Joe Lipson/Flickr
A fireworks display is seen over the Sydney Opera House in Australia during New Year’s Eve celebrations on Jan. 01, 2021Joe Lipson/Flickr
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The View From the Hospital Balcony

How a New Year’s Eve in the cancer ward turned fireworks into something miraculous

Emil Stern
December 30, 2021
Joe Lipson/Flickr
A fireworks display is seen over the Sydney Opera House in Australia during New Year's Eve celebrations on Jan. 01, 2021Joe Lipson/Flickr

The New Year’s Eve fireworks over Sydney Harbor come at the peak of what is known, because of its heat and ambient white-wine alcoholism, as “the silly season.” Some years, my family would trudge up a hill together to find a harborside vantage point from which to watch them. My mother, as she got older, tended to sit this out and go to sleep early: When you observe Jewish holidays, it feels like there is enough celebration, enough marking of time, enough walking. Past my early 20s, I tended to agree with her indifference. If you’ve seen one fireworks display, you’ve seen them all.

On New Year’s Eve in 2013, even if my mother had wanted to see the fireworks it would have been out of the question because she weighed 38 kilograms and was lying in a hospital bed, covered in tubes. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer roughly a year earlier. The urgent round of chemo she had received had been successful, but the subsequent grace period was over. In the days leading to her admission to the hospital, her stomach distended, and the abdominal pain finally proved overwhelming, even by the standards of what my mother could tolerate. In spite of the dictum to never go to the hospital around Christmas and New Year’s (wasn’t that a thing people said?) she accepted—on Christmas Eve—that it was necessary.

There were scans and more scans. We were told it was good she came, that she could not have waited a moment longer, that she had a severe bowel blockage. In the words of her kind and straightforward oncologist, Kate, a bowel blockage was not a thing you wanted to die from.

The bowel blockage (or alien, as Kate referred to the thing that kept distending my mother’s stomach, off and on, for roughly four years) was related to the ovarian cancer, whose typical treatment involves surgery as well as chemotherapy. My mother had declined the surgery because the eminent chief surgeon had said he would need carte blanche to operate, and carte blanche could mean a colostomy bag. This, my mother was sure, would lead to the end of carefree beach trips and the things she loved about Australian summer. But if surgery were deemed necessary now, it would not be an a la carte thing she could decline.

The eminent chief surgeon was away in Singapore at a conference. Until his return, the hope was she would not need surgery, and that conservative treatment—resting the bowels, a steroid called dexamethasone, and the aniseed-flavored liquid they used to make scans legible that sometimes itself helped open the passages—would do the trick. Until now my brother and I had been kept at home, away from the hospital, while my father would wait with her. But now the boundaries were collapsed. We were there with her on hospital time, at once measured and elastic, regimented and endless. Some nights we sang, quietly so as not to wake up whatever roommate my mother had been assigned. Many times, it was the melodies of Yom Kippur we went to, which were both haunting and moving. Like glass in the hand of the blower/are we in your hand. Every night, when we did go home, we were given specific things to pray for, the news we wanted tomorrow, the things we wanted to see, or not, on the scans tomorrow. The first good piece of news was that the blockage was not complete. There must have been a fractional opening.

We came to know the nurses well: Jennie, who was in charge, and also Bensu, Nathalie, Fiona, Reggie, Bessie, Nimmi, and Irish Claire and Welsh Claire, among others. When Welsh Claire (who cleared up all sorts of bodily fluids, who unplugged women who were turning purple from adverse chemo reactions, who never flinched in her daily duties) contemplated the aniseed flavoring of that shake, we discovered her limit. She made a face: yuck, aniseed.

There was tinsel up around the Gyn Onc ward. Some nurses wore Santa hats. It was not the silly season, though. It was the intensely serious season. The X-rays of my mother’s insides showed large balls of gas that refused to budge. They looked like brocade fireworks, diaphanous globes against the dark mysterious expanse of her insides. Summer had promised hope: balmy ocean water to swim in, mangoes and cherries, sunny days on which my mother could easily walk up and down the street in her sweatshirt that read Oui Mon Cheri. But our hope (can I be indelicate?) now came down to this: We were a family gathered solemnly around our elegant matriarch, waiting for her to fart, to see if she would (a) live and (b) do so while avoiding the surgery she dreaded.

In the chief surgeon’s absence, there were doctors who came and went. Each of them was the most important person in our lives until they disappeared from view, forever. A delicate woman, a palliative care doctor in a pink ensemble, came by one day to ask if our mother had fluffed, and none of us knew what she meant. Finally, she said, blushing, had she broken wind. The answer at that point was no. Dom, the young, playful South African resident whom all the nurses loved, would pop his head between the curtains to get a laugh but could offer no certainties. A severe woman walked by my mother’s bed one day and said crisply that surgery was a good option, as it would give my mother another six weeks of life. We pretended not to hear that.

At one point, we asked our mother if there was anything she wanted to say to us. She looked at us serially and offered the following: Tighten up (to me—I guess I had been somewhat sloppy, emotionally), loosen up (to my brother), and straighten up (to my father, who has struggled with his posture).

While we were waiting, the hospital, to save resources, combined the new mothers and the Gyn Onc patients onto one floor. Babies cried and so did many others.

My mother asked a nurse she trusted: If she had to, should she go with the surgeon who was available or wait till the eminence returned from Singapore? The nurse quietly said, I’d wait. We hoped that would be an option. Eventually, she became mobile enough that we could go to the TV lounge and watch a show called Two Greedy Italians. My mother was nil by mouth and kept kosher, so we weren’t sure if watching two fat Italian chefs careen around the south of Italy stuffing themselves with cheese and octopus would be unbearable for her. It was, in fact, transporting. One night, while we were sitting around her bed, it happened. I could rush and report to Dom that she had passed wind. Not a firework, but something. We were not out of the woods, but the bowel blockage was showing signs of easing. The Dex, as we all started calling it, with professional ease, was working.

So now it was New Year’s Eve. Our mother was in her bed. Maybe she was able to sleep or doze. My father had been exiled from the hospital for some infraction my mother had taken offense at, but my brother and I were there. She apologized for having kept us from a friend’s party and we assured her there was no need. It was approaching 11:30 and it was quiet on the ward: no screams, just the usual soft beepings. Bessie, Fiona, and Welsh Claire were talking about the fireworks. Could they steal some moments to see the display? They could. A small balcony offered an oblique view, if you really leaned and peered out over the treetops. Would my brother and I like to join them?

We stood there together and watched. Our view was only partial. But for those 20 or so minutes, in this most fragile of times, I saw the fireworks through their eyes. These nurses who came from around Australia and the world to look after our sickest and most vulnerable found them transporting. How could I not, too? I even found them meaningful. The next day, Bessie (who was from Ethiopia) would see my father in the hallway. While she was typically shy and reserved, she told him she would never forget watching the fireworks on the balcony with his sons.

The eminent surgeon came back from Singapore (the playful resident went silent in his presence) and jovially concurred that surgery would not be necessary, this time. My mother would eat a spoonful of stewed peach and banana, and then more food (salmon, sweet potatoes, polenta). An oncologist at the hospital would see her a few weeks later, no longer emaciated but looking like a normal person. It was, in his words, miraculous, even if the miracle would not eventually prove lasting.

New Year’s Eve is not a Jewish holiday, and we’d had a freighted-enough New Year’s of our own (who shall live and who shall die) not three months earlier. But what can I tell you? This felt like the most Jewish thing of all—to take something as mundane as New Year’s fireworks, and imbue them with meaning.

Eight years on, and New Year’s Eve is approaching. I live in Los Angeles now. I could watch the fireworks on TV, but the view captured by TV cameras is not the view from a hospital balcony and they won’t be the same. Instead I will think of that night on the Gyn Onc ward, how I felt watching the fireworks on that briefly miraculous New Year’s Eve, and how they felt good, and necessary, and maybe even holy.

Emil Stern is an Australian screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is working on a book about his family, Displaced Persons.

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