No Way Through It But to Do It

kids-and-homework

She is at the kitchen counter, tongue jutted out over her top lip, pencil in an awkward grip, tears rolling down her face.

“There’s so much of this!” she says, between strangled sobs.

I chop carrots, a profile at a counter perpendicular to the one where her science book, notebook, tablet, and half-eaten bowl of cheese crackers are scattered. Her hair is in her eyes, and she keeps angrily tucking it behind her ear. I put down the knife, rinse my hands, wipe them on the back pockets of my jeans, and walk gently and slowly around the edges of the counter. I pull her hair back and wrap it into a quick ponytail, and then I kiss the top of her warm, slightly-sweaty head.

“No way through it but to do it,” I tell her.

She falls forward, her head in her arms, and cries, still gripping the pencil. I rub her back, softly, and rest my cheek on her neck to whisper in her ear, little useless things about getting a drink of water, taking a five minute break, finishing her snack. She growls and rises, determined through tears to get it done.

I straighten and make my way back toward the carrots, noting that her sister is on the couch in the next room, laptop propped on her knees, papers everywhere, water bottle cuddled against her side. She’s absentmindedly eating a package of dried seaweed, listening to music, and occasionally holding her phone up at just the right angle for a photo containing only half her face. She looks up, and I blow her a kiss. She smiles, waves, and catches it.

The battle rages on at the counter.

I wonder what made my two daughters so different: the older one go-with-the-flow, flexible, arched toward satisfaction; and the younger one frustrated, questioning, mourning, her happiness easily won but equally easily lost. Continue Reading…

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Loose Ends

The pensive platform-makers at Girl Meets Voice shared a quote this week that had me nodding at the screen:

It seemed karmic, somehow, that I would read this reflection in the same week when finally, after years of thinking-about-it, I sent away the application for my daughter’s full, unabridged medical records.

The circumstances seemed a little like destiny. One morning, digging my way through several days’ worth of ignored email, I saw a message from the hospital where she’d had all of her treatments, telling me that I needed to complete additional paperwork with her signature if I wanted continued access to the abridged records they keep on their online portal. At age twelve, it seems, they want their patients’ consent for parental access. I clicked on the link to download that form and noticed, on the same page, the link to download a request for full records. Without taking much time to change my mind, I clicked that link, too, and downloaded both forms.

A year ago, I had visited the medical records department of the hospital when I was there to visit a friend’s child. Propelled by a feeling of both excitement and dread, I asked for copies of everything and was told that such a request takes weeks to process, and required the completion of a written request. At that point, dread won, and I walked away without doing anything.

Now, however, it has been more than three years since the surgery that finally liberated my daughter’s esophagus. I no longer hear her cough and wonder if she can’t breathe. I don’t have to make vacation plans around her procedures or whatever strange diet she might be on. She’s slowly, slowly gaining height and weight. The remaining signs in her of a sickly past are limited to the long scar on her back and, perhaps, to a missing inch or two in height.

In the years when we were still in the thick of it, I sat often enough in rooms with doctors that I could ask questions about what they thought and why. At first, they thought it was loose tissue in her larynx that made her breathing so loud. Then, they thought it was the extra arm of her aorta that choked her so tightly. Then, they said it was food intolerances keeping her from eating well and growing. Finally, they found the meandering artery smashing her gullet, and a surgery to move it away changed her trajectory from illness toward robust, glowing health. She seldom talks about it anymore, absent-mindedly eating a bucket of popcorn, a bowl of cherries, an overflowing bowl of pasta.

For me, though, there are a few loose ends. Sometimes I turn a corner and feel them flapping behind me when I hear a nearby baby cough. They tickle my ankles and make me lose my balance for a moment every time I watch my daughter get a vaccination or a blood draw. Mostly, though, they float into my vision when I’m paying medical bills and go to file anything in her huge, bulging folder of insurance paperwork.

They nag at me: why did this go on so long? Why did the doctors who missed her diagnosis disappear and stop returning our calls? What kind of test results went unnoticed, what kind of clues did we miss?

As I begin to flesh out the book-length version of my daughter’s medical mystery, I realize that the experiences alone are not enough. At first, they were all I could stand to share, but without a conclusion drawn from them, they amount to nothing more than a wild story for a cocktail party. After three years, I am ready to tie this package up in twine and to label it in uppercase letters. What will the label say? MISDIAGNOSIS. NEGLIGENCE. APATHY. CORPORATE MEDICINE. FATE. MALPRACTICE. UNSOLVED MYSTERY. RARE. SILOS.

I’m ready to find out.

loose-ends

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Widening the Lens

widening-the-lens

Many years ago, before I had children, I joined the staff of a large nonprofit organization as what I thought would be a relatively insignificant cog in a mighty machine. Instead, I was surprised when my new boss put me in charge of a committee to plan a big redesign of the organization’s enormous web site. I’d never sat on a committee or even attended a committee meeting before, but my boss said it wasn’t hard. I trusted her.

What followed were were months of meetings and planning sessions. We interviewed vendors, discussed budgets, and were deliberate in our choices. We began the nearly inconceivable task of moving tens of thousands of pages of content from one system into another, page by page, which took hundreds and hundreds of hours. For the unappreciated staff members who were responsible for their departments’ pages, I threw “parties” in our training room and fed them cookies while answering their technical questions. During that time, I went home each night to my first baby, who was born in the early stages of the project’s conception and who turned one just before the new site launched.

The launch was an unmitigated disaster.

The staff was thrilled to have it complete, but we had missed a major consideration. Though we had been thorough amongst ourselves, the organization for which we dozens of staff members worked was a professional association. Our members used this web site for their work — for reference, for activism and advocacy, and for their own teaching tools. They were our most important stakeholders — and we hadn’t asked them a thing about the site before it launched, a fact which they — appropriately — did not take well. After an onslaught of angry emails, the director of the organization flew several board members and a dozen other influential general members to our office on a Saturday. I kissed my baby girl and my husband goodbye and went into the office.

I was 28 years old. I had never met a member of this organization before. I had never been to a board meeting. Continue Reading…

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Nevertheless, We Persisted

post-surgery-daughterFebruary is American Heart Month. My social media feed is currently split between political postings and photographs of babies and children with scars I recognize all too well — across the shoulder blade in back or right down the middle in front. Parents and grandparents I’ve met online through our shared journey are posting information about their children’s experiences, their families’ grief or triumph, and ways that their communities can contribute toward better outcomes for anyone born with a congenital heart defect, like my vibrant, finally-healthy daughter Sammi.

These images are unrelenting. They drag me back, every time, away from the image of the grinning, singing girl I kissed goodbye this morning and closer to the sick baby covered in wires and tubes. I negotiate the difference in leaps, then think back on what to say to the parents still in the thick of it. How will they make it to my present-day? 

Of course, the other half of my social media feeds are the political posts — assaults on freedom and confusing conflicts everywhere I turn. Truth is under attack there just as it was when I fought for Sammi’s care. Out of the mess tangling over and over itself in the news, however, came a surprise rallying cry intended to shut down a woman’s resolute message. To anyone who has followed US politics, the censure of Senator Elizabeth Warren by Senator Mitch McConnell is likely memorized by now, but for emphasis and clarity, it’s worth repeating:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

It’s easy to turn this into a rallying cry for women, in general. So often, this is our only path to success, whether we’re discussing the fight for suffrage, land ownership, birth control, or just a seat at the board room table. What many women don’t know, however, is that infuriating as those indignities are, when what is at stake is our children’s lives, persisting is not a choice. It is an instinct. Continue Reading…

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The Gift of No Dessert

Swallow, My Sunshine: Blueberries in a bowl
My daughter pauses on her way to return the jar of honey to the cabinet, angles her body toward the counter, and reaches for her buzzing phone. Absentmindedly, one hand still holding the honey while the other wraps itself around the phone, her gaze travels down to the messages that have come in while we were eating dinner. I wait to see what happens next.

As I suspected, the honey drifts toward the counter, set down as the connection between my eleven-year-old and her new friends from middle school crackles back into existence again. She is absorbed, and I turn back to the sink to finish the dishes. Ten minutes later, I dry the last pot and announce, “Bedtime, kiddo. Up you go.”

“BUT!” she says, loudly, “I was gonna have DESSERT!”

“No time left,” I answer, squeezing her shoulders. “You chose to look at your phone for the last ten minutes. Put the honey away and let’s go upstairs.”

“BUT!” she repeats. “I’m HUNGRY!”

I look at the time and mentally inventory the fridge and pantry for the quickest thing. “There’s no time for regular dessert. You can eat one yogurt squeeze or a handful of blueberries. You have five minutes.”

And then, as she opens the fridge quickly and sighs, I take in her long legs, strong shoulders, and thick hair, and I am grateful for the three hundredth time that five minutes is plenty of time for whichever she chooses. Not so long ago, there would have been neither phone time, nor the choice of fruit, nor the option to begin eating anything with so little time to spare before bedtime.

Not so long ago, my daughter Sammi could barely eat anything in five minutes. Continue Reading…

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