Today’s Natural News newsletter reported the recovery of the Gerson Tapes, which apparently had been missing. These recorded interviews with cancer patients by Charlotte Gerson, director of an alternative-care cancer institute safely located out of the US, reminded me of a long-ago contact with cancer in a child.
It was a heart-breaking case. The kid had been sick for years and doctors had prescribed a transplant. The issue that seemed central was the child’s right, at 16, to decide on her medical care. Socially, it looked like a battle between well-meaning parents bent on natural treatments and doctors bent on the miracles of surgery. Legally, it revealed a black truth whose revelation surely contributes to the death of idealism in lawyers: our government in paying lip service to the needs and rights of children is really most concerned with saving face. Covering its ass. If something is going to go wrong, make it the fault of parents or lawyers or doctors–not the government.
As more and more of our youth develop cancers in an increasingly toxic environment, these dreadful scenarios take place on stages still cluttered with the outmoded yet terrifying scenery of the legal rights and duties of competing professions, businesses and administrations, while before our eyes children sicken and die. The junk of western civilisation plays no small part in preventing good health.
I was so upset, I wrote a story. You may conclude, on reading it, that anyone so naive as I would have done better to avoid becoming a lawyer (or perhaps that lawyers shouldn’t write stories). Going over it today, I feel the tears pricking my eyelids again. I still believe in informed consent, for children as for anyone–the hard part is getting there with clarity and truth, love and compassion. Informed consent entails the practice of rigorous selflessness by all concerned, other than the patient.
Chrysanthemums always remind me of that.
Here is Fireworks.
“Can you get me out of here for the fireworks?” The kid interrupted my lawyer-ese in her thinned voice, throwing back the blue hospital blankets in bravado. I saw the pencil legs, a tarnished brown, and the unused bird-claw feet.
Hers was the kind of bated-breath request my eight-year-old made. Not what I expected from the blistered mouth of this yellow scrawn of a girl. “The Symphony of Fire?”
She batted oversized owl eyes and clumsily tossed the lank long hair, in denial of the stiffness I knew was spreading from her petrified liver up through the right shoulder, down through a spleen now eight times normal size. I knew, because I’d seen the catscans. “With my parents, you know? And my brothers, of course.” She issued a mock groan, the kind teenaged girls are obliged to make at the mere thought of pesky brothers.
“You sure know how to pitch ‘em, don’t you?” I smiled my best kind-eyes-even-though-I’m-a-horrible-lawyer squinch. Those hard-earned etchings around my eyes usually buy me a lot of client confidence. “Let me think about it.”
How did I get into this case? Was it my membership on that interminable right-to-die committee that got me into this mess with Jenna? Or maybe a mild reputation for shaking up the Family and Child Services Act so thoroughly that its sections rattled like the vertebrae in a dead snake? Snake is what I’d call that Act, in the improbable event that statutes would ever be symbolised by appropriate animals. The FCSA was, I submit, evidently put together by reptilian intelligence. And is equally dangerous in its cold-blooded slither through family life. Okay, don’t get me going on that one.
A self-styled child-advocate had called me about Jenna. There’s this sixteen–year–old, she’d said, got grabbed by the Superintendent in the hospital and the parents want to get her a lawyer of her own.
Oh, oh. This one smelled too close to real life. What’s the matter? I’d snapped. It was long, grey Friday afternoon. Trouble always creeps into lawyers’ offices late on Fridays. Haven’t you told them they’ve already paid for a child advocate with their taxes?
They don’t trust that lawyer, Jessie had explained. Anyway, he’s in Victoria, and the kid’s here, so what good is that? And everybody knows he’s the Supe’s man—been on every other one of these cases.
One of these cases? How many times does apprehension happen in the hospital? What have these parents done wrong, anyway, besides wait till the kid is old enough to fall under the Health Act? Are they Johos or something?
Jessie had said smugly, I told them you were the one. And hey, there could be good press in it for you. Inadvertently, of course. And money. The parents have got five grand tucked away for this.
Five grand, shmand—this sounds like a salary job. I’d sighed. My partner will kill me. I get to see the kid first, I’d insisted. Alone. Then I’ll decide.
I found the car keys inside my empty cappuccino-to-go cup, rinsed them, grabbed a get-well card from the wills vault, and swiped my secretary’s Happy-Birthday pot of chrysanthemums from Reception on my stride out. Twenty minutes later I faced the most desperate and drawn couple in the world, across a stolid table in the hospital boardroom. They shoved a photo in my face, proof of good parenting: four rosy boys clustering around a yellowed young girl. A bouquet of offspring, one stem too short to reach the water. Jenna merely hung on her brothers’ shoulders.
I began: I honor you for hiring your daughter her own advocate. Noble parenting. But I warn you, once I’m on for her, even though you’re paying me, I’m hers, not yours. And you might not like it. They nodded, mute, securely wrapped in their family’s seamless fabric. Jenna had been sick for eight years. To them, each day with her was a blade of grass, visibly greener than yesterday. She had been flourishing, they insisted, under their naturopathic regimen. She didn’t need this prescribed transplant at all. She had the right to try a naturopathic cure first; they wanted to try that place in Mexico that cures cancer. The government had no right….
I left them in that barren room to see Jenna for myself, musing over how the law had inveigled itself into the business of medicine. Illness is a pestilential wind, a stench of past and future strong enough to knock me, my LLB and my stupid flowers over. Jenna was so wilted, so close to her ultimate day, I thought, that I could see her initials carved in death’s door. “Your parents think I should be your lawyer,” I said, taming the riot of yellow and crimson in its pot, propping up my card. “The Chinese make tea out of these things, you know? Supposed to promote long life.” I’d stolen these blooms at their best: buds had burst into showers of transparent blood or fierce gold. “So, whaddya think about having a lawyer?”
That was when she requested the fireworks. Was she embracing life? Accepting death? Or attempting escape? “You know,” I ventured, “every year they have the Symphony of Fire, I think of it as an honor to the Chinese.” I paused. Miraculously, I had her interest. “About eight hundred years ago the Chinese invented gunpowder. And they made a conscious decision, as a society, to use it for fun, not for war. Isn’t that an amazing choice?” It was my second use of the word ‘honor’ since entering the hospital. As if I’d stepped over a hallowed sill, as if Jenna were a holy child, I had removed my legal mindset like a hat in church.
“You sound like my teacher,” she complained.
“Maybe you’ll be mine,” I let the summer sun show her the lines bracketing my eyes. I snapped off one blazing red-petaled star and handed it to her. “Tell me what you want.”
Four hours later I called Ken. Dr. Sawyer. How would you like to get outside that sticky little wonder clinic of yours into the sunshine?
In a pallid, stale consult room at the top of the aging hospital, a rundown prayer chapel off the main sanctuary of illness, Ken thumped an air-conditioner ineffectually and I cracked an illicit window open as we waited to meet with the famous transplant surgeon. The parents are naturo nuts, I told Ken. Think you guys walk on water. Want to give the kid every chance at natural healing before a transplant. Think she’s been doing fine, so far. The government doesn’t agree; thinks the parents are out to lunch, so they grabbed her. Problem, though–she’s sixteen and maybe can have her own say, according to the wonderful laws of this province.
What do you think I can do? said Ken. He has a quiet way about him, often preceding a velvet-gloved hammer blow into what you’ll be thinking by the middle of next week.
I shrugged; motioned him down the hall to Jenna’s room. He tiptoed past her open door, caught her yellow-petal face, returned like a failed gardener with a blighted prize. I can’t fix that, he said. Tell me, does she want to live?
I don’t know. Jenna was shaking my certainties, particularly the belief that my own child could grow up whole and safe, corroding the notion that my happily harried lawyer-life would go on like this, forever. The pale amber stem of her, laid across the bed like an autumn rose, the eyes following the sun on the last phase of its splendid journey rather than my speaking face—I couldn’t shake the conviction that this sick child knew the brevity of her fate. And my job, I added, is to see that she gets the chance to figure out how much she wants to live. As opposed to being the obedient daughter, you know?
“Who the hell do you think you are!” Dr. Stanwyck burst in. “That kid is going to have the next liver I get my hands on and no goddamned legal loopholes are going to stop me!”
“We certainly hope not,” said Ken, quietly extending a large hand. “Dr. Sawyer. I’m a naturopath.”
“Oh, great!” snarled Stanwyck. “Listen, this kid has already got a lawyer and all the real doctors she needs—”
“Who can’t deliver a compliant patient,” inserted Ken.
Stanwyck was not used to being interrupted. I leapt into his unaccustomed pause. “Relax. We’re on your side, personally. It would be great if we could get Jenna to informed consent. Maybe we will and maybe we won’t. But we’ll never get there if you don’t call off the pressure on this kid. And you can’t do the transplant unless your patient wants it—heart and soul. Right?” I had him there, I saw it. “I’m bringing in a psychologist. Every day. Get your nurses to work with us. We’re not the enemy.” Suddenly I was inspired. “Disease and despair are the only enemies,” I finished, and knew he was mine.
Just in time, too. “I’m Cyrus Asper!” The door banged open and a sidewinding hand struck at mine. His hair fell in scales, every which way, doubtless from the helicopter wash. “I’m Jenna’s lawyer, and I’d like to know who you think you’re representing.”
“Whom,” I reproved mildly, though he probably wasn’t in the mood for grammar. I tried a firm handshake but he slid away all but two fingers.
“The Superintendent won’t back down on this one! That child will have a transplant, now! We’ve all heard of the best interests of the child, no doubt, Ms. uh, I missed your name? You don’t practise much in this field, do you?”
“Glad to know you’re on our team.” I twisted a smile to match his hiss, and fended off that adversarial cobra stare with what I hoped was a look of fearless authority.
It didn’t quite work, but Asper had expended most of his venom in the first two minutes. He was retreating to Victoria on the next ‘copter, anyway. Stanwyck astonished his staff at the huge consult meeting by decreeing a ten-day delay in Jenna’s transplant, and our fledgling team was on its way.
Ken, Anna the psychologist, and I virtually lived in the hospital. Day by day the nurses smiled at us more tenderly, now relieved of exercising their sweet coercion—Jenna, have the transplant, never mind your parents, for your own good—like weary proselytes unexpectedly supplanted by angels. The parents smiled, grateful for the extra time with Jenna I’d wrangled for them, and for treatment from a doctor in their own style. Asper called from Victoria every few days; the head nurse spoke tersely to him. Jenna’s blood counts strengthened, and together with Stanwyck Ken and I meditated on her terrifying CATscan with growing optimism, with fierce irreligious prayers.
We all knew time was excruciatingly of the essence. When, on the ninth day, Jenna spontaneously told Ken she wanted the transplant, we rushed Stanwyck, joy bursting over us. Yet I deemed us not quite there, not at the state of grace the law calls Informed Consent, not quite confident of Jenna’s grasp of consequences, of the risks of either the transplant or the Mexican clinic where her parents were eager to take her first. “Wait,” I decided. “Anna needs another day or two to get the right evidence. After the fireworks.”
My apartment happens to face the Symphony of Fire, and I have one of my annual little parties during that season, however hectic my life. I took half of Sunday off from the grind at the hospital to throw some party food together, and at ten my guests and I floated out into the silken August night, for a closer view from the beach. My feet drew us all to the wheelchair area. Ken grabbed my arm. “Jenna!” he whispered sharply. And there she was, enthroned in the dark, attended by parents and brothers, all smiling, stroking her gently. A nurse stood behind her chair as chaperone, as I had arranged. Covertly we studied Jenna, reflecting her reactions to the chrysanthemums of fire bursting above her, loving her translucent face, vivid with a tender glow she could no longer have summoned from her own body. Tonight, Jenna was happy.
I shook off a stupid tear and squeezed Ken’s arm. “It is a far, far better thing that we have done,” I quipped, “than we have ever billed for.” He laughed. We both knew we were long out of funds for this case, and we both knew neither could quit.
I slept off the party and didn’t arrive at the hospital until eleven. Slurping my cappuccino, fumbling a sleep-slow arm around a fresh pot of chrysanthemums, I smiled my usual way down Jenna’s hallway.
Something was wrong. The place felt like a robbed church. Where nobody wanted to be the first to tell the priest.
Jesus, had Jenna died? Panicking, I suddenly ran the last meters, high heels clacking, and collided with Dr. Stanwyck in Jenna’s doorway. The flowerpot burst between us, a geyser of dirt and blood-red petals.
He didn’t stop. “Goddamn you!” he yelled. “Goddamn all you bloodsucking gutless lawyers!” I saw tears. I swear I saw tears as he flung away.
My white shirt and black court suit were rank with coffee, dirt, and plant lymph. Gingerly I stepped over the mess of my offering, into Jenna’s room. The bed stood strict and empty; the tables and sills forlorn of her stuffed animals, her girl stuff. Even my first pot of chrysanthemums was gone, as if our intensity had been my dream alone. His back a slightly swaying monolith of satisfaction, Asper stood looking out the window.
“Where is she?”
His padded shoulders shifted in a minimalist shrug. “Out of the country by now, I imagine.” He uncoiled and smiled winningly, but I ducked my head and bent my attention to cleaning up my dying plant and its scattered habitat, hiding my scalded face. Lawyers don’t cry.
“The best interests of the child demanded her custody be returned to the parents, once it was clear that she was ready to make her own decision. Agreed? I really have to thank you for getting her to that point, you know. Anyway,” he added in afterthought, “it wouldn’t be in the best interests of children generally for parents to sue just because their children happened to die while in the Superintendent’s hands, now, would it?”
Squatting, I swathed dirt into the pot with my left hand, tears falling in with soil, watering a plant that would never grow again. My right hand garnered red petals, still soft and yielding as flesh. He continued, “It was you who said the parents would sue if we did the transplant, wasn’t it?”
I stood up to his impeccable neatness, the implacable, fearsome logic of that elegant face. This was his chief joy, this joy of winning. I said, “We must shake on this. Congratulations!”
I grasped his unwilling hand, crushing red petals, while my left hand emptied the plant pot over his tidy widow’s peak, so soon to be airborne again to Victoria, seat of good government and near-perfect parenting.
Uncomprehendingly he stared through small rains of dirt from his pate at the crimson spillage. “Blood on your hands,” I said. And left.
Anna called my office a week later. “Dr. Juarez called. From Mexico.”
I shuddered with hope.
My mail blurred abruptly. “Tell me.”
“She seemed to improve for a while,” Anna said. “Then suddenly she threw up a geyser of blood. Her parents were frightened, but she laughed. Fooled you, didn’t I? Then fountains of fresh blood, and she just…died.” She paused. “Like fireworks, he said.”
The flowers of war, whispered a voice, something like mine. Those were the flowers of Jenna’s war.
Put down the phone. Get back to work. The work I’m not so crazy about any more, but this is a law office, not a crying room.
There was enough room on my tape for a short memo to our Admininstrator: “Next time it’s somebody’s birthday, can we get out of the rut with the flowers? Chrysanthemums don’t…work for me. Try anything else. Thanks.”