Expressway: A boy's illness puts Halloween in perspective

Nick Portugal surrounded by his family. From left,

Nick Portugal surrounded by his family. From left, his sister, Stephanie, 9; father Pedro; mother Carol; and his brother, Michael, 14. (Oct. 13, 2013) (Credit: Roberto Gonzalez)

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I used to love Halloween. I wasn't one of those adults who dressed up in expensive costumes; nor was I Martha Stewart filling handmade goody bags with candy corn for children in Pooh costumes. But the spectacle of the holiday is entertaining, with its Celtic origins, and the specter of ghosts and zombies lurking about the night before All Saints Day. I love the theatrical Goth vibe, and houses decorated with spider webs and ghoulish pumpkins. And what kid doesn't like free candy?

I recall cold Halloweens when I was growing up in the 1970s. My older sister and I were so disappointed when we had to wear heavy coats after painstakingly selecting princess or witch costumes at Roosevelt Field mall. After lugging pillowcases through the streets of Westbury, we spilled our loot onto the kitchen table. I traded my Smarties and Sweet Tarts for her gum and 3 Musketeers.

As an adult in the '90s, I accompanied my ninja-dressed niece and nephews around their Syosset neighborhood. Later, I went with my own children. I pulled a wagon with plastic pumpkins -- and coats, because it was so warm (lucky them).


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But I eventually became bored of schlepping through neighborhoods, avoiding barking dogs who charged doors or consoling my children when they came down a driveway and said, "No one's home."

Last year, my kids were 14, 12 and 10, and I announced weeks in advance, "That's it. I'm done with Halloween. This will be my last one."

Then superstorm Sandy hit two days before Halloween. We huddled at our friend Carol Portugal's house in Syosset. She was among the few Long Islanders who never lost electricity. She and her husband, Pedro, opened their doors to dozens of friends, neighbors and strangers. They offered hot showers, delicious meals and even took our kids trick-or-treating at the Broadway Mall in Hicksville.

Early December brought another shock. The Portugals' second son, Nick, then 12, was diagnosed with leukemia. He began chemotherapy at Cohen's Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, and four days later was transferred to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. He was hospitalized for most of about three months and endured radiation. It has been a difficult year for the Portugals, with frequent visits to the emergency room when Nick ran a fever in the middle of the night. In May and June, Carol drove him to Sloan-Kettering every day for injections. Doctors helped the family win an appeal to have Pedro's health insurance pay for the expensive medication.

Nick continues chemotherapy. His immune system is shaky, so he must avoid other children. But his prognosis is good. Syosset public schools have been sending a teacher to tutor him 10 hours a week. Carol and Pedro hope he can return to classes in the spring.

This year, even amid their struggle, the Portugals are hosting a Hallo-ween party at Syosset's American Legion hall to thank friends, neighbors and strangers who have helped them with kindnesses such as cooking, laundry, help with homework and rides to the hospital.

So who am I to declare no more Halloween? Even though Nick cannot attend, we can celebrate his progress with his family. There is probably no better way to celebrate life than the holiday rituals that keep us steady on our paths.

Reader Mary Ellen Walsh lives in Syosset.

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