Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
Take a Stand
Ben is driving so slow I could platz. I dig my fingers into the gaping hole of the Camry’s leather, clutching my blue purse like a life boat. There’s the Hensley Children’s hospital towering menacingly and my breath catches. Ben crawls into the underground parking lot laden with cars, circling, circling as I tug the leather so I won’t scream. Then, like krias yam suf, an open space appears. Ben halts to toddle in just as a blue minivan zooms forward. “Go” I yelp, my body coiled. The Camry lurches forward, but he’s not fast enough, never is. The van and him are bumper to bumper. No one can go in without giving the other leeway.
Ben gives me the odd stare he does when he’s not sure what to do, usually after I scream. I lower my voice to a dangerous cool. “Don’t let him take your spot.”
We wait it out because why should the van have the spot when we were here first. It doesn’t make sense. Ben mumbles that it doesn’t make sense to make Liba wait with her doll from the hospital bed, as if I would want to do that, but still, values are important, and those who come first should get there first.
Ben inches forward as I urge him on and finally the van backs off honking madly. He’s the fool for being stubborn. I dash to the elevator to get to my Liba faster, if only to swish her brown locks off her forehead and read her Pink Dollhouse again. I should have worn my sneakers instead of these shoes, who cares if they’re in style. It would have allowed me to trot without it being too obvious that I’m rushing.
I arrive to room 401 and reach for the handle when a hand blocks me. I stop short, staring at this figure dressed in blue and recoil. They can’t be doing this, not allow me to hold Liba just because I haven’t vaccinated her brothers. The nerve. I march down to the nurse’s station not even waiting for Ben because what’s the point anyway. I’ll get the nurses to see things my way, fight for justice. That’s what I do all day, field calls from concerned mothers, make rallies, all to support doting mothers from the dangers of doctors pricking chubby arms with poisonous vaccines. Of course, not everyone cares to protect their kids. But that’s life, some just follow the masses blindly without really knowing why they’re doing stuff. That’s why it’s important to have strong values, like I do.
I come on the nurses wallowing in their station and demand entry to Liba’s room. This nurse in gold rimmed glasses thinks she’s all mighty and crunches her forehead. “We discussed this ma’am,” she starts off in her nasal voice, “and now we got the court order.” She pushes a stupid piece of paper across her desk onto my silver jacket. I feel the scrambled eggs from breakfast rise in my throat and start my rant, because that’s the only way to get things moving. What nerve of the health system to make decisions regarding what is dangerous for my kid. If I decided not to vaccinate my children, that’s my choice.
Gold rimmed nurse taps the green counter as if it could save her from me. “You can make decisions,” she says and then goes into a tirade of how the hospital has the responsibility to protect Liba. I know all about her manipulations and lies, that Liba’s leukemia will develop complications if she gets measles through me if I get it from my boys. But my boys, they haven’t had measles and never will. What, they think I want to hurt my youngest and let her languish alone? I give all my kids Vitamin A like I tell all the devoted anti-vaxxers to do. Even the WHO states that this helps prevent fifty percent of measles outbreaks.
But the nurses shake their heads and start typing on their keyboard just to seem busy. The weaklings that they are, they can’t hear another point of view. I even offered to bring in a PowerPoint I put together meant to show the rabonim the dangers of vaccines. But the nurses, doctors, laughed me off, claiming they don’t have time. Really they’re afraid they will be convinced to see the truth. And yes, I went to a pro-vaxxer event just so that no one say I am one-sided. A bunch of garbage they threw at me, these pro-vaxxers. Who ever heard of herd immunity? Measles is not deadly for everyone, and the others can just take responsibility for themselves and remain at home.
Ben shows up finally, standing there with his fingers deep in his disheveled brown beard, as if that could help him now. Never does anything but stands there like an imbecile. A deep pit forms in my stomach. They can’t be doing this, not allow me to hold my baby. My Liba. I am going to fight this, this injustice of the health system not giving parents the right to treat their children as they see fit.
I swing open the glass door and it crashes on the other side. The receptionist at the oak desk shoots me a dirty look. “I have an appointment with Oliver Smith.” I harp. She doesn’t even deign to look at me, that’s what happens when you wear a diamond pendant in some lawyer’s office. But I applied foundation carefully to make a good impression, so I don’t get flinched by this, or anyone. I’m here for Liba, to fight to be able to cuddle her in my arms, caress her soft cheeks. A slow burning sensation creeps up from my chest, heartburn from the Deli 45 burger I ate just before. That’s what happens when your life becomes entangled in white blood cells running havoc on little ones.
A rough voice calls my name and I rush up from this hard waiting room chair. I enter the office and Smith comes around his desk, his hand held out like he’s giving me something. I tell him with pomp that I don’t shake hands with men, waxing about my values and Jewish pride. His lips turn downward as if he’s not impressed and motions me to sit.
The black seat is padded under me and I sink into it, wishing I could just sleep. I open my mouth, tell this hulk of a man, with the white sticks of hair how I’ve heard that he’s tops in the field. Lawyers, like machines, have to be oiled often. Smith is frowning again, nodding his head so deeply into his neck, I’m afraid it’s going to fall off.
I stop talking, not because I have nothing to say, I always do, but because this man sitting behind the mahogany desk has this fierce look on his face. I recognize that look as my expression in the mirror when I battle out my anger burning with devotion. That’s how I practice for rallies and that’s how I was able to take on the nurses and doctors. I’m just the type of person who is not afraid to look like a fool by talking to myself, pumping fervor, all so I can get things done right, work things through.
Smith glances at a photo on his desk for a long moment, clears his throat. “So when do you want to see your child, now or in a year?”
“A year?” it comes out as a shriek.
Smith splays his lips, tells me in a low voice about the lengthy court process. I argue with him that he doesn’t understand. I need to see Liba today, feel the softness of her curls, hear her soft breaths. It’s been three weeks already since I cuddled her. I get up to pace as I’m talking, holding on to my Guess purse where the taffies are stored, for Liba, to give her when the dark-skinned blue-collar smuggles me into her room on Thursdays while she counts to thirty. She’s the only softy among all the hard-headed idiots.
“Tell me,” Smith’s gruff voice reaches me from someplace far away, “why don’t you consider vaccinating so that you can see your kid today?”
I turn around so fast I stumble. Did I hear Smith right? Me, vaccinate? Why, just yesterday I spoke to that Klein mother, supporting her in homeschooling her kids until the principal will get her head screwed on right. And last Tuesday I clued in that new mother about avoiding the pediatrician’s office so she doesn’t get forced into these vaccination shenanigans.
My stomach feels like a cat crawled in and all Smith can do to help me is finger that stupid photo of a teenage girl crumpled up in a wheelchair.
“Polio did this because there were no vaccines,” he says quietly.
I tsk because I have to be nice, but really, according to the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics, I tell him, polio incidents were vastly reduced before vaccines appeared. I’ve said this line so many times I can say it while a fire is raging.
“You know a lot about vaccines,” Smith says. Something tingles in my stomach. Smith really gets me. “Do you also know that polio comes in epidemics?” His tone is nonchalant as if he couldn’t care less either way.
“What of it?”
“It was gone for decades and then without vaccines would have come back, just like measles today.”
I press my lips together to form the ‘but’ word and nothing comes out. Every word I say will cost me five dollars in this fancy office. Why say anything? Smith waves both hands as if he’s welcoming me into his mind. “Talk. Tell me why else vaccines are bad.” His tone is soft. I stare at him as if he would have just asked me to groom the lion that will devour me alive. “Unless, you want to wait a year to see your kid.”
A piece of pain leaps into my throat and I sink into the chair that has become a pincushion. “Do you want to start?” Smith asks.
The desk, the computer on it, all of it are quivering, I’m so dizzy, I don’t know why. I unclench my teeth with force. I’ll show Smith that I’m right with the vaccine thing, he’ll be convinced. “For one,” I thunder, the FDA themselves state that clinical trials of vaccine safety are not enough to assess delayed onset for dangerous side-effects”. There I said it, even if he’s a hot-shot lawyer who knows everything.
Smith is fiddling with his keyboard, the printer hums and spits out a page. He starts reading, “clinical trials conduct active follow up on vaccinated participants for a full year and this can assess most acute and delayed onset adverse events.” He eyes me. “Do you know what the dangers are of that makeup-up you’re wearing, in one year from now?”
I lean forward I’m so hyped up, “The FDA only uses VAERS to determine safety, you know what that is?” I can ask him questions too.
“A system where pediatricians can report vaccine side-effects,” he says dryly. “And so only one percent of dangerous side-effects are reported, right?”
“Exactly.” A sly smile moves across my face. Smith’s head is in his hands. I got him.
“So you’re saying that vaccines can cause rare side effects in some people.” He pauses because he has nothing else to say. I fall back into the softness of leather and the pain in my head subsides.
“You came by car or bus or taxi?”
“Taxi.” Because Ben said he had something major to do. Whatever. He’s too weak to crack a peanut.
I tune into Smith talking. “You could have gotten injured,” he says, “do you know that many more people die from car accidents than from vaccines?”
The air in the office is becoming stuffy. I open my mouth, but Smith holds up a hand like a stop sign. “Better live in the woods.” He runs a hand through his hair. “No electricity. Fire risk, you know.”
I harrumph. “It’s a nice story, but I’m ready to take some risks over others. Besides, even doctors get scared from vaccines if some of it were to spill on their tiled floor.” He ponders my words because they make sense. “Good point,” he says. I smile smugly.
“You cook with gas?” he asks, then rambles on before I can respond, “a little bit that’s contained is okay, but once there’s a leak you’re in deep trouble, no?”
I startle at his revelation. Maybe this one thing makes sense just a little bit. I always say that I’m open-minded. But if he would only know that there was no special diagnosis for SIDS prior to the vaccination campaign he’d become an anti-vaxxer. I swallow a piece of clay stuck in my throat remembering my oldest, my Eli, gone under the earth one week after he got his DPT shot. And anyone who says that was a coincidence is either an ignoramus or Ben. I shudder to get rid of the memory, tell Smith the research finding about SIDS. A slow smile spreads across his cheeks, but doesn’t reach his eyes. “ADHD was only documented in 1902, so was Alzheimer’s in 1906, they still existed before then.”
I raise my brows and shrug. Smith takes up the lead. “Read the storybooks from the 1300s, hyperactive kids are on the page, so are adults who can’t remember things, if they lived to be the age when dementia takes hold.”
The room is so quiet I can hear my heart thumping. I have a lot of things to say but somehow nothing comes out of my mouth. It can’t be Smith is right. But then again, maybe he is. Maybe.
Smith is staring at me with this incredulous look on his face. “You didn’t mention one thing about vaccines causing Autism.”
“Bah.” A fizz of laughter explodes from my throat. “Wakefield was a fame-hungry idiot. No one believes that one anymore.”
I clamber into the elevator that takes me out of Smith’s imposing building and into a waiting taxi. Every part of my body is tightly wound like that slinky thing the boys were playing with this morning. That’s how I feel, like I’m falling, falling down the stairs and there’s no one there to catch me before I get all tangled up. And what’s with Ben that he couldn’t bring me? I pull out my flip phone, punch in the numbers. No answer. I try again and again until I am all agitated and the taxi pulls up in front of the hospital.
Liba. Maybe I can steal my way in. I count the numbers on the doors as I shuffle by, 367, 369, my feet are heavy, my head, a seltzer bottle exploding. Room 399, and 401. I stop. No guard. I inch open the door slowly listening for the nurses. I creep in stealthily and hear the boys, Ben? They’re all there, crowded in with Liba. What’s going on?
“Ben?” I call out. I’m shaking.
He looks up suddenly, his face as white as the hospital sheet. I stare at him and he stares back. The boys are quiet. Only Liba calls from her bed and I crush her in an embrace. “You didn’t come all this time,” she wails, “no one came”. My shoulder is getting drenched from her tears as much as my eyes wet her curls. “I’m here now,” my voice wobbles as I rock her, rock myself, soothing both of us.
A nurse with a giant rose in her hair enters and I freeze, ready to battle. “Sorry to disturb the reunion,” Rose says kindly as she swishes out the chart, “but Liba here needs her temperature checked.” She moves forward and I unclench myself from Liba with effort. Lucky me, getting a clueless nurse. “Liba here is happy,” Rose pipes up, “that you vaccinated her brothers.”
I look up in shock at Ben, watch his face shrivel. A shot of sand shoots up my arm, lands in my head. “You?” I choke. He nods. I stand still because I can’t do anything else. Liba is whimpering and I’m here for her, Ben is here. I look into his eyes full of fire and I don’t know what else. There’s a kind of strength there I haven’t seen before. I think I like it. “Thank you,” I whisper.
I love the way he startles.
Leah Wachsler has been previously published in Family First, Binah, Inyan, The Jewish Press, The Monsey View and others.