My wallet's falling apart. My wallet seems to always be falling apart, even though Top Management is wonderful about getting me a new wallet every seven or eight years, whether I need one or not. Within a few months, it seems like the new one's in only slightly better shape than the old one. I don't know why it happens, really; it's certainly not like my wallet gets used much.
Trying and failing to find my library card earlier today—although, inexplicably, I noticed I still have my Virginia library card, which expired five years ago—I stopped and looked at the only thing in my wallet I really love.
It was Easter Sunday 1997. We were in the hospital; our oldest, Max, had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia eight days earlier. We didn't know it then, but we'd be in the hospital with her for most of the next nine months.
Two of my brothers, the ones who lived within four hours of us, had left their families before dawn to come spend Easter with us—this despite the fact they'd done the same thing one week earlier...and that despite the fact that I'd initially told them not to come. Knowing me better than I knew myself, they ignored me and had left before dawn to spend as much time with us in the ICU as they could.
A week later, we were out of the pediatric intensive care and in a regular room on the pediatric oncology floor. The staff had tried hard to make Easter as enjoyable as possible for their Christian patients—a large percentage of the patients, maybe even a majority, were Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, giving the playroom an amazingly New York melting pot feel—and holding an Easter egg hunt for nauseated little bald kids hooked up to IVs with pretty limited portability is no mean feat.
My brothers arrived bearing far too many gifts and gave Max far more laughs in a few hours than she'd had in a week; Max was always an unusually serious baby, and almost the only uncontrollable bellylaughs we'd ever seen her have were courtesy her beloved uncles.
Back then Max wouldn't even try candy, but she was happy to sort Skittles by color for hours, and her parents were more than happy to be the ones eating the Reese's eggs for her.
The hospital kitchen was open, of course, and brought a tray up but there was little to nothing on it Max was interested in, and that went double for the rest of us. So we ordered in from the only restaurant open on Easter: a Chinese restaurant, of course.
It was fantastic. Max was happy, the food was tasty, and for a few minutes the terror went away, at least a little.
The nurse came in to change Max's IV. Noticing the unopened fortune cookies, she said, "Aren't you going to read your fortune?"
"Oh, no," I said seriously. "I had a fortune cookie the night before Max was diagnosed and now she has cancer. I'm not doing that again."
The nurse's eyes got very wide before Top Management hit me and explained to her that I had an odd sense of humor.
After she left, Top Management and my brothers and I had our cookies, reading our fortunes aloud. They were the usual pleasant platitudes, common sense advice.
"Aren't you going to open Max's?" my brother asked, looking at the last cookie left on the bed.
I shrugged. Max didn't eat cookies, so I didn't see the point.
"All right," he said, grabbing the cookie. "I'll do it. Here you go, buddy, this one's yours."
He broke the cookie in half and took out the slip of paper. He started to read it out loud, then stopped. He handed it to the other brother, who looked at it and said, "Oh my God."
They handed it to me.
I'm not a superstitious guy, in general. But other than taking it out today to scan it, I've had it in my wallet every second since.
It's now permanently stuck to the photo we took of Max a few weeks later, also always in my wallet. The photo was taken right before we cut off her ponytail, as her hair was falling out. Behind her you can sorta see, if you know what one looks like, the blue IV pump that she spent much of the next year hooked up to, as well as the bedrail that had to always be up, as she was considered too young to be allowed to sit on a bed without rails. On her neck is the bandage she got the first night in the hospital, when they stuck a tube in what I think was her carotid.
When we first read that fortune, we were still weeks away from learning that Max hadn't actually been handed the death sentence we'd thought, still weeks away from being told by the head of oncology that it was possible for her to be cured, and not just have her life extended by a few more years.
In an hour I'm heading to the airport to pick Max up; she spent the summer about 1200 miles away, in Austin, at an intership at a software design firm. In my pocket as I drive will, of course, be my wallet. And in my wallet will, of course, be that fortune she got so long ago, fifteen years now, back when an extra five years seemed wildly optimistic. Do I think the fortune had anything to do with it? I do not. But I am also never, ever letting it go.