Six West

Laughter and tragedy are uneasy companions in a children’s cancer ward. 

This week it’s not Tiny Tim or Vikki Carr or Pinky Hull, the ragtime piano player. This week it’s supposed to be the Houston Rockets, at least some of the Houston Rockets, but even with that qualification things aren’t looking too hopeful: two basketballs intended for demonstration purposes are lying about conspicuously idle, and it seems possible that this appointment might just have slipped the Rockets’ mind. To take up some slack Katie Dixie abruptly hands me a basketball and asks me to show the children the art of dribbling.

Uh, this is how it’s done, kids. I display the technique which failed me when the time came for the first cut on my high school B-team, a technique which doesn’t seem too impressive now either—judging from the bland, almost autistic attention paid by the children to the ball bouncing clumsily off my fingertips. I wonder how many of them could be expected to be able to dribble a basketball. Not many. Maybe five or six of the fifteen or so kids assembled here look as though they’re feeling well enough to try.

Who knows what kind of a fatalistic gloss cancer can impose on a child’s mind? Are they brooding? Are they in pain? Or is it just the quiet tension that infects any group of children waiting for a party that puts this morose look into their eyes? After I end my demonstration a girl of about six semi-accidentally rolls the other basketball across the floor to the sole of my shoe—I return it with my foot. She rolls it back, trying to look distracted as nightclub entertainer Paul Clark comes in with his guitar and greets Katie Dixie with mock declarations of love to which she responds in her three-octave speaking voice. Then for a long time the girl and I roll the basketball monotonously back and forth without communicating in any other way. She has dark hair and a body as frail as a bird’s, and she resists, quietly, any alteration in the pattern of our game.

This is Six West, the west wing of the sixth floor of the M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute, one of the only three comprehensive cancer centers in the country and one of the prominent fixtures in that vast Disney-land-gone-sour known as the Texas Medical Center, where new hospitals seem to reproduce themselves as rapidly and unobtrusively as cells dividing. (Even now Anderson is cloning an extension of its present butterfly-shape off into a parking lot.)

And in this ward the children, the inpatients who are waiting for this party to begin, are all afflicted with cancer—a slight majority of them have leukemia, the rest have the disease in other, less prevalent forms. Some of them are dying of it, a few are being cured of it, and the rest hover with their parents in its shadow, not really knowing.

This is the high point of the week for the children on Six West and for their mothers who, through a hospital policy, live with their children on the floor during their stay (the median inpatient stay is about two weeks, but some are here for months). Every Wednesday at two in the afternoon Katie Dixie has somebody lined up—she calls up the agents of people who are in Houston in various stages of their fame and usually persuades them to come by and entertain. She’s maybe 60 or so, it’s hard to tell, since she’s one of those people whose enthusiasm eclipses every other feature. It’s she who is going to get these kids laughing today; she seems to know that that look they have in their eyes is not indifference, but merely a kind of reserve.

Katie Dixie is an Anderson volunteer, one of seven on the pediatric floor, and the coordinator of these “Pedi-Par-ties,” which are now famous enough throughout the hospital to cause people to drift up from the other floors to check them out. After all, they could be having the Miami Dolphins again, who showed up last week. (There’s a picture circulating on the floor now from the Washington Post, which got it from the wire services, of Larry Csonka signing an autograph for a boy on the floor, with the boy’s one leg carefully concealed below the frame.) Or it could be Jimmy Durante, or Charlie Pride, or Carlos Mansanto, or the Oilers or the Astros or Pistle the Precious Parakeet. And those are just the most visible celebrities. She’s brought in operas and string quartets and bell-ringing choirs and local entertainers like Paul Clark on a regular basis, with a lot of them asking to come back. At the moment she’s booked two months ahead with people who have called her wanting to volunteer their talents.

The parties are held in the ward’s kindergartenish day room (and indeed there keeps intruding a hazy resemblance between Katie Dixie and Miss Connie or whatever her name was on Ding Dong School). There is a huge Teddy bear and a popcorn popper and little geometrical plastic chairs that, for adults, are like sitting on suction cups. There is also a fairly decent stereo with a record collection that seems at least half-donated (who would buy a record by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs for a children’s cancer ward?). Maybe it’s owing to the decor that not too many of the older children seem to have come down for the party—the pediatrics floor, which holds about 50 patients, accepts people up to fifteen years old, but most of the kids here seem less than ten.

The children who are here have their mothers with them, and a few have their fathers. Occasionally a father will stay with his child on the floor, but the great majority of resident parents are mothers. One boy, Mike (I’m changing the names of the kids, not because I think anybody would mind if I used them, but because I feel freer in talking about them that way), who’s about nine and whose only hint

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