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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Let Me Take You There

doorA hundred lifetimes ago, in undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, I studied the ways that tense and perspective change the tone of a story. When it comes to my emotions and my words, I find that tense and perspective are the best tools I have for bringing readers into the story quickly. For example: What happens when I tell this in the past tense — “My daughter could barely breathe” — versus when I tell it in present tense: “My daughter can barely breathe”? What happens when I tell a story in first person (“I was frightened“) versus when I tell them the story in second person (“You will be far colder than one would expect“)?

For me, past tense offers distance. As I write in past tense, I feel separated from the events. I can write without getting too caught up in the moment as I experienced it in real time. I am calm, almost clinical in my descriptions. It reminds me of the unwavering steadiness I’ve been able to construct in moments of real trauma by simply breathing deeply, disassociating from my emotions, and behaving like a soldier on a mission. In past tense, I am a reporter, and even when I report on the raw and furious emotions in our family’s history, it is with a detached, analytical eye.

Present tense is where I get you invested. I am here, in the sun-filled living room, with the baby in my lap who is struggling to breathe. Or, I am lying on the floor of my basement in the cold dark, and I think, for a moment, that I can hear my screaming daughter two floors above me as I sink into the drugged sleep of a woman past the edge of exhaustion. You are watching me in real time. Neither of us knows what comes next. We are both — writer and reader — in my mystery. Continue Reading…

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Doctors Made Mistakes: Now What?

Please watch this, all 21 minutes of it:

This Ted Talk was produced in 2011. While Dr. Goldman was speaking eloquently and so bravely about his humanity as a physician, my daughter Sammi was in kindergarten. That is, she was in kindergarten when she wasn’t on an operating table or in the gastroenterology clinic at our local children’s hospital, being treated for eosinophilic esophagitis, a condition with which, we would learn three years later, she had been misdiagnosed.

Dr. Goldman’s talk gives me hope. My bitterness about the lost and wasted years we spent engaged in the fight against the wrong enemy has not resulted in a lawsuit, not because I am not furious and not because I am not heartbroken and not because I don’t believe we could win. We haven’t sued because Sammi’s doctors are human beings. Continue Reading…

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Unlearning the Body

chocoAfter six weeks on a fat-free diet and a week on a low-fat diet, my eight-year-old daughter Sammi was officially released from all her food restrictions by her cardiothoracic surgery team. Her chylothorax — a leak in the thoracic ducts that process fat — had completely healed.

The two of us had decided to spend the day together in downtown Chicago, starting with a visit to the Hershey Store. After all, it had been nearly two months since she’d had free rein to eat anything she wanted. I thought that surely she would gorge herself on candy while I watched gleefully.

Instead, she nibbled timidly and said, “I’m full for now.”

It was heartbreaking to realize that, as far as she’d come — years of false diagnosis with reflux, then eosinophilic esophagitis, then a revelation that her swallowing problems stemmed from a structural obstruction in her chest, culminating in major cardiac surgery — she still had more hurdles to jump. Of course we couldn’t undo eight years of her experience of eating in one day at the candy store. Why had I been so naive? Continue Reading…

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Gracias, Mil Veces: A Mother’s Day I’ll Never Forget

handheartThere were so many things to which we had to say “no” in the weeks after my 8 year old daughter, Sammi, had major cardiac surgery.

Soccer? Recess on the playground? Gym class? Wii games? No, far too much running and too many opportunities to get hit where her back was freshly stitched together.

Decent-tasting food? No, she had to be on a fat free diet to treat chylothorax.Birthday parties? No, too many off-limits foods and too many germs.

We said no — had to say no —  to almost everything she liked. It was heartbreaking. Still, there was one very wonderful, very life-affirming refuge for her: her third  grade teacher, Andrea Macksood. Continue Reading…

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