My whole life, I’ve never been on a vacation. I’ve never even left New Hampshire, unless you count the time that I went with you and Mom to Nebraska—and even you have to admit that sitting in a hospital room for three days watching really old Tom and Jerry cartoons while you got tested at Shriners was nothing like going to a beach or to the Grand Canyon. So you can imagine how excited I was when I found out that our family was planning to go to Disney World. We would go during February school vacation. We’d stay at a hotel that had a monorail running right through the middle of it.
Mom began to make a list of the rides we would go on. It’s a Small World, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Peter Pan’s Flight.
“Those are for babies,” I complained.
“Those are the ones that are safe,” she said.
“Space Mountain,” I suggested.
“Pirates of the Caribbean,” she answered.
“Great,” I yelled. “I get to go on the first vacation of my life, and I won’t even have any fun.” Then I stormed off to our room, and even though I wasn’t downstairs anymore, I could pretty much imagine what our parents were saying: There Amelia goes, being difficult again.
It’s funny, when things like this happen (which is, like, always), Mom isn’t the one who tries to iron out the mess. She’s too busy making sure you’re all right, so the task falls to Dad. Ah, see, there’s something else that I’m jealous about: he’s your real dad, but he’s only my stepfather. I don’t know my real dad; he and my mother split up before I was even born, and she swears that his absence is the best gift he could ever have given me. But Sean adopted me, and he acts like he loves me just as much as he loves you—even though there’s this black, jagged splinter in my mind that constantly reminds me this couldn’t possibly be true.
“Meel,” he said when he came into my room (he’s the only one I’d ever let call me that in a million years; it makes me think of the worms that get into flour and ruin it, but not when Dad says it), “I know you’re ready for the big rides. But we’re trying to make sure that Willow has a good time, too.”
Because when Willow’s having a good time, we’re all having a good time. He didn’t have to say it, but I heard it all the same.
“We just want to be a family on vacation,” he said.
I hesitated. “The teacup ride,” I heard myself say.
Dad said he’d go to bat for me, and even though Mom was dead set against it—what if you smacked up against the thick plaster wall of the teacup?—he convinced her that we could whirl around in circles with you wedged between us so that you wouldn’t get hurt. Then he grinned at me, so proud of himself for having negotiated this deal that I didn’t have the heart to tell him I really couldn’t care less about the teacup ride.
The reason it had popped into my head was because, a few years ago, I’d seen a commercial for Disney World on TV. It showed Tinker Bell floating like a mosquito through the Magic Kingdom over the heads of the cheery visitors. There was one family that had two daughters, the same age as you and me, and they were on the Mad Hatter’s teacup ride. I couldn’t take my eyes off them—the older daughter even had brown hair, like I do; and if you squinted, the father looked a lot like Dad. The family seemed so happy it made my stomach hurt to watch it. I knew that the people on the commercial probably weren’t even a real family—that the mom and dad were probably two single actors, that they had most likely met their fake daughters that very morning as they arrived on set to shoot the commercial—but I wanted them to be one. I wanted to believe they were laughing, smiling, even as they were spinning out of control.
• • •
Pick ten strangers and stick them in a room, and ask them which one of us they feel sorrier for—you or me—and we all know who they’ll choose. It’s kind of hard to look past your casts; and the fact that you’re the size of a two-year-old, even though you’re five; and the funny twitch of your hips when you’re healthy enough to walk. I’m not saying that you’ve had it easy. It’s just that I have it worse, because every time I think my life sucks, I look at you and hate myself even more for thinking my life sucks in the first place.
Here’s a snapshot of what it’s like to be me:
Amelia, don’t jump on the bed, you’ll hurt Willow.
Amelia, how many times have I told you not to leave your socks on the floor, because Willow could trip over them?
Amelia, turn off the TV (although I’ve only watched a half hour, and you’ve been staring at it like a zombie for five hours straight).
I know how selfish this makes me sound, but then again, knowing something’s true doesn’t keep you from feeling it. And I may only be twelve, but believe me, that’s long enough to know that our family isn’t the same as other families, and never will be. Case in point: What family packs a whole extra suitcase full of Ace bandages and waterproof casts, just in case? What mom spends days researching the hospitals in Orlando?
It was the day we were leaving, and as Dad loaded up the car, you and I sat at the kitchen table, playing Rock Paper Scissors. “Shoot,” I said, and we both threw scissors. I should have known better; you always threw scissors. “Shoot,” I said again, and this time I threw rock. “Rock breaks scissors,” I said, bumping my fist on top of your hand.
“Careful,” Mom said, even though she was facing in the opposite direction.
“You always win.”
I laughed at you. “That’s because you always throw scissors.”
“Leonardo da Vinci invented the scissors,” you said. You were, in general, full of information no one else knew or cared about, because you read all the time, or surfed the Net, or listened to shows on the History Channel that put me to sleep. It freaked people out, to come across a five-year-old who knew that toilets flush in the key of E-flat or that the oldest word in the English language is town, but Mom said that lots of kids with OI were early readers with advanced verbal skills. I figured it was like a muscle: your brain got used more than the rest of your body, which was always breaking down; no wonder you sounded like a little Einstein.
“Do I have everything?” Mom asked, but she was talking to herself. For the bazillionth time she ran through a checklist. “The letter,” she said, and then she turned to me. “Amelia, we need the doctor’s note.”
It was a letter from Dr. Rosenblad, saying the obvious: that you had OI, that you were treated by him at Children’s Hospital—in case of emergency, which was actually pretty amusing since your breaks were one emergency after another. It was in the glove compartment of the van, next to the registration and the owner’s manual from Toyota, plus a torn map of Massachusetts, a Jiffy Lube receipt, and a piece of gum that had lost its wrapper and grown furry. I’d done the inventory once when my mother was paying for gas.
“If it’s in the van, why can’t you just get it when we drive to the airport?”
“Because I’ll forget,” Mom said as Dad walked in.
“We’re locked and loaded,” he said. “What do you say, Willow? Should we go visit Mickey?”
You gave him a huge grin, as if Mickey Mouse was real and not just some teenage girl wearing a big plastic head for her summer job. “Mickey Mouse’s birthday is November eighteenth,” you announced as he helped you crawl down from the chair. “Amelia beat me at Rock Paper Scissors.”
“That’s because you always throw scissors,” Dad said.
Mom frowned over her list one last time. “Sean, did you pack the Motrin?”
“And the camera?”
“Shoot, I took it out and left it on the dresser upstairs—” He turned to me. “Sweetie, can you grab it while I put Willow in the car?”
I nodded and ran upstairs. When I came down, camera in hand, Mom was standing alone in the kitchen turning in a slow circle, as if she didn’t know what to do without Willow by her side. She shut off the lights and locked the front door, and I bounded over to the van. I handed the camera to Dad and buckled myself in beside your car seat, and let myself admit that, as dorky as it was to be twelve years old and excited about Disney World, I was. I was thinking about sunshine and Disney songs and monorails, and not at all about the letter from Dr. Rosenblad.
Which means that everything that happened was my fault.
• • •
We didn’t even make it to the stupid teacups. By the time our flight landed and we got to the hotel, it was late afternoon. We drove to the theme park and had just walked onto Main Street, U.S.A.—Cinderella’s Castle in full view—when the perfect storm hit. You said you were hungry, and we turned into an old-time ice-cream parlor. Dad stood in line holding your hand while Mom brought napkins over to the table where I was sitting. “Look,” I said, pointing out Goofy pumping the hand of a screaming toddler. At exactly the same moment that Mom let one napkin flutter to the ground and Dad let go of your hand to take out his wallet, you hurried to the window to see what I wanted to show you, and you slipped on the tiny paper square.
We all watched it in slow motion, the way your legs simply gave out from underneath you, so that you sat down hard on your bottom. You looked up at us, and the whites of your eyes flashed blue, the way they always do when you break.
It was almost like the people at Disney World had been expecting this to happen. No sooner had Mom told the man scooping ice cream that you’d broken your leg than two men from their medical facility came with a stretcher. With Mom giving orders, the way she always does around doctors, they managed to get you onto it. You weren’t crying, but then, you hardly ever did when you broke something. Once, I had fractured my pinkie playing tetherball at school and I couldn’t stop freaking out when it turned bright red and blew up like a balloon, but you didn’t even cry the time you broke your arm right through the skin.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” I whispered, as they lifted up the stretcher so that it suddenly grew wheels.
You were biting your lower lip, and you nodded.
There was an ambulance waiting for us when we got to the Disney World gate. I took one last look at Main Street, U.S.A., at the top of the metal cone that housed Space Mountain, at the kids who were running in instead of going out, and then I crawled into the car that someone had arranged so Dad and I could follow you and Mom to the hospital.
It was weird, going to an emergency room that wasn’t our usual one. Everyone at our local hospital knew you, and the doctors all listened to what Mom told them. Here, though, nobody was paying any attention to her. They said this could be not one but two femur fractures, and that might mean internal bleeding. Mom went into the examination room with you for the X-ray, which left Dad and me sitting on green plastic chairs in a waiting room. “I’m sorry, Meel,” he said, and I just shrugged. “Maybe it’ll be an easy one, and we can go back to the park tomorrow.” There had been a man in a black suit at Disney World who told my father that we would be comped, whatever that meant, if we wanted to return another day.
It was Saturday night, and the people coming into the emergency room were much more interesting than the TV program that was playing. There were two kids who looked like they were old enough to be in college, both bleeding from the same spot on their foreheads and laughing every time they looked at each other. There was an old man wearing sequined pants and holding the right side of his stomach, and a girl who spoke only Spanish and was carrying screaming twin babies.
Suddenly, Mom burst out of the double doors to the right, with a nurse running after her and another woman in a skinny pin-striped skirt and red high heels. “The letter,” she cried. “Sean, what did you do with it?”
“What letter?” Dad asked, but I already knew what she was talking about, and just like that, I thought I might throw up.
“Mrs. O’Keefe,” the woman said, “please. Let’s do this somewhere more private.”
She touched Mom’s arm, and—well, the only way I can really describe it is that Mom just folded in half. We were led to a room with a tattered red couch and a little oval table and fake flowers in a vase. There was a picture on the wall of two pandas, and I stared at it while the woman in the skinny skirt—she said her name was Donna Roman, and she was from the Department of Children and Families—talked to our parents. “Dr. Rice contacted us because he has some concerns about the injuries to Willow,” she said. “Bowing in her arm and X-rays indicate that this wasn’t her first break?”
“Willow’s got osteogenesis imperfecta,” Dad said.
“I already told her,” Mom said. “She didn’t listen.”
“Without a physician’s statement, we have to look into this further. It’s just protocol, to protect children—”
“I’d like to protect my child,” Mom said, her voice sharp as a razor. “I’d like you to let me get back in there so I can do just that.”
“Dr. Rice is an expert—”
“If he was an expert, then he’d know I was telling the truth,” Mom shot back.
“From what I understand, Dr. Rice is trying to reach your daughter’s physician,” Donna Roman said. “But since it’s Saturday night, he’s having trouble making contact. So in the meantime, I’d like to get you to sign releases that will allow us to do a full examination on Willow—a full bone scan and neurological exam—and in the meantime, we can talk a little bit.”
“The last thing Willow needs is more testing—“Mom said.
“Look, Ms. Roman,” Dad interrupted. “I’m a police officer. You can’t really believe I’d lie to you?”
“I’ve already spoken to your wife, Mr. O’Keefe, and I’m going to want to speak to you, too . . . but first I’d like to talk to Willow’s sister.”
My mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out of it. Mom was staring at me as if she were trying to do ESP, and I looked down at the floor until I saw those red high heels stop in front of me. “You must be Amelia,” she said, and I nodded. “Why don’t we take a walk?”
As we left, a police officer who looked like Dad did when he went to work stepped into the doorway. “Split them up,” Donna Roman said, and he nodded. Then she took me to the candy machine at the far end of the hallway. “What would you like? Me, I’m a chocolate fiend, but maybe you’re more of a potato chip girl?”
She was so much nicer to me when my parents weren’t sitting there—I immediately pointed to a Snickers bar, figuring that I’d better take advantage of this while I could. “I guess this isn’t quite what you’d hoped your vacation would be?” she said, and I shook my head. “Has this happened to Willow before?”
“Yeah. She breaks bones a lot.”
For someone who was supposed to be smart, this woman sure didn’t seem it. How do anyone’s bones break? “She falls down, I guess. Or gets hit by something.”
“She gets hit by something?” Donna Roman repeated. “Or do you mean someone?”
There had been one time in nursery school when a kid had run into you on the playground. You were pretty gifted at ducking and weaving, but that day, you hadn’t been fast enough. “Well,” I said, “sometimes that happens, too.”
“Who was with Willow when she got hurt this time, Amelia?”
I thought back to the ice-cream counter, to Dad, holding your hand. “My father.”
Her mouth flattened. She fed coins into another machine, and out popped a bottled water. She twisted the cap. I wanted her to offer it to me, but I was too embarrassed to ask.
“Was he upset?”
I thought of my father’s face as we sped off toward the hospital following the ambulance. Of his fists, balanced on his thighs as we waited for word about Willow’s latest break. “Yeah—really upset.”
“Do you think he did this because he was angry at Willow?”
Donna Roman knelt down so that she was staring me in the eye. “Amelia,” she said, “you can tell me what really happened. I’ll make sure he doesn’t hurt you.”
Suddenly, I realized what she thought I’d meant. “My dad wasn’t mad at Willow,” I said. “He didn’t hit her. It was an accident!”
“Accidents like that don’t have to happen.”
“No—you don’t understand—it’s because of Willow—”
“Nothing kids do justifies abuse,” Donna Roman muttered under her breath, but I could hear her loud and clear. By now she was walking back toward the room where my parents were, and even though I was yelling, trying to get her to hear me, she wasn’t listening. “Mr. and Mrs. O’Keefe,” she said, “we’re putting your children into protective custody.”
“Why don’t we just go down to the station to talk?” the officer was saying to Dad.
Mom threw her arms around me. “Protective custody? What does that mean?”
With a firm hand—and the help of the police officer—Donna Roman tried to peel her away from me. “We’re just keeping the children safe until we can get this all cleared up. Willow will be here overnight.” She started to steer me out of the room, but I grabbed at the doorframe.
“Amelia?” my mother said, frantic. “What did you say?”
“I tried to tell her the truth!”
“Where are you taking my daughter?”
“Mom!” I shrieked, and I reached for her.
“Come on, sweetheart,” Donna Roman said, and she pulled at my hands until I had to let go, until I was being dragged out of the hospital kicking and screaming. I did this for five minutes, until I went totally numb. Until I understood why you didn’t cry, even though it hurt: there are kinds of pain you couldn’t speak out loud.
• • •
I’d seen and heard the words foster home before, in books that I read and television programs I watched. I figured that they were for orphans and inner-city kids, kids whose parents were drug dealers—not girls like me who lived in nice houses and got plenty of Christmas presents and never went to sleep hungry. As it turned out, though, Mrs. Ward, who ran this temporary foster home, could have been an ordinary mom. I guess she had been one, judging from the photos that plastered every surface like wallpaper. She met us at the door wearing a red bathrobe and slippers that looked like pink pigs. “You must be Amelia,” she said, and she opened the door a little wider.
I was expecting a posse of kids, but it turned out that I was the only one staying with Mrs. Ward. She took me into the kitchen, which smelled like dishwashing detergent and boiled noodles. She set a glass of milk and a stack of Oreo cookies in front of me. “You’re probably starving,” she said, and even though I was, I shook my head. I didn’t want to take anything from her; it felt like giving in.
My bedroom had a dresser, a small bed, and a comforter with cherries printed all over it. There was a television and a remote. My parents would never let me have a television in my room; my mother said it was the Root of All Evil. I told Mrs. Ward that, and she laughed. “Maybe so,” she said, “but then again, sometimes The Simpsons are the best medicine.” She opened a drawer and took out a clean towel and a nightgown that was a couple of sizes too big. I wondered where it had come from. I wondered how long the last girl who’d worn it had slept in this bed.
“I’m right down the hall if you need me,” Mrs. Ward said. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
“How long,” I managed, the first words I had said out loud in this house, “do I have to be here?”
Mrs. Ward smiled sadly. “I can’t say, Amelia.”
“Are my parents . . . are they in a foster home, too?”
She hesitated. “Something like that.”
“I want to see Willow.”
“First thing tomorrow,” Mrs. Ward said. “We’ll go up to the hospital. How’s that?”
I nodded. I wanted to believe her, so bad. With this promise tucked into my arms like my stuffed moose at home, I could sleep through the night. I could convince myself that everything was bound to get better.
I lay down, and tried to remember the useless bits of information you’d rattle off before we went to sleep, when I was always telling you to just shut up already: Frogs have to close their eyes to swallow. One pencil can draw a line thirty-five miles long. Cleveland, spelled backward, is DNA level C.
I was starting to see why you carried those stupid facts like other kids dragged around security blankets—if I repeated them over and over, it almost made me feel better. I just wasn’t sure if that was because it helped to know something, when the rest of my life seemed to be a big question mark, or because it reminded me of you.
I was still hungry, or empty, I couldn’t tell which. After Mrs. Ward had gone to her own bedroom, I tiptoed out of bed. I turned the light on in the hallway and went down to the kitchen. There, I opened up the refrigerator and let the light and cold fall over my bare feet. I stared at lunch meat, sealed into plastic packages; at a jumble of apples and peaches in a bin; at cartons of orange juice and milk lined up like soldiers. When I thought I heard a creak upstairs, I grabbed whatever I could: a loaf of bread, a Tupperware of cooked spaghetti, a handful of those Oreos. I ran back to my room and closed the door, spread my treasure out on the sheets in front of me.
At first, it was just the Oreos. But then my stomach rumbled and I ate all the spaghetti—with my fingers, because I had no fork. I had a piece of bread and another and then another, and before I knew it only the plastic wrapper was left. What is wrong with me? I thought, catching my reflection in the mirror. Who eats a whole loaf of bread? The outside of me was disgusting enough—boring brown hair that frizzed with crummy weather, eyes too far apart, that crooked front tooth, enough fat to muffin-top my jeans—but the inside of me was even worse. I pictured it as a big black hole, like the kind we learned about in science last year, that sucks everything into its center. A vacuum of nothingness, my teacher had called it.
Everything that had ever been good and kind in me, everything people imagined me to be, had been poisoned by the part of me that had wished, in the darkest crack of the night, that I could have a different family. The real me was a disgusting person who imagined a life where you had never been born. The real me had watched you being loaded into an ambulance and had let myself wish, for a half a second, that I could stay behind at Disney World. The real me was a bottomless soul who could eat a whole loaf of bread in ten minutes and still have room for more.
I hated myself.
I could not tell you what made me go into the bathroom that was attached to my room—wallpaper spotted with pink roses, shaped soaps curled in dishes next to the sink—and stick my finger down my throat. Maybe it was because I could feel the toxic stuff seeping into my bloodstream, and I wanted it out. Maybe it was punishment. Maybe it was because I wanted to control one part of me that had been uncontrollable, so the rest of me would fall into line. Rats can’t throw up, you’d told me once; it popped into my head now. With one hand holding up my hair, I vomited into the toilet until I was flushed and sweating and empty and relieved to learn that, yes, I could do this one thing right, even if it made me feel worse than I had before. With my stomach cinching and bile bitter on the back of my tongue, I felt horrible—but this time there was a physical reason I could point to.
Weak and wobbly, I stumbled back to my borrowed bed and reached for the television remote. My eyes felt like sandpaper and my throat ached, but I could not fall asleep. Instead I flipped through the cable channels, through home decorating shows and cartoons and late-night talk shows and Iron Chef cooking contests. It was on Nick at Nite, twenty-two minutes into The Dick Van Dyke Show, that the old Disney World commercial came on—like a joke, a tease, a warning. It felt like a punch in the gut: there was Tinker Bell, there were the happy people; there was the family that could have been us on the teacup ride.
What if my parents never came back?
What if you didn’t get better?
What if I had to stay here forever?
When I started to sob, I stuffed the corner of the pillow deep into my mouth so Mrs. Ward wouldn’t hear. I hit the mute button on the television remote, and I watched the family at Disney World going round in circles.
Handle with Care
Every expectant parent will tell you that they don’t want a perfect baby, just a healthy one. Charlotte and Sean O’Keefe would have asked for a healthy baby, too, if they’d been given the choice. Instead, their lives are made up of sleepless nights, mounting bills, the pitying stares of “luckier” parents, and maybe worst of all, the what-ifs. What if their child had been born healthy? But it’s all worth it because Willow is, funny as it seems, perfect. She’s smart as a whip, on her way to being as pretty as her mother, kind, brave, and for a five-year-old an unexpectedly deep source of wisdom. Willow is Willow, in sickness and in health.
Everything changes, though, after a series of events forces Charlotte and her husband to confront the most serious what-ifs of all. What if Charlotte had known earlier of Willow’s illness? What if things could have been different? What if their beloved Willow had never been born? To do Willow justice, Charlotte must ask herself these questions and one more. What constitutes a valuable life?
Emotionally riveting and profoundly moving, Handle with Care is an unforgettable novel about the fragility of life and the lengths we will go to protect it.
Author Jodi Picoult Reveals Her Favorite TV show
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Reading Group Guide
Another heart-wrenching, controversial novel by Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care introduces Willow, a smart and charming five-year-old who was born with a brittle bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta. Over her lifetime, Willow will have hundreds of broken bones. Her mother, Charlotte, will do anything to give Willow the best life possible—even if she has to say under oath that Willow never should have been born. In pursuing a wrongful birth suit against her obstetrician (and best friend for nearly a decade), Charlotte is willing to put everything on the line in hopes of gaining the financial means necessary to take care of her daughter. Picoult constructs an emotionally complex novel, weaving tender and poignant moments into a difficult story of suffering and sacrifice. Charged with thought-provoking questions about medical ethics, morality, parenting, and honesty, Handle with Care asks just how far we would go to care for the ones we love.
Questions for Discussion
1. Charlotte and Sean are faced with a v see more