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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Urban Survival Skills

November 2021

Sometime early in ninth grade, I began to volunteer Friday afternoons after school at a research hospital. Friday was my free afternoon because Monday through Thursdays I played sports—field hockey, volleyball, basketball, and softball. Field hockey and softball had me outdoors. The hockey games I remember because they were on some fields in Brooklyn. Out of the city on grass surrounded by trees, I absorbed the green field and woods, the fresh air, and ran as if the field never ended. I preferred ice hockey, but that was not an option in New York City. I don’t remember what the hockey practices were indoors or on the concrete grounds outside my school in Manhattan. Yes, Manhattan is that concrete jungle and I hated living there—confined, closed it, buildings looming, and far too many people.

When I was ten, my parents decided to move to New York City. I thought that was a horrid idea and suggested I could live with Mary Jo and her family in our small university town in Maine. No. I then pleaded for something even better. I could move to Aunt Mary and Uncle Henry’s 208-acre farm in southeastern Pennsylvania along the Brandywine Creek. I could walk the 1,500-foot lane to and from the historic stone farmhouse to the bus, do homework and farm chores when I got off the bus in the afternoon, learn how to fix dinner so Aunt Mary didn’t have to when she came home from work. My parents said no to that too. No. I had to move to The City and live with them.

My substitute for open country was our family home on an acre with 26 large, old trees in Framingham Centre. The city substitute, as I mentioned a blog or two ago, were museums. I should probably add New York’s hockey and softball fields and the ice skating rinks at Rockefeller Center and Central Park for figure skating. There, I could get rid of people and float through space and time as I wished.

My substitute for country was my volunteer work at New York University Research Hospital on Second Avenue and 21st Street. I remember when I started the hospital staff asked me if I wanted to work with old people or children. Odd that my immediate answer was children. My grandmothers had lived with us in their old years. When we lived at The Penington, I went from room to room visiting the old ladies to chat or thread their needles so they could mend their clothes. One taught me how to cross stitch, another how to embroider and I enjoyed taking those small stitches.

Many of the infant boys were in the hospital for surgery on a mildly malformed penis. I’d walk in that room to talk to them, to comfort them in their isolation. Since there were usually ten to fifteen of them on one room, I thought that that surgery must be a hospital specialty. I found that room boring. It taught me there were different malformations in life and this was one I’d never heard of before. Interesting, but the boys’ personalities were boring. They seemed silent and uninterested in interaction. They had no glimmers in their eyes or desire for attention. It was Cookie, Henry (or was it Edward?), and Debbie who stole my heart. I remember their names, their faces, their personalities these sixty-some years later. What spoke to me about them? Perhaps it was their life or death enigma. Or mine.

Cookie was two when I started there at the age of 14. What a personality! She charmed all of us. We all commented on how this child, this toddler, ran about chatting with anyone who had a moment. We all had a moment for her smile, laugh, and words. We all talked about what kept her going, both running about and living with leukemia. Sometimes she’d get better and leave the hospital for home. We missed her, but appreciated her brief ability to get well enough to go home. She brightened our days when she came back. One day, I went there and, as always, asked where Cookie was. That one day the answer was that she had died. The nursing staff and I, a teenage volunteer, missed Cookie who could cheer us up, make us smile, even on the saddest of days.

The children’s ward had newborns with spina bifida, cancer, urological issues, and undiagnosed diseases. I remember a beautiful newborn boy with hydrocephalus whom I bottle-fed on those Friday afternoons for the nine months of his life. Toward the end, his head so heavy, my arm went numb from shoulder on down, but his comfort in those last weeks seemed more important than my temporary discomfort. He was there one Friday, the last Friday I fed him. Then he was not there and I felt that loss. I missed holding him.

I remember Debbie who came from another state. I wondered if her parents had ever been able to make the 500-mile trip to see her. By the age of two years, she had had so many shots and painful procedures that she cried whenever anyone approached her crib. I made it my task to walk in her room and approach her as closely as I could before she began to whimper or cry. I then backed up a step and waited until she stopped crying. The first day I got as far as the doorway. I don’t know how many months it took before I almost reached the side of her crib. I never made it to the edge before she died in 1958. I wanted to reach in to touch her, to let her know she had nothing to fear from at least one fellow human being. Here I was at the age of 16 or so practicing Joseph Wolpe’s principles of systematic desensitization without even knowing it. I didn’t read his book, Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition, published in 1958, until 20 years later when I was a graduate student in special education.

It is those three children I remember by name and face from those many years ago. Why did they touch me? Because I knew their prognosis was a young and painful death and I knew they needed love, care, and comfort.

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