Chapter 5 America yet again.

New York.

There was my Aunt Katja waiting for us, it was an emotional reunion. We were all still shocked by what had happened so recently, and apprehensive of our future. Only my parents really knew English. We children were lost. We stayed in New York for a few days then we drove our car, the Škoda, which was shipped with us  from Europe to the USA, all the way to Chicago. The poor car had to bear the brunt of many jokes when we stopped at petrol stations on the way. The jokes were mostly about the shape and miniature size of our car compared to the American cars, about the weird number plates and about its ‘cute’ system of opening the gas‑ tank with a loud plop.

Thus we travelled to our new home, Chicago. As we passed through Gary Indiana, I felt again the old excitement and the familiar horror, but my brother declared loudly that he would never live in such pollution and mess. That night we stayed in a huge hotel, on one of the top floors, and I looked out with fondness over the city of Chicago, and was very hurt by the insensitive and derogatory remarks made by my brother and by the lack of enthusiasm of my sister. It was difficult for me to understand at that time what my older brother and sister must have been going through. They left much more behind than I did. A whole circle of friends and social life, their planned futures, boy‑friends and girl‑friends. And being older it would be much more difficult to adjust to an entirely new and different way of life. I at eight was not so aware of these things. Of course I missed my friends, my family, but I did not yet fully realize we would never go back. For me it was just another break in the USA, like we had done before. The only negative effect of the occupation at that time for me was that I had nightmares about the Russian tanks coming after me wherever I went. Otherwise I was excited by what was happening around me. Also having been to America and especially Chicago before, it was a bit like coming home after the months spent in Oxford. I knew this place, I recognized some of the streets, and buildings, whereas it was all very strange for Marek and Katerina; and they also realized fully what it would mean to be refugees. My brother, throughout his stay in America, wanted to return, and on many occasions caused my parents great worry in case he would run away and go back. Fortunately, all throughout this time my medical situation was fairly stable, waiting until calmer times to choose its moment to surface again with new problems.

In Chicago, we soon got an apartment where each one of us had their own room; that at least was some improvement on our living standards. We also had our Czech Skoda car with us. This has caused many funny situations. On occasions we would be stopped on the street by some long lost Czech who would excitedly point to our car, and the licence plate and start stammering and stuttering  in half Czech half English about the incredible fact that here in America there was a Czech car!  We did make a few friends due to the car.  However, it was very difficult to repair and no self‑respecting American garagist was going to touch this alien car.  So very sadly one day we said goodbye to it and left it in a parking lot somewhere in Chicago, and bought an old Saab. Poor Skoda! I do wonder what became of it. There was also in a Chicago suburb a Czech quarter called Cicero. This included a Czech restaurant where one could have Czech beer and pancakes. Many of the people there were old Czech refugees; they crowded round us, especially amazed to hear a little girl speaking Czech. As I could not speak anything else but Czech at the time, it seemed all very silly to me and I was very embarrassed by all the attention. For them it was a small link with what they had left behind so many years ago. But we soon found out that it was not like Czechoslovakia at all because the manager refused to serve me brown beer because I was too young. My father got very annoyed at this, and we never went back there. Slowly we lost some of our Czech habits and acquired a few American customs.

Of course, English or no English, we all had to attend some kind of school. Marek had to find an equivalent of a sixth‑form in Czechoslovakia, which was impossible, and for my sister some kind of ballet school had to be found. I was the easiest one to accommodate.

I attended a Catholic primary school. This school was run by nuns; however, they did not wear their proper habits, and I remember telling my parents that these ladies could not be real nuns as they were not dressed as they should be, and I did not like it. However, I still had to go to school. My sister was the first who was obliged to leave Chicago, her education in classical ballet was suffering from the lack of good training. She was admitted to the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London, and at the tender age of sixteen, had to leave her family and cross the Atlantic to stay all alone in the big bad city of London. She survived.

Marek was also extremely unhappy in his school, there was no stimulating teaching but mostly violent trouble from the students who often clashed with the police patrolling the school grounds armed to the teeth. Coming from a well ordered country where the education of a child was taken very seriously, where it was no shame to be top of the class, as it seems to be in the Western world, he was not used to such kind of treatment. Also we were all very worried in case he was made to join the army and would have to go to Vietnam.

Only I (that is apart from the way the nuns dressed) was happy in my school. It was a Catholic school and therefore we had to have religious education. However, I got easily tired and still  could not go to school for a whole day, so I had a young priest,  Father Malcolm come to our home to teach me about being a good  Catholic. He was very nice, and mostly I remember that he loved my mother’s cooking and would often enjoy various cakes, or biscuits my mother made.

There were exciting things about America, new festivities to enjoy, such as “Trick or treat”. It was so exciting to get all dressed up, to look as horrible as humanly possible, and then in the dark to walk from house to house, ring the bell or knock on the door, and in a menacing voice demand ‘Trick or treat!’ And subsequently, compare the size of your sweet bag with the sweet bag of your friends. There were many devils, witches, monsters, ghosts and other horrors creeping around the streets on trick‑or‑treats night. On occasions there would be a little scared witch or ghost wandering around, a bit lost and frightened by the other ghostly things. It was also one of the few nights I was allowed to stay up late.

Another new cultural entry into our life was the introduction of Thanksgiving Day and the accompanying traditional meal of roast turkey. We spent our first Thanksgiving with friends who had a beautiful house in Wisconsin.

To my great pleasure, soon after we arrived in America, my parents decided to get a golden retriever puppy. We called her Jiskra, which in Czech means a sparkle; a sparkle of hope maybe? There were many hilarious occasions on which we tried to get the dog house‑trained. However, she took a great delight to relief herself on the carpet in my father’s study. We were advised to put newspapers on her favourite spot and then slowly move the paper toward the front door. This we did, and when we caught her ready to use the daily news we would move her and the newspaper toward the front door. We would then demonstrate how a dog should behave by scratching at the door and barking. We did not go as far as cocking our legs! After many weeks of these attempts, at last she got the idea and from then on behaved very well. Every morning she would wait patiently outside the door to my room, waiting until I would wake up, and then bounce up to me, greet me profusely and settle down comfortably on my bed. I loved taking her out for her walks, but as she grew stronger and bigger and I grew weaker, I had trouble controlling her. One day, I remember, we went out as usual, when she decided to chase another smaller dog; barking she set off, I refused to let go of the leash. I struggled after her, unable to stop her. Then I saw a lamp post, and as a desperate man clutches at straws, I caught a lamp‑post and hung on with all my might. Jiskra continued running and ended up winding the leash around the lamp‑post and me. By that time I was in tears and the skin of my wrist was raw from the leash.  Thankfully, my mother came out to look for me and rescued me and the dog from our predicament. That was the last time I took the dog out for a walk on my own.

Later, when we were returning to Europe, with great sadness and many tears I had to say goodbye to my good friend Jiskra, who had to stay behind in America.

I cannot remember whether I made many friends in Chicago or not. There was only this one girl, called Michiko, living next to our flat in a new building we moved to. But all I recollect was that I did not enjoy very much playing with her; I was more of a tom‑boy whereas she liked to play with dolls; she was Japanese, and I think that there were great cultural differences in our mannerisms. Also, I was getting progressively more ill and tended to enjoy the company of adults more and more as I was loosing energy to play with children my age, 9 years old.

I remember at that time being very much fond of Red Indians and everything that went with them. I wanted to be one and often dressed up as a Red Indian brave. I nearly always pretended to be Vinetou, the hero of Karl May’s novels about the brave Apaches. Vinetou, on the screen, was played by a good‑looking Frenchmen, Pierre Brice, tinted red, with whom many girls fell in love at first sight. Many a happy hour were spent with my sister browsing through accumulated pictures of Vinetou and day dreaming aloud. Well I wanted to be such an Indian, and especially while holidaying in the Adirondacks I spent all my energy on living out my dreams. It was quite a shock to see how real Red Indians lived in America, on their tiny reserves, like some animals on show. I felt even then that they were selling themselves and their culture. Where were the proud and fierce people all the writers of my childhood wrote and dreamt about?

While in Chicago another event that made a lasting impression on me took place. One day, to my surprise, while out on a walk, with my father, we entered a church. It was very nice and cool inside, there were a number of people present and in a corner a guitarist was playing religious folk music and a group of young people were singing. Then to my even greater surprise, my father told me that I was going to have my first communion. Because it was all so unexpected it had a much greater impact on me. It all made me feel very light headed and strange. I felt very happy. At home I received a beautiful golden cross, which I had worn since that day until 1982, only taking it off when absolutely necessary. In 1982 I lost it when I went swimming in Brighton with some university friends.

Such was the life we led in Chicago. I liked it there and did not understand why my parents were unhappy and my father talked of going back to Europe. I did not comprehend then how different, culturally and historically, America was from Europe. And how difficult it had to be for the older members of my family to adjust to the life there. I on the other hand, when my parents talked about going back to Europe, was scared that we were going nearer to the Soviet Union and that we would be occupied by them, I had many nightmares about Russian tanks rolling into whatever country we lived, and their soldiers locking us all up in jail, although I have never actually seen a Russian tank.

While all this was going on and we tried to live as normal life as possible, my condition was deteriorating quite alarmingly. I was losing sensation in parts of my body. But nothing was being done by the doctors apart from keeping an eye on me, and prescribing physiotherapy with a person for whom I acquired great respect, Mr. Bebs.

Then one day, as my mother and I were coming back from shopping and I was slowly walking home, I collapsed on the street. My legs just simply gave way under me; I could not feel them or move them. It was as if I had no legs, as if the legs that were attached to my body were not mine. My mother asked what the matter was and when I tried to explain, in between sobs of fear, she did not understand and tried to haul me up. But as she tried to drag me on I  could still not move my legs, and my sobs of fear became screams of protest. She then realized that something was seriously wrong.

I was admitted to hospital very soon afterwards and an angiogram, among other tests, was performed. I do remember that one to this day very clearly, and I recall the terrible agony it produced, although I was told that there would be no pain and I should not be frightened. I learned very quickly to believe the opposite when doctors or nurses tell you that something will be painless. Occasionally even now I wake up in the night, dreaming about that particular test and actual waves of pain travel down my back.  Apart from the tests, the stay at that hospital was not unpleasant in the beginning.  The children’s ward in the University of Chicago hospital was very modern and quite luxurious. Each patient had his or her own room, a private bathroom, and a TV in the room. In each room was a comfortable chair that could be converted into a bed, so that one of the parents, usually the mother, could sleep there.  Each patient was assigned a nurse who looked specifically after the respective patient. My nurse was changed after she did not answer a call from me when I needed to go to the toilet and could not get up. The outcome of her ignoring my call was inevitable and I was very upset. Then I was assigned a very fat nurse who was extremely kind and always in good humour.

There was also a big playroom with the most advanced toys a child could dream of and one was allowed to spend most of the day in there. For those children that could not get out of bed a special lady would come once a day to play with and/or give them lessons.  At the beginning I was able to get around the ward in a wheelchair and I recall that one evening as I was rolling around the corridors, peeping into my friend’s rooms I arrived at my next‑door neighbour. In the room was a young girl, whom I got to know a bit, and who was connected to an electrocardiograph. I used to like to watch the regular electronic waves making their way across the screen. I stopped that one evening to watch again, when suddenly the regular movement of the waves stopped and the pretty waves turned into an ugly straight line. It had to be explained to me what had happened when the room was being prepared for a new patient the next day.

Thus, I spent my first few days in hospital, with tests, visits from Mr. Bebs and playing, and  asking all the time when I could go home.

Then my parents were told the results of the tests and the reason of why I could not walk or feel my legs. The hemangioma, which could not be removed in Prague, had grown, and was now pressing on my spinal column and the nerves in that region, cutting off any nerve‑ impulses to the part below that region. One more test was set out, for this one I would be under general anaesthetic because a microscope was to be used on my opened back. I remember the anaesthetic gas choking me and how I was trying to push the mask away. Then nothing. The supposedly fairly quick test, however, turned into a  ten and a half hour operation. The result of the test showed that it was best to operate and to remove the tumour as soon as possible. During the operation my parents were told not to be too optimistic that I would survive. Yet another time my poor parents had to grapple with the idea that one of their children was going to die.

I came to from my anaesthetic, my brain was in a hazy daze, and I had the impression I was in a room where the surgeons were changing, some were still in their bloodied gowns, others were stark naked. I doubt this was true, either I was hallucinating or had an out of body experience. I was lying on a trolley, on my stomach, not in any pain but totally confused. I did not know where I was, what had happened or who I was. Only when I was wheeled down the corridor to the  intensive care ward, and saw my parents, did it all come back and I started to cry out for my mother. I spent a number of days in intensive care, and I remember only two things from those days, one the intense pain I was in, and that there were no windows in the intensive care room and all I wanted to see was some daylight. The urge to see daylight was getting so strong that I was becoming hysterical, and no threats of more injections if I didn’t calm   down helped. At last my surgeon decided that I could return to my own room, I was happy at last there would be a window, and daylight. Where we were in the intensive care room one didn’t know whether it was day or night. As I was wheeled into my own room I looked out of the window in anticipation….. and it was night‑time,  a dark night, and absolutely no light. That was the last thing I could take, and I became very upset, so much so that they did have to start me on some kind of injected tranquilliser. To this day absolute darkness still makes me uneasy.

Until the second day in my own room I was connected to a saline  drip and  not allowed to eat or drink anything, The first thing, when I was asked what I wanted to eat and drink was a “7‑up” and  a hot‑dog. They did not have hot‑dogs on their menu that day, but one of the nurses went to a local hot‑dog vendor on the corner of a street and proudly brought me  my desired hot‑dog!

The days passed slowly, I had to be cajoled and forced to exercise by Mr. Bebs. I did not want to move for every move was hurting me. But my respect for Mr. Bebs and his patience got me moving a little. The other major disaster for me was when my stitches had to be removed. I could not stand anyone touching my back any more. I had to be pinned down so that they could remove the many stitches.

The tragedy of it all was, however, that although they tried hard and operated for a long time, the tumour had to remain. It was inaccessible to the techniques of those days. Present day surgical  technique would use a laser‑beam and had those techniques been  available then, my spine related problems might not have developed.  But in those days laser‑beam operations were not used.  All they could establish again was that the tumour was benign, and as time went by, more pressing medical situations developed, as I contracted infections, and the tumour was partly forgotten.

After many weeks I was allowed to go home at last, and to start up school again. However, I could not walk very well. It was at that time that my parents decided definitely to return to Europe. We were also supposed to go to Florida as our last trip in America. Meanwhile my tenth birthday came up, and I had a party. It is characteristic of the kind of life I was then leading when all my birthday‑party guests were adults. These consisted of my teacher, the Catholic priest, Father Malcolm, the nurses from my recent stay in hospital, and an old family friend, Uncle Lonjka. I was extremely fond of Champagne at that age  (and still am), and Uncle Lonjka, brought me as a present three crates of champagne, two white and one pink. He poured for me all the three different kinds  of the sparkling wine into three separate large glasses.  At that point my parents made one of their biggest mistakes. They told  me I would not be allowed to drink the three glasses of champagne, so, instead of sipping the wine slowly and over the period of the whole  evening, I gulped all three glasses down while my parents were not  looking. Walking was never so easy for me as that night! However, this escapade had dire consequences. My already malfunctioning kidneys could not cope with the sudden onslaught of alcohol; the next  day I woke up with high fever and a serious kidney infection. Our trip to Florida had to be cancelled.

While I was recovering from my first drinking bout, my parents  were getting ready for us to move back to Europe.  So in the summer of 1970 we moved yet again, this time to Holland. We flew to Holland, and it was my first flight. I still had some fever and was not fully recovered, but nevertheless I enjoyed my flight very much. We said goodbye to America, to my aunt, and to newly made friends. I was excited of going somewhere else but I was unhappy at leaving as well. Another home, another language to master. And although I didn’t know it then I am now certain that I left very good medical care to come to the worst medical treatment I have had. My parents haven not been back to America. I have since then returned for a few days to New York, and it was a little like coming back home.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (K.B Dundee)
    Jan 05, 2012 @ 05:49:11

    Whoa! What a terrifying time for a little kid.


  2. Marsha
    Jan 05, 2012 @ 06:25:28

    How were you getting around before you left the States, Marketa. Were you using a wheelchair or crutches?


  3. marcatmm
    Jan 06, 2012 @ 03:52:48

    I had meant when you were leaving. And I love the pic of you – such huge beautiful brown eyes!


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