Stay Cat Ion

Stay Cat ion

by Jennifer Sue

It was Friday, June 22 during the end of season JV baseball game to determine the county championship. The score was 2 to 3 in favor of the other team. There was a man on first with 2 outs at the bottom of the last inning. The pressure was on. Kyle stood at the plate staring down the pitcher. The pitcher was clearly sweating as he kept wiping his brow. The first pitch was a ball. Kyle had almost swung at it. The next ball was a strike, a real whiffer. Kyle began sweating. Soon the count was 3 and 2. Kyle then whacked 3 foul balls. Everyone held their breath as the next pitch came in. As the pitcher wound up, Kyle took a deep breath. As the ball flew to the plate Kyle decided it was a perfect pitch. With every bit of his strength, he swung for the sixth time this at bat, exhaling sharply as he did so. The CRACK echoed through the ball field. The ball sailed high for the center field fence. All eyes were glued onto the ball.

At first no one noticed Kyle wince and stagger as he instinctively tossed the bat and ran towards first. As the ball cleared the fence his teammates and the team fans erupted in shouts and cheers. The guy on first took off for home scoring the tying run. It was only then everyone noticed Kyle’s hands were compressing his arched back as he moved with an awkward, stumbling gait. His face was wracked with pain as he zig-zagged towards first base at a pace slower than a walk. The first base coach ran towards him to offer aid. Other coaches and his parents sprinted to the field.

The grimace on his face was made more intense by his gritted teeth. Knowing he had to reach home without assistance, Kyle waved off assistance as he rounded first. By the time he made it to second his breathing was done with sharp ragged painfilled breaths. The referees, coaches teammates and his parents formed a horrified mob as the stubborn boy continued his arduous trek. By third base he was barely able to make the turn toward home. Each step was clearly utter agony as he headed for home. The vision through his pain squinted eyes narrowed to his target of home base.

Those about him, even the other team and their fans were cheering and urging the clearly injured but determined lad onward. Their support helped Kyle endure. With his vision dimming he stumbled onto home plate and passed out. He’d won the game for his team.

When he regained consciousness he was lying o his back. Each breath felt as if someone was stabbing him in the lower back. The coaches and his parents hovered nearby as a nurse wiped a damp cloth across his forehead. Kyle could see the concern on everyone’s faces wondering what had happened. After a few painful breaths his senses began to return.,, the ball game!

“D...did we wh... win?” he asked softly as he gritted his teeth against the pain tying to speak caused.

“Yes, we won thanks to your home run,” the coach reassured him. “You hurt your back, so for now just try to stay still and relax. An ambulance is on it’s way.”

With a worried and grieved expression, Ellen knelt by her son holding Kyle’s hand in a helpless effort at comforting him. “The game is over so just relax.

The next hour was a blur as the paramedics and ambulance arrived. The pain Kyle was in was evident. Someone sent a video of the home run swing and Kyle’s pain filled run to Frank, Kyle’s father. They loaded Kyle in the ambulance allowing Ellen to ride along. Frank followed in his truck promising to call the coaches with the prognosis.

Three hours later Kyle’s head was lolling with a silly grin filling his face as the nurses transferred him from a gurney into a hospital bed in the intermediate care unit. The x-rays were confirmed by an MRI. There was a crack in his L1 vertebra which had also slipped slightly out of alignment. The entire area was painfully inflamed. The MRI confirmed the crack and the partially torn vertebral tendons. Kyle was suffering from a painful case of spondylolisthesis. They admitted him and pumped him full of painkillers. They wanted to keep him still to avoid aggravating the injury. They wanted the swelling to go down so they could get a better idea of long term treatment.

Frank Graham was the branch manager of a well recognized national bank in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. Ellen Graham was the head of the loan department of a branch of the same bank in nearby Shillington. Their modern ranch style home sat on a 2 acres plot just outside Nolde State Forest.

Kyle was their only child whom they loved dearly. Ellen had been a stay at home mom until he'd started kindergarten when she returned to work. The couple were sports enthusiasts so at age 4 Kyle was enrolled in the local soccer club. At that age they didn't actually play soccer but were taught basic skills. Kyle did well and by the time he reached age 6 he began playing intermural games with other local kids. Again he did well. As soon as he became eligible for baseball, T-ball, he was signed up for that. In the hours after work Frank spent a lot of time with Kyle practicing sports or watching ESPN. Sports was the center of their family life.

Kyle, a lanky but agile boy, seldom smiled or laughed and had always been a quiet, studious, responsible child. He seemed content to be a loner with no close friends. School work was always done on time,, he earned ‘A's in every class, chores were done without argument. Everything he did was done to the best of his ability. In or out of school he'd never had disciplinary issues. During middle school he played on the school's soccer, basketball and baseball teams. He had recently turned 16 and just completed ninth grade where he'd played the three sports. His natural ability and drive to do his best made him one of the top players in every sport. Few people saw that underneath his drive and obvious intelligence was a sadness, a quite profound somberness.

Kyle endured four boring days in the hospital. At least the first two were blurred and hazy due to the pain meds. The swelling and pain slowly faded as being immobile began to drive Kyle nuts. On the fourth day another MRI was performed. The vertebra was still out of alignment but had slipped closer to correct alignment.

The doctors had told them Kyle would be totally out of it until mid afternoon. Frank and Ellen worked Saturday morning but headed to the hospital as soon as they finished at 1:00pm. They spent the rest of Saturday and nearly all day Sunday with Kyle. Even though he was not dozing it was evident his awareness was questionable.

Monday Ellen took off work to be with Kyle while Frank took Tuesday off. In the evening both parents were present. Kyle steadily regained his senses. Just after Ellen arrived, the team of doctors working on Kyle entered the room.

The prognosis was one of caution. An orthotic fitting specialist was with them to measure Kyle for an orthotic device to allow him to get around while limiting movement. Kyle complained but was told the orthotic was needed to coax the vertebra back into place. Only after the vertebra was back in place could he begin physical therapy. When he asked how long he’d need the orthotic he was told he’d need to wear it 24/7 except for taking a bath. If the follow-up exam revealed progress, then he’d be able to sleep without the orthotic but would need to wear the brace during the day for two weeks. If that follow up exam was good, he’d be allowed to start physical therapy with the caveat of wearing the orthotic when doing activities that required strenuous movements.

Frank asked if Kyle would be in shape to go out for the soccer team which started practice in mid-August. The devoted father was clearly upset when told Kyle should not even take phys-ed until January. With his med addled emotions loosened, Kyle couldn’t hide a smile at hearing that news which upset Frank.

The orthotic fitter took Kyle’s measurements. The fitter said that Kyle was in luck since his measurements fit a standard size that was in stock and would be delivered tomorrow. If a custom orthotic had been needed such braces took a week to manufacture. Since Kyle couldn’t leave the hospital until he had the orthotic he was glad he’d get it tomorrow.

After the family was alone Frank asked Kyle about his smile upon hearing he wouldn’t be allowed to take phys-ed until after the New Year. Kyle sat quietly as he debated how to tell them. His mother was looking at him with obvious concern. His father frowned in consternation.

With a deep sigh he spoke softly. "You're pissed off at me. If I tell you what's wrong you'll get even more pissed off."

"We're not pissed off at you," Ellen replied. "We're concerned about why you're smiling about not being able to take phys-ed until January."

Kyle let out a huff of exasperation. The pan and medication had torn down the wall he’d long ago erected to keep himself from emotional hurt. "Do you really want to know what's wrong?"

"Of course," Frank answered. "We're you parents! Do you think we don't love you?"

"As a matter of fact I don't think you love me," Kyle snapped with uncharacteristic hostility as his pent up frustration grew. "You love who you want me to be, not who I am!"

That shut up both parents as they digested his accusatory words. "Honey, we do love you," Ellen spoke softly as she fought back tears. "We provide everything you need and everything you want. What do you think we're not doing?"

"You never listen to me," Kyle snapped. "You’ve never ask what I want to do about the important things! You TELL me what I'm going to do. Ever since I can remember it's been sports this and sports that! Soccer! Baseball! Football! Basketball! Hockey! ESPN! It used to be that I didn't care one way or the other about sports, but I've grown to HATE sports! ALL sports! I can't EVER remember being asked if I wanted to sign up to play soccer or basketball or baseball! I can't remember EVER being asked to if I wanted to practice a sport! I can't remember being asked if I wanted to watch a sport on TV! I was NEVER given a damn option! You TOLD me I was signed up to do those things! Lately all you're talking about is how next year I can play varsity sports! You can go to HELL if you think I'm doing anymore sports! All you've taught me is to HATE sports! I'VE HAD IT! NEVER AGAIN!”

Frank and Ellen watched and listened in growing horror as Kyle ranted. His face grew redder and redder as he spoke, at the end spittle was flying from his mouth as tears flowed freely down his face. Both grew terrified his clearly surging blood pressure would cause a stroke. Even more horrid was that every accusatory word he’d expounded was damningly true. They wanted to correct him and tell him to calm down, that they'd work things out. Fortunately they realized any attempt to calm or correct him would do exactly the opposite.

When he ran out of steam Kyle let his head sink to his chest as wrenchingly deep sobs erupted from the depths of his lungs almost literally rending the hearts of his parents. Then the morose boy began groaning in pain as the tension caused his back muscles to cramp. A nurse was summoned to administer pain relief and muscle relaxers.

After the pain meds relaxed him Ellen asked. “If you felt this way why didn’t you tell us?”

“How could I?” Kyle sniffed. “You know how I can't NOT do my best! You were constantly praising me for how well I played. How could I tell you I didn’t want to play when both of you are so gung ho about sports?”

The room fell silent. Then the announcement came that visiting hours were over. Hugs and kisses were exchanged as the dispirited parents left. Frank and Ellen talked and even cried as they slowly drove home. They thought they had been doing the best they could for their son... giving him every opportunity... but Kyle was right... they NEVER asked him... at least not about major things... they just shoved what they thought best down his throat.

When they arrived home they were physically and mentally exhausted. Neither had the strength or will to exit the truck.

“We thought we were loving, caring parents,” Ellen sniffed. “Always putting Kyle first, doing what we thought was best. But we never stopped to think if what we wanted was what he wanted.

“When I went to college and moved out of my parent’s home I promised myself I wasn’t going to be like my parents. They were constantly shoving their views and ideas down my throat never letting me be myself,” Frank sighed heavily. Yet that is EXACTLY what I’ve done! DAMN IT! I’ve turned into MY father!”

They all spent an uneasy night. Kyle cried himself to sleep worrying about and feeling guilty for his uncharacteristic outburst. Yet at the same time he felt as if a huge burden had been lifted. Ellen also cried her herself to sleep taking what little comfort she could from Frank’s loving embrace. Frank fought back his tears. He still berated himself for doing the same things he’d grown up hating about his father.

Ellen and Frank took Wednesday off because Kyle was to be discharged. They arrived at the hospital to find Kyle sunk into a deep funk. Both parents profusely apologized for forcing him to do things he didn’t want to do and for their unthinking consideration of his feelings and opinions. Kyle nodded, accepting their honest apologies.

The orthotic specialist and the doctor entered the room at 10:30. The specialist removed a monstrosity from a box. It was a canvas/neoprene combination. Kyle was helped to stand. The hospital gown was removed and a T-shirt slipped on, then the deice was placed about his waist. It reached from mid hip to his lower ribs. There were ‘C’ shaped metal reinforcing bands at the top and bottom centered on his spine and extending around his sides encasing three quarters of his body. The bottom flared out over his hips. The specialist used a tool to make adjustments so the metal followed the contours of his body. Across the back of the device were six vertical metal bands connecting the top and bottom bands. Each upright band had to be bent to fit Kyle’s physique. With each adjustment, the doctor checked to make sure the fit was correct. The inside of each metal band was padded with spongy, stretchy neoprene to diminish irritation. Once the steel cage was in place, wide bands came off both sides of the cage. The right side band was canvas just long enough to tuck inside the left side. The left side band was stretchy neoprene that was pulled uncomfortably snug across the right band. Velcro attached the two bands together. With it snugged in place, it was nearly impossible for Kyle to twist his torso which is exactly what the specially designed device was indented to do.

“You can’t be serious,” Kyle gasped. “This isn’t a back brace, it’s a modernized medieval torture device from the Spanish Inquisition! There is no way I can wear this non-stop for two weeks”

“I understand how you feel,” the doctor said. “However, the alternative to the brace is surgery. The location of your injury makes access difficult because it’s in your pelvis. The orthotic will immobilize the area allowing the bone to heal. Surgery runs the risk of paralysis, either partial or full. We’d have to use plates and screws to stabilize the vertebra. You’d be physically restricted for the rest of your life.”

Kyle realized he had no choice but to endure the corset like device. The brace prevented him from stepping into his underwear or shorts. He was unable to bend over to put his socks on. For the next few weeks he was reduced to a toddler needing his parents to assist dressing him.

The ride home was mostly silent. Kyle was fuming that he’d been unable to get into the back seat of the Ford F-250 Supercab 4x4. The fact his dad had to gently lift was embarrassing as was the lift down when they arrived at home. There was no way the torture device allowed him to slouch in the seat forcing him to sit bolt upright.

At home he headed inside to the sofa. It was a struggle to lower himself to the seat. Once he was settled Frank headed to the nearby Walgreens drugstore to get the pain meds, muscle relaxers, and sleeping pills that had been prescribed. Conversation between the threesome was stilted at best. When asked what he wanted for supper, Kyle wanted pizza so Domino’s was called.

After everyone had their fill Frank decided it was time to address the gorilla in the room. “Kyle, your mother and I are sorry for hurting you. We were only trying to do what we thought best for you. You did so well at sports we just assumed you enjoyed it.”

“I know you didn’t mean to hurt me and I accept your apology,” Kyle replied with genuine remorse. “I want to apologize for flipping out on you about it.”

“You don’t owe us an apology,” Ellen declared. “You were in pain and on some pretty wicked meds. It reduced your inhibitions. In fact, I’m glad you popped off. We didn’t have a clue you were upset for which we are very sorry. The question now is what do we do about it? What do you want to do?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Kyle sighed. “All I know for sure is what I don’t want to do and that’s sports! I’m not saying you can’t enjoy sports, just don’t expect me to join you. At least for a while. Right now I’m so fed up with sports I could scream.”

Frank and Ellen nodded in support.

“I guess we’ll have to cancel our vacation,” Frank sighed. “You’ll still be wearing that thing and I really doubt you have any interest in what we planned.”

The planned family vacation road trip was shot to hell. It had been a dream trip for Frank and Ellen but they'd never even considered that Kyle might not be interested. They had planned to visit Coopertown, NY on Wednesday July 18 to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. Then drive to Niagra falls on Thursday July 19 and tour the falls on Friday July 20. They planned to catch an afternoon game on Saturday July 21 at the Rogers Center in Toronto, Canada to watch the Toronto Blue Jays play the Baltimore Orioles, then on to Comerica Park in Detroit, Mi for an afternoon game on Sunday July 22, to watch the Detroit Tigers play the Boston Red Socks, then on to Progressive Field in Cleveland Oh on Tuesday July 24 for an evening game to watch the Cleveland Indians play the Pittsburgh Pirates, then on to Canton, OH to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday July 25, finally on to PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pa on Thursday July 26 to catch an evening game to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates play the NY Mets.

Ellen began cancelling their tickets and reservations. Quite a few did not give a full refund which meant other than day trips they would be staying home this summer. While both were upset, the sanity of their son was paramount.

On Thursday morning, June 28, was his first day home alone. Frank and Ellen set Kyle up so he could get around the house. While they were concerned about their son, they knew they could trust him to be left home alone as they returned to work.

Needless to say, an hour after his parents left he was bored. With the back brace on his movement was extremely limited. He couldn’t even slump in a seat. Using the hammock on the rear deck was impossible. Every time he tried to move the brace dug painfully into his flesh. The only good thing was the incessant back pain eased off to a dull ache, just enough to remind him his back was messed up. At least there was one positive about his injury, they’d canceled their vacation! He had been dreading the sports oriented road trip. Now that threat was gone.

What really rankled him, however, was what he wanted. Up to now he’d never had a choice about what he wanted. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about what he wanted because it was too frustrating. Years of self denial had erected a wall that was suddenly torn down and he was totally lost.

Bike riding was out of the question. The plan had been for him to get a learners permit after school let out but the extended baseball season had pushed that off. With a learner’s permit in hand his parents were going to let him drive during the road trip. Not all the time, but a few hours every day. With the vacation canceled that wasn’t going to happen. As long as he was restricted by the back brace, there was no way he’d be able to get his learner’s permit.

Since he was a loner, he had no close friends. He never visited friends and they never visited him. In his sports fugue he didn’t really mind not having friends. But he was lonely. Unable to physically do anything he spent time on the internet or watching TV shows. He easily fielded the calls from his parents. When Ellen asked if he wanted anything special for supper he felt a positive stirring.

“Yeah, I could really go for a large juicy sausage sandwich from V&S,” Kyle enthused. “Large, soft roll, grilled onions and sweet peppers, tomato sauce, double provolone cheese and sliced jalapeno peppers... and an order of cheese fries! And a quart of chocolate mild to wash it down!”

Ellen was surprised by his sudden exuberance. It was certainly a change from his depressed attitude the last few days. She promised to get him what he wanted and that she’d call Frank to pick up a sandwich for him. Before she hung up she said he made the sausage sandwich sound so good she was going to order the same thing except hers would be a small.

Frank and Ellen arrived home at nearly the same time. Frank had ordered a sausage sandwich too. Withing minutes they sat on the picnic table on the deck devouring the delicious but messy sandwiches. After stuffing themselves they relaxed and enjoyed their evening together. They realized they’d crossed a big speedbump in the road to their emotional recovery.

The next day Kyle sat at the picnic table browsing facebook when he saw a posting from the day before. It was a photo of Jazz Jennings lying in a hospital bed wearing a hospital gown. Her hair was in a braid but she had the biggest smile on her face. The caption read: “i’m doing great, thanks for all of the love and support.” The comments revealed she’d had her, as she called it, her bottom surgery. The comments were full of support and love. Many thanked her for being a role model and pathfinder for their transgender daughters.

Kyle felt a surge of happiness as he read the comments. He’d read about Jazz and seen several episodes of her reality show on TLC. Kyle had admired her spunk and her attitude as she pushed for transgender acceptance and her own goal. The picture in the article showed a glowing but weary young woman, her true self. She had overcome so much opposition but never lost sight of her truth.

Kyle moved on to other articles but thoughts of Jazz kept intruding. Finally he put his tablet inside, and walked into the almost primeval forest behind his home, Nolde State Forest with it’s Environmental Education Center. The raw nature of the forest called to him just like he felt called to Jazz. It was as if they had some sort of mystical connection. As he slowly wondered through the tree covered slopes, he heard and even saw some birds and squirrels and chipmunk. With each new sighting, he realized Jazz had finally freed herself from her birth defect. Thoughts of Jazz intruded into all he did, all he saw, and all he heard. With each reinforcement he found himself drawn closer to her. Then it hit him like a sledge hammer. The part of him that had been repressed... could it be that in his soul he was a girl? Once that question popped into his mind it swamped everything else. He sat there in a daze as his mind worked through the dilemma. Everything he’d blocked, everything he’d denied and refused to face... they all pointed to his inner girl! A feeling of serenity swelled from his soul engulfing him. He was like Jazz! He was a girl! It was as if the world which he’d experienced in shades of gray had suddenly exploded in technicolor!

The sky darkened as the winds suddenly picked up. Thunder crashed and rain began pelting down. It was at that point he realized he was lost. Panic almost overwhelmed him. He’d finally found himself... NO... HERSELF! He wasn’t going to let nature cheat him again! He knew he had to find shelter, but where!

As he stood getting soaked by the rain a big orange tiger stripe cat ran up to him. Kyle recognized him as the cat everyone called Big Red, a free ranging stray who frequented the area. Big Red belonged to no one but was content to eat the food offerings the lesser human folk made to their furry god.

Startled by the regal but soggy cat, Kyle simply looked down at the imperious cat. The cat glared at him then meowed in an almost belligerent tone before turning and trotting off. The cat stopped and looked back at him as if to say “Come on, stupid!”

Kyle started after the cat who kept glancing over it’s shoulder to make sure the dumb human was following. Within minutes Big Red led him into his back yard then scampered ahead onto the deck and under the porch roof getting out of the rain. Big Red simply sat impatiently waiting for Kyle to slowly make his way through the downpour to the protection of the porch.

Kyle was near exhausted by the time he trudged up the steps to join Big Red. Just then a tremendous light flashed with an instantaneous BOOM that reverberated through the area. The big pine tree next to the house shattered, split in half by the lightening strike. The sap in the tree burst into flame as it boiled into vapor. Even big Red was startled, leaping up onto Kyle, digging his sharp claws through his soggy shirt into the STAYs of his back brace. Big Red was a CAT to be reckoned with. The air was pungent with the smell of the IONized ozone.

Suddenly Kyle began laughing as he wrapped his arms around Big Red. She’d found herself in the forest and thanks to the wily cat she’d found home. There was a lot to celebrate with this summer’s STAY CAT ION.



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