Sunday, November 7, 2010

A selection from "The China People of Oz" by T.L. Barrett

The China People of Oz
by T.L. Barrett

e tried to tell Ronie that Kansas would not necessarily be the best
way to spend her wish from the Grant-A-Wish Foundation, but
you try telling an eight-year-old girl with advanced leukemia that she can’t do the one thing on which her heart is set. Betsy and I sure weren’t about to.
I blame myself, of course, to which Betsy says I’m not allowed. It was I that read her the damned book. Every night, when she was first getting sick, I’d try to get her to settle down, try to get her just rested enough so she wouldn’t miss so much school. That was in the terrible days of worry, before the horrible days of hoping against knowing began.
God, how Ronie loved that book. She was just so precious, the way her sweet aqua colored eyes lit up, following every word. She smiled and giggled at the hi-jinks of talking mice and Winkies and all that nonsense. Soon Oz was all she could talk about day and night, to her classmates and teachers, and then, when her sphere got smaller along with her little bone stick arms, her grandparents, and Betsy and I.
We figured it was her way of dealing. It was probably healthy to keep her mind busy and content, not discouraged by the pains, the awful bruises, then the hair loss, the terribly dry mouth full of sores.
After the first book, she asked for more. How about a little movie night? We suggested. We had watched her withdraw from her peers, as the terrible unknown weight pressed down upon our little girl. We used every excuse to get her to invite a friend over. She agreed to have Tracy, a fat sullen girl. We had just assumed Ronie hung with her out of kindness, which was just the kind of girl Ronie was. It couldn’t be for the stimulating conversation. Perhaps Ronie felt relief that not much was required of her.
We also invited over Petey from down the road. A precocious latch key kid, Petey was always making something unidentifiable out of Popsicle sticks for Ronie. There were plenty of times Betsy and I talked about kidnapping Petey. We would fill him with cookies, pat his head and tell him what a swell guy he was. Some people don’t know what a good thing they have. Bastards.
After sitting through the last moment when Judy Garland expresses relieved delight upon being surrounded by her loved ones again, Ronie rose from the couch, walked to my chair, took the Coke from my hand, sipped it and told me she was pretty tired, and should probably get to bed.
“Didn’t you like it?” I asked her, later, tucking her in bed.
“Yes, only I don’t see why people have to change it so much. Her slippers were supposed to be silver, not ruby slippers! And they left out so many parts, some of the best parts! No, the book was far better. I want to hear more about Oz. The real Oz. Would you please, pretty please, get the second one, pretty please with sugar on top?”
“Sugar before bed, darling?”
“Kisses, then,” she said and held true to her promise. I held true to mine. We read about Ozma and Wheelers and talking hens and all kinds of stuff, on and on and on. I guess Kansas shouldn’t have been such a surprise.
“Kansas,” Betsy mused blowing smoke up against the porch ceiling, “Kansas.” By that time we had secretly picked up the old habit again and would end the day conspiring on the porch like we had when we were much younger and only concerned with the beginning of things. People warned us that having a sick kid can tear marriages apart, but if anything, it seemed to glue us tighter. Betsy called it bunker mentality, and that was how it felt some days; smoke ‘em if you got ‘em and let’s hear the news from the front.
“Do you think she thinks she’ll find a way to Oz?” I asked.
“Of course that’s what she thinks. The only real question is how we convince her otherwise. Kansas!” She exclaimed. We thought about it, debated about it. We got really good at leading breakfast conversation toward topics such as Disneyworld, petting dolphins, and hot air balloon rides.
“Well, the wizard rode on a balloon,” Ronie reminded us. “But then he wasn’t a real wizard, he was a con-artist.” She said it with a flourish, proud of her ever expanding vocabulary.
We weren’t conning this girl, so reluctantly, with bemused but worried smiles we agreed to arrange a trip to the geographical center of the country.
The worst place in the world is standing in between a child and their inevitable disappointment. What can you do?
You go to Kansas. It took about ten minutes on the internet to discover a little museum in the town Liberal, Kansas that claimed to be the home of Dorothy. That would have to do. I noticed that they had an Oz-fest in October where people dressed up like their favorite characters. They even had pictures of Munchkins who had attended in past years. I got excited and then reality settled in. We had to go this summer, not wait for October. She might not be strong enough in the autumn, I thought optimistically. Still, the place appeared to be the Oz center of the universe. I found Betsy instructing Ronie in light yoga on our bed, and announced my find.
Ronie jumped up and down on the bed until we had to get her to stop for fear of her falling and bruising herself again. Betsy and I saw that we were both grinning like idiots, which misted us up a bit, but it was alright; we were Kansas bound.
We flew into Wichita. The whole while Ronie looked out the window. She had been on a plane once before, but she watched the sky and the ground like an eagle. I knew what she was looking for: tornadoes.
Upon arrival, we rented a car and drove across the city to a family resort. As we drove across the city in traffic, Ronie crossed her thin arms across her chest.
“This is Kansas? This is not Kansas.” We assured her it would seem more like Kansas when we got closer to our destination. “We’ll see about that,” she said and gave me that side long swindler look that never failed to make me chuckle.
We stayed in a hotel that catered to traveling families. Ronie ate free, which was good, she picked at everything, anyway, and there was more in-door entertainment than you could shake a stick at. The inside water slide made Betsy and I nervous, but Ronie got excited by the pool and the big Jacuzzi tub.
I noticed the difference between the tanned raucous boys and girls that splashed and squabbled around us and our own reserved pale girl. Ronie daintily stepped out of her jumper. You could trace the little blue veins all through her shoulders, down to her bird like toes.
“Are you coming, Dad?” She asked at the water’s edge.
“You bet, funny pants.” In the water I had to resist the impulse to hold her up, like I had when she was an infant. I had taken her every summer to the reservoir back home and it was there that we had splashed and chased each other, and I taught her the joys of swimming. Watching her now, I remembered how natural she was at it. How she loved it. For a moment she was all herself, just like at the reservoir. I remembered telling her one lazy afternoon, with speed boats in the distance, how good of a swimmer she was becoming, how she could be on a swim team when she was older.
“Really, Dad, do you think?” She said.
“Yeah, any team would be psyched to have you.”
But there wouldn’t be any swim teams, not for my little girl. I went under deep and came up beneath her. I could see her arms struggling to hold herself up and I resisted the urge to hold her again. Needing air, I came up and gave her a pinch. She splashed me, and we chased each other about a bit. Too soon, her lips blue, she went to the side of the pool.
“That was fun!” she chattered as I pulled her out. “But not as fun as the reservoir.”
“Yeah, funny pants, I’m with you,” I sighed and we went to get warm.
In Dodge City we saw a cavalcade and some rodeo shows. We rode a stage coach and visited a replica farmhouse from the settler days.
“Not too different from Dorothy’s house,” Betsy remarked. Ronie nodded and approached the tour guide.
“Do you think we’ll get a big twister today?” The old guy with the theatrical handlebar moustache cocked his head and appraised the little sick girl.
“Well, I sure as shoot hope not, missy,” he said.
“Well, I hope we do, mister,” she told him. He laughed and offered her a ride on one of the local stallions.
“With that attitude I bet you could tame the roughest widow maker,” he said. Everyone laughed. Ronie licked her finger and held it out to the wind.

The Seward County Museum in Liberal, Kansas was where we were headed. Ronie never let us forget it. When we arrived both Betsy and I held my breath, hoping that some tornado had not ironically come through and wrecked our girl’s dreams. As we pulled into the parking lot, I was cursing myself for not calling ahead and making sure everything was still kosher in Ozland.
Ozland was a 5,000 square foot compound building that featured all manners of animatronic characters and kid friendly museum pieces. Dorothy’s house, a replica of the house featured in the film, waited outside.  A plaque said that they were raising money for a life-sized statue of Dorothy and her dog, daydreaming about what lay over that darned rainbow. They were raising money for the statue by selling 13" replicas.
“We’ll get one, sweetie, to put right on the stand beside your bed!” I declared, but my girl was no longer beside me. She was approaching the little farm cottage, with the solemn dignity of a catholic devotee entering St. Peter’s Basilica.
“Look at her,” Betsy said, fumbling with her camera. “Honey, could you—” she started.
“Let her go.” I rubbed her back. Betsy took a picture of her just at the door way peering in. Later Betsy blew it up and framed it. It sits in her room over the bed to this day.
When we got inside it took a minute for our eyes to adjust. Ronie had already captured the heart of the busty teen that was the guide and acting Dorothy, decked out in a checked dress and braids. They were hand in hand, Ronie and Dorothy, as she pointed out little details and answered questions. They stayed that way all through the cottage and then when it came time for us to leave and enter the Land of Oz, the girl left her post. Entering families gave us the wide berth people would give important celebrities or the very sick.
“To think we tried to convince her not to come,” Betsy said.
“I know,” I said.
“You have a beautiful little girl there,” Dorothy told us in confidence at the end of the Land of Oz. “Does she have…?”
“Leukemia, yeah.” I whispered.
“Oh,” She said, and her eyes misted up. “I’m sorry.” I suddenly had the insane desire to wrap my arms around this farm girl with starry eyed dreams of Hollywood probably knocking around her head and give her a bear hug. Instead I thanked her for being so gracious; both Betsy and I did. Ronie gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek with the same patient grace that she had for anyone who was overly attentive to her.
“She was nice,” Ronie said as I buckled her in. She looked wan and ready for a nap. “Really nice, but she didn’t really know about Oz, not really.”
“Of course not,” Betsy said. “Who could know as much as you do, Ozma?”
“That’s your highness to you,” she said.
And so our little trip to Oz was over. Or so we thought.