Life at the HOUSE of JOES - or - When it Comes to In-laws, Sometimes Divorce is the Only Way Out - 13

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“Valvular stenosis with secondary cardiomyopathy,” the doctor said, reading from the radiologist’s report on Joey’s recent echocardiogram.

Joey and I were in Hilton Head, South Carolina, having been back in the States for less than two weeks. For the past month or so while we were in Italy, Joey had started to feel tired and even faint, and had felt an occasional twinge in his chest. He had had previous episodes like this in the past, and had been hospitalized once or twice, but a diagnosis had never been made. In fact, in general his test results had been in the normal range. This was different. He had been admitted to the hospital for testing here – because we were going to be staying for at least a month while my best friend Sidney and I, and her mother Zola, helped my stepfather Maurice sort out my mother’s estate.

I could tell by the look on Sidney’s face that it was grave. The doctor paused, as if to give us a chance to ask questions, but Joey and I just stared at him.

“In your case this condition is most likely a result of an undetected childhood strep or other bacterial infection, combined with congenitally narrow valve structure – which also seems to have gone undetected until now.

What we would like to do is surgically insert an intravascular stent in order to keep the valve open and release the pressure. We are still trying to determine how much damage there has been to the heart and the idea here is to slow the progression as much as possible.”

The prognosis? Joey would need a transplant or he’d be dead in three years.

Three years? For a second I felt my own heart stop beating. Joey did not seemed rattled at all – in fact, he looked quite calm. Sidney was stoic, but I could tell she was very concerned.

The year was 1988 and organ transplantation was nowhere near being considered a routine procedure. In fact, it was an endgame strategy for when all other measures had failed.

Well, we had gotten what we came for – a diagnosis. Now we had to tell Joey’s parents Derba and Big Joe.

The doctors started to leave the room, and Sidney asked the cardiologist if they could speak for a moment. The two stepped outside into the hallway and I picked up the phone next to Joey’s bed and handed it to him.

“We’ve got to call your parents.”

“I know,” Joey sighed, dialing a zero before the number. We had to reverse the charges because the phone did not allow outgoing long distance calling.

Joey tipped the receiver away from his ear so I could hear. It was Joey’s sister, Lambchop, who answered the phone at the house, and it became immediately clear why her first name, “Lamilla”, which means “stone” in the ancient language of the Aborigines, fit her so well.

“Hey YumYum. What’s up? Hold on, I’ll go get Mommy and Daddy." I thought, What pregnant 34-year-old woman calls her parents 'Mommy and Daddy?' My mind was screaming.

I remembered something that Joey had told me a little while after we had gotten married - something his mother had said. It was during a discussion of my parents' multiple divorces and my rather ragged upbringing. 

Apparently Derba had mentioned, in a somewhat conspiratorial tone, "You know, Kitty has trouble understanding what a real family is like, because of ... well, you know."

I remember thinking: Jesus Christ, Joey - how about, "no, I don't know" as an appropriate response?

Every time Joey recounted these conversations with his mother where I was the main topic, this rejoinder had never occurred to him. It was beyond frustrating. In fact, it seemed that Joey met every disparaging comment proffered by Derbs, BJ, and Lambchop with a tepid shrug and silence. Isn't the husband supposed to defend his wife?

When the finally came to the phone, Joey's parents assumed their usual positions – Derba in the hallway on one phone, and Big Joe in the bedroom on the extension. Derba squeaked first.

“Hi Joey (chirping sound). What did they say?”

“They want to put a stent into one of my heart valves. It's like a metal straw. I have something called valvular stenosis that’s causing my heart to work too hard. That’s why I’ve been tired all the time and out of breath.”

“I think that’s what Doctor Dacuycuy had said, wasn’t it?" (more chirping)

Doctor Dacuycuy was a doctor whom Derba swore by. She was from Hawaii and had a small practice in their town. Once Joey had gone to see her at Derba’s behest. Afterwards I called the doctor a call to ask some questions about what she thought Joey had. Doctor Dacuycuy had told me that the reason why he was getting ill was because of our lifestyle and that I should be making him meals more regularly. During the phone call I had found myself starting to defend myself, then stopped. Back when Joey and I were staying at his parents, I would occasionally run into Doctor Dacuycuy at the local supermarket, and could not help noticing that her cart was usually filled with corn chips, soda pop and a head of iceberg lettuce.

Joey continued, “They’re going to do the surgery tomorrow, and then I’ll be in the hospital for a few days. We’ll give you a call.”

“Okay, son,” Big Joe said gruffly.

Sidney came back into the room looking grim, but she didn’t say anything about her conversation with Joey's cardiologist. I knew she'd tell me everything later. She gave Joey and me both a kiss and said that she would see me back at Zola’s house.

Until now, Joey and I had been living on the cash we had saved up for Italy. We'd sold most of our worldly possessions at a giant garage sale and had packed what was left into ten cardboard boxes that were stowed in his parents' attic. Suddenly, I felt a cold chill. We were broke. And homeless. Well, I was homeless anyway.

Somehow when we were in Italy staying at my cousin Cyril’s place I hadn’t felt like a drifter, though we had nothing and were living hand to mouth. We helped Cyril set up his art exhibitions, and on weekends, Joey and I would often go into Florence where there were lots of tourists. We would bring our sketch pads and each take a corner of a busy street. There we would sketch caricatures of the passersby and sell them for 10,000 lire – approximately 8 dollars at the time.

But at that moment as I stood next to Joey's hospital bed and watched the nurses take his temperature and adjust his IV, I felt alone and very vulnerable.

The nurses left and I walked over to say goodnight. I knew that I was probably the one who should be saying, "Don't worry - everything will be alright," but at the same time I wished Joey would have said that to me. We both decided right then that the minute he got out of the hospital and was cleared for travel, we would go back up North and make plans return to Italy as soon as possible. It might take a year or two, but we would do it. It was terrifying to think that Joey would need a heart transplant in three years, but he was adamant that his health was not going to get in the way of our dreams.

But in my mind, between my mother’s murder and Joey’s illness, my dreams had begun to grow dimmer and dimmer.

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