faith they’d come up with something. Sam ended up being himself in 20 years. Aidan ended up dressing in a striped shirt, beret, and curly mustache. She was French. This was Ryley’s costume:
Before he was taken into surgery, he asked if his brothers and sisters could please visit him later in the day. I readily agreed. Having visitors at the hospital can make it a much less lonely experience. But what about trick-or-treating? What about the costumes we bought, built, slapped together? What about the scenic and memorable photos I was going to take in our leaf-covered yard? We were forced to turn one vision of a holiday into a very different reality. The eleven of us would spend Halloween night at Children’s Hospital.
After Ryley was settled in a room, my husband left to pick up the kids from school, run some errands, make sure homework was done. The plan was to return to the hospital with the kids in costume. Oliver and I stayed with Ryley. I watched my oldest and youngest sons sleep most of the afternoon.
When Ryley woke, he asked when everyone was coming. I was anxious, too. I wanted to see my kids in costume. I wanted to hear about their class parties and let them know I knew it wasn’t their idea of a Happy Halloween. Like Linus in the most sincere pumpkin patch, the Great Pumpkin was going to pass them by.
But you can’t be in a more sincere spot than by your brother’s side when he’s in a hospital bed, recovering from unexpected surgery.
Per hospital rules, Ryley couldn’t have more than four visitors in his room at a time, including parents. The kids had to rotate into his room in shifts. Each small group of kids got to spend 5-10 minutes with him. The rest of the time, they lounged in a tiny waiting room watching Halloween specials on a TV suspended from the ceiling. Archie and Teddy were first. They entered the room with a Jack-O’-Lantern the kids carved. My husband put a small flashlight inside so it could glow festively inside a cubby across from Ryley’s bed.
My husband also brought the candy I bought a day earlier—the same candy I planned to hand out to neighborhood kids. Instead, he gave it to Ryley. We instructed the kids to approach Ryley’s bed and say “Trick-or-treat!” He’d give them a few pieces of candy each. Tommy ditched the Wii remote costume in favor of a simple rainbow clown afro and mustache.
In fact, everyone got into the mustache spirit as the night wore on.
Halloween night was still a school night. Ryley needed rest. The kids and their ‘staches were rounded up and taken home. Oliver and I stayed with Ryley through the night. Amazingly, the three of us had a decent night. Oliver slept in his thankfully-portable bassinet, which was brought along with the candy, pumpkin, and siblings. The room faced directly east. November, a month when many contemplate gratefulness and contentment, dawned like this:
Later in the day, Ryley was discharged from the hospital. He was tired and sore. I was grateful. He was safe, healthy, recovering. I had wonderful kids who sacrificed their Halloween fun with little complaint. We’ll never forget Halloween 2012.