She was sitting on the couch facing me when I opened the door to the apartment. In a deep-cut v-neck t-shirt, beaded necklaces dipping into her cleavage, my roommate asked me why I’d put the ironic knick-knack I loved back on top of the stereo speaker.
“Because I think it’s funny,” I said.
“But you know I hate it,” she answered, her fingernails pressing into her thighs.
“I know,” I answered her, clutching my backpack, “but you do a lot of things that I hate, too, and you don’t seem to care. Why should I?”
“So you put it up there for revenge?!” she asked, still sitting. I watched a patch of red begin to creep up from between her breasts into the v of her shirt.
“Basically, I guess?”
“You know,” she said, rubbing her hand along the knee of her jeans, “I sometimes come home at night when you’re sleeping, and I stand outside the door to your bedroom, and I have to force myself not to come in there and beat the shit out of you in your sleep.”
“You’re crazy,” I answered, staring at the french doors to my room, and then at her neck, which has grown crimson to match her chest. “That’s what a crazy person says.”
Yesterday, my daughter Sammi went under general anesthesia for the nineteenth time.
The surgery was minor compared to some of the others she’s faced, and I wasn’t worried about it going poorly, but the moment I stepped off the elevator into the hospital corridor leading to the Pediatrics ward, I felt something in the air settle on me and seep in. It was familiar, heavy and soft and warm. It had a smell — cleansers covering up disease — and a visible quality like steam just moments before it evaporates completely. I walked through yellowish, dim light, floors and walls an indeterminate shade of grey or green or beige. There’s a haze to the air, and a weight. I felt something gently pushing on the top of my head and my shoulders. Gravity is more powerful on a hospital ward.
Slowly but surely, I’ve added to my knowledge and understanding of how the practice of medicine — and the cultural norms around it — are affecting the humans involved. This isn’t just about the patients but about their families, the doctors and nurses and therapists and receptionists, all the people who form the ladder from illness to healing. I’m grateful that there are so many good stories available and also so much strong, fascinating writing of a more clinical nature. I’ve written about the book-length writing I’ve read in a series of posts I’ve called “What I’m Learning.” I wrote first about Gavin Francis and Jill Bolte Taylor, then about Seth Mnookin and Henry Jay Przybylo, then about Susannah Cahalan, and, last week, about Atul Gawande and Heather Armstrong. The authors range from doctors to patients to researchers. What I was missing in all these stories was a character I could look at, hold up my own hand, and watch her raise hers in the mirror.
I was looking, fruitlessly, for a medical story told by a parent. And this fall, I finally found one.
This summer, as I finished working on the proposal for my memoir, I took breaks to listen to a recording of Anne Lamott’s talk at Book Passage University at 2019. With my kids in school and dinner not planned yet and laundry piling in every hamper, I swallowed hard when she said this:
“What we spent a lot of the class on before was why people couldn’t be expected to write all that much YET, but as soon as the husband retired, as soon as the last kid left high school and moved out, as soon as they move to the Russian River…and we would always say ‘Thank you for sharing. You won’t write then either.'”
Unwittingly, I’ve taken this to heart in the last four years, dragging myself covered with dusty words and moldy habits back into a writing practice. I’m not as disciplined as Anne, who insists we all need an hour a day, but I’ve been solidly thrashing the cobwebs off my voice at least a few times weekly for years now. I’m about to turn forty-five, and to show for my lifetime of writing words, I have a lovely small collection of bylines which you can (*should*) read, a completed memoir manuscript, a completed book proposal (agents, reach out to me, please!), and a few hundred dollars. Continue Reading…
I was newly a mother of two when a doctor – a kind doctor, a thoughtful doctor – told me that my new daughter would almost certainly end up in the hospital with every respiratory infection she got. Not a great idea, he said about twice-a-week daycare. Probably not, he said about baby-and-parent music classes. No, I don’t think so, was his answer to my hopeful questions about baby swimming, a smaller daycare, a playgroup. After two hospitalizations in her first five months, I believed him.
Through that first winter watched through front windows into an empty courtyard or through car windows into big sister’s preschool, my new daughter and I eyed the world with suspicion: me because it contained too many germs and her because nothing in it made her feel quite right. There was no sleep, no break, no time apart for the two of us to learn the beauty of missing each other and being reunited. There was just us, with the world outside the window a mystery.