by Marvin Harold Cheiten
3 p.m., Intensive Care Unit, Princeton Hospital, Room 4. Patient: John Flynn, age 7. Tracheotomy in place for fifth day. Temperature: 102 but stable. Medical IVs will be changed in half hour. Heartbeat regular. Pulse elevated but stable.
— Margaret Fuller R.N.
The familiar-looking black cat entered the hospital room. He was dressed in a Pilgrim’s costume, almost like a clergyman, and seemed very chipper despite the dark surroundings in the room. “Hello,” he said to the boy, “you’re not looking terribly well. In fact, you’re looking simply dreadful.”
Even though John could barely raise his head because of the tracheotomy, and despite the tomblike darkness of the room, he looked down at his visitor and was very glad to see him. “Purritan? Is that you?”
The cat jumped up on the bed and made himself at home. “Of course, my boy, I shall never leave you: I promised. I told you that soon enough we shall be out of here, as soon as my ship the Mighty Flyer is repaired. It is only a matter of a few more days.”
John had a sudden feeling of relief, or at least as much relief as he was capable of, given his condition.
“I really long to visit the great island in the sun, Captain Purritan, the island where you make our home.”
“Just a few more days, my lad, a few more days. I promise you will feel quite at home there, with the beaches and the palm trees and every pleasure imaginable. And no school, my boy, no school. And you won’t need to wear any clothes or learn any lessons or behave in any way that you do not wish.
“And it is quiet, so quiet that all you will hear are the waves washing up endlessly on the shore. You will be able to lie there at peace, my boy, for as long as you want.”
The thought of that great rest made John feel calmer. He had been fighting illness for so long: the cystic fibrosis, and now the pneumonia. He thought of what it would be like to stop fighting, and it seemed unimaginably consoling and comforting.
“Can’t we go now?” he asked. “Right now?”
“Just a few more days,” said Purritan LaFeline, “I promised you.” John lay back in his bed and slept. His dream would soon be realized.
3:30 p.m. Dr. Stone, Mrs. Flynn, and Nurse Grackle present. Dr. Stone observes fever going up, orders injection of Blepomycin. Movement of patient to facilitate injection results in pressure on tracheotomy tube. Patient registers pain.
Purritan stood in the corner, watching this whole procedure. He watched Nurse Grackle and the doctor leave, followed by Mrs. Flynn. He admired the way Nurse Fuller stayed with his friend John, and how she almost seemed to have a tear in her eye. When she left, Purritan leapt up on a chair and said: “That other nurse is really something else.”
John was glad to see his friendly cat, and he said: “Yeah. She really sucks!”
“What can we do about her, John? We’ve got to do something.”
“She usually goes out about now and gets some kind of lemon drink. Fresca, maybe? And sometimes she brings it in here and stands right over me, drinking it — even though I can’t eat or drink anything.”
Purritan had a brainstorm. “Say no more, my lad, I’ll handle this.” The cat ran into the corridor outside John’s room and located a container of citrate of magnesia. Finding the can of soda that Nurse Grackle had begun before she was called away, he emptied the contents and poured in the citrate. As he was entering John’s room, he saw Nurse Grackle retrieve the soda can and start to gulp down its contents.
“I hope the hospital has a good bathroom,” Purritan said proudly. “Nursey is going to need it!”
John laughed and laughed at the thought of the nurse’s spasms of diarrhea. He thanked his feline friend and slowly went to sleep.
6:30 p.m. Mrs. Flynn waiting for doctor. Dr. Stone paged at dinner. Arrives 7:30. Rectal thermometer ordered, patient too sick. Forehead thermometer indicates 103 fever.
“My word,” said Purritan, leaping up onto John’s bed, “that doctor seems very well-fed — not like you, old boy.”
“I haven’t eaten anything in days, Purritan. They feed me through these tubes, but I can’t taste it at all. It’s gross.”
“It seems to me, John, that the doctor is putting on a bit too much weight — and it’s not healthy at all. Where does the good doctor live?”
“Miles and miles from here.”
“That’s it, my boy.” Purritan jumped down from the bed and ran downstairs to the room where the doctors’ coats were stored while the doctors were in medical gowns. He carefully took the doctor’s keys out of the pocket of his jacket and the doctor’s wallet as well. Then he threw them in with the recycling.
“But how will Dr. Stone get home?” John asked when Purritan told him what he had done. “He has no keys and no money for a cab!”
Purritan smiled and he purred in the most feline way. “He’ll walk!” the cat said triumphantly.
He and John had a good laugh together as the hospital lights were slowly turned down.
8:30 p.m. Mrs. Flynn present. Patient comatose. Temperature: 103. Mother relates story of patient’s friend, girl who died of pneumonia, and wonders if comatose patient can hear voices in room. Mother told doctors often believe so.
Purritan LaFeline stuck his head into John’s room and seemed very uplifted. “Now, my lad, my tall ship is almost repaired. We shall be sailing quite soon.”
“Good,” said John, “I can’t wait to see what your island is like!”
“No problem, my boy. I’ve brought someone who I took there a year ago. She’ll tell you, all right.”
A very pretty auburn-haired girl entered the room. “Hello, Johnny,” she said.
John looked up and was so pleased that he almost started to cry. “Hello, Miriam, is that you?”
“Of course, Johnny. When Captain LaFeline told me you were here, I had to come and see you.
“The Captain’s island is really beautiful: palm trees, lovely gentle animals and birds of every color. And they sing, Johnny, they sing to me every morning and every night.”
“You always were fond of birds.”
“Yes, birds and puppy dogs. And there are puppy dogs too. I know you’ve always wanted one, and you can have one there. And it won’t even need to be house-broken.”
John laughed, and then he looked at Miriam with great affection. “You came all the way here to tell me that?”
“Yes — but I have to go now. I have to go. But I’ll be waiting for you, Johnny, I’ll be waiting.”
Miriam left as quickly as she entered and John began to cry. “Please wait for me,” he said. “I’ll come as soon as I can.” “There, there, my boy,” said Purritan, “it’s any time now, any time.”
10:30 Patient convulsing. Fever 105. Cold compresses. Tech suggests tranquilization. Rejected as possible dangerous shock. Priest summoned for last rites.
Captain Purritan LaFeline entered the room and said, with enthusiasm but a certain gravity: “All the repairs on my boat, the good ship Mighty Flyer, are finished. It’s time, my lad, it’s time to depart.”
John looked up and seemed blessedly relieved. “Have you really come for me, Purritan? Can we really go now?”
“Of course, my lad,” said Purritan, “I promised you that we should go together. Would I ever not keep a promise?”
No,” said John, and he almost leapt out of his bed, leaving all the tubes and catheters behind.
“I hope it’ll be really nice,” he said. “It will be really nice, won’t it?”
“Just as I promised you,” said Purritan. But then John asked, with real concern in his voice: “Shouldn’t we tell my mommy that we’re leaving?”
“Have no worries, my lad, I’ll tell her. She’ll understand.” Just before leaving, Purritan took out a gold coin and put it into the drawer of the night table beside John’s bed. “This is for that nurse who watched over you,” he said, “the good nurse.”
Then John joined hands with his feline friend and the two of them moved in the most sprightly manner down the stairs, out of the hospital, and onto the sailing ship that awaited them.
“Onward!” cried Purritan, and they set sail for the great island in the south and all the adventures that awaited them there.
10:45: Patient pronounced dead. Mother called.
11 p.m.: Mrs. Flynn arrives. Requests that stuffed animal found in patient’s hand — cat, dressed in pilgrim’s costume — and small toy boat on shelf above bed be kept with patient, to be buried with him. Mother finds candy wrapped in gold foil in night table — says son wanted me to have candy. Patient removed from room and set in waiting for funeral home.
— Margaret Fuller R.N.
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Marvin Cheiten’s play, “Zenobia,” will be presented the last two weekends in August at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.