From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

The Mop Angel

When my two-year-old son, Larkin, climbed onto my lap saying, “Mommy, my tummy hurts,” I thought it was a relapse of the flu. In a way, I was even glad he had a fever because it gave me something concrete to do: give him Tylenol, remove his clothes and let him soak in a lukewarm bath. That’s one universal thing about mommies: We’re best when we’re in charge, able to help, able to make everything all right.

But on that Friday in May 1992, everything wasn’t all right. Not only was my youngest sick, the television was depicting rioting and burning in Los Angeles—only blocks from where my mother lived. Despite repeated attempts to reach her, the phone lines remained jammed.

After his bath, Larkin crawled back into my lap, moaning and burning. As the afternoon wore on, his fever continued to rise. The nurse on the telephone agreed it was probably the flu, but I should bring him in just to be safe. I loaded the other kids—eleven-year-old Robin, six-year-old Summer, five-year-old Emerald and four-year-old Jesse—into the car, and off we went.

Our pediatrician lost his smile as he examined Larkin’s hot little body. His gentle fingers pressed the boy’s abdomen and the anguished moans continued. After a few moments of unnerving concentration, the doctor sent us across the street to the hospital emergency room. “Larkin is too young to have problems with his appendix,” he reassured us.

The surgeon at the hospital also muttered something about it being “highly unusual” for a two-year-old to have appendicitis. But he wanted another opinion.

At this point, the only help I could give was to appear calm for the other children. It got harder and harder as time passed—ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour. By the time the next doctor arrived, Larkin’s moaning had ceased and the toddler lay quiet and still. Despite IV fluids being pumped into him, his temperature continued to soar.

The surgeon’s verdict was swift: My son needed surgery, immediately.

Before I could push any questions through the lump in my throat, the doctor was gone. A team of nurses began to prep Larkin for surgery. I tried to fight the chill in my heart as I called my husband.

He arrived while Larkin was still waiting. A resolutely analytical man, he is quickly overwhelmed in any sort of emotional crisis. I was grateful that he took the other children home for supper, but it was clear he couldn’t get out of that hospital fast enough. I knew he couldn’t face coming back.

So Larkin and I waited. And waited. A nurse rushed through to say an auto accident had filled the operating rooms, but we’d be next. Another half hour went by.

Between victims, a masked surgeon ran in to check Larkin. Above his mask, his forehead creased more deeply. Then he was gone.

For two more hours, we waited. The antibiotics were losing. Larkin grew hotter. He lay motionless, his fingers clinging to mine. Occasionally, he opened glazed eyes to make sure I was still there. Then he faded back out.

Every parent’s nightmare folded in around me. My child was going to die, and there was nothing I could do.

If only there was something I could do, or at least someone to cling to, the way my sick baby clung to me! Instead, I sat alone, praying and holding Larkin’s burning hand, feeling every tick of the clock.

Please, God. Please, somebody.

At 2 A.M. the curtain flew back. “Okay. We’ve got an operating room. Let’s go!” The gurney sped down the hall, my hand and my son’s still linked as I raced beside him.

At the door to the operating room, I pried Larkin’s fingers from mine and he half woke, terrified and screaming, “Mommy, Mommy!”

The doors swung shut behind him. The sound quivered in the hallway air.

In the waiting area, the television was on, continuing riot coverage showing blood and flames, the city of Los Angeles lost in fear and hatred; a city that held my mother in its furious grasp.

It was too much. I sat down on the floor. Terrified and completely powerless, I leaned against thewall and sobbed.

Dimly, I was aware that the elevator doors across from me chimed open. A wiry little cleaning lady emerged, pushing a big fuzzy dust mop. I turned my head away to hide my tears. There was a moment of silence, neither of us moving or speaking.

Then she leaned her mop against the wall and slid down beside me.

“So, who you got in there?” she asked, nodding her head at the O.R.

“My son,” I gulped. The torrent of the day’s emotions swept through me, and I found myself pouring out everything. Through the jerky stream of words and sobs, she sat holding one of my hands in her own rough, worn ones, muttering and patting me gently.

At last I was empty, tired, and oddly enough, no longer scared. I looked down at her hands on mine, noting what a hard life was reflected in hers.

She began to speak of her own children, one dead, one far away, the youngest on drugs. She’d raised them alone, did the best she could. Now she was raising her granddaughter, too. As she spoke of how smart and precious this little girl was, her face softened. Her voice was quiet when she talked of the girl’s mother, lost to a crack habit, beyond even a mother’s help.

“But . . . you’ve had so many sorrows! It doesn’t seem fair! How do you possibly survive and go on?”

She laughed off my indignation. “You just gotta have faith. Nothing lasts forever; it all passes on. And when you can’t hold on no more, you just let go and let the angels carry your troubles awhile.” She patted me again. “It’ll be all right.”

She stayed with me, sitting in silence, until the O.R. doors opened.

Dr. Taylor emerged, weary and smiling. “We got it,” he said cheerfully. “Gangrenous, but it didn’t rupture. He’ll be fine.”

As I followed the gurney to the recovery room, the elevator doors chimed open. I turned in time to see them slide closed on a wiry woman with a day’s work yet ahead.

Larkin slept peacefully as the dark hours gave way to the first light of a new day. On the television, the images of hate had given over to images of prayer and repair, people joining together to heal rather than hurt. I knew instinctively what I would find out later that morning: My mother was safe.

Touching the fragile fingers of my son, I recalled the cleaning woman’s words. How sometimes knowing how to be in charge is as important as knowing how to let go.

I also believed what else she said: that when we can’t hold on any longer, the angels will carry our troubles awhile. I smiled at the knowledge that sometimes these angels are human—and sometimes, just sometimes, they carry mops.

Lizanne Southgate

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