For roughly six months — from about eighteen months old until about two years old — Sammi was a normal toddler. She did normal toddler things, had normal toddler colds, slept like a normal toddler. We moved from one house to another, and she adjusted as toddlers do — haltingly, in spurts of joy and regressive frustration. She and her older sister, now both on two feet and walking, hand in hand, moved through the world as a little team. They explored our new home, finding the places they could inhabit and climb, staring out new windows onto an unfamiliar street. I, hausfrau and telecommuting consultant, bustled around in fits of unpacking and putting-away.
We began getting a box of vegetables every week from a farm. I learned to cook kohlrabi. It was the very picture of domestic cliche. I saw us in the Paul Simon song “Beautiful,” singing to myself, “Back in the house, family of four, two doing the laundry and two on the kitchen floor.”
This could work, I thought. This could be ok.
The shoe was waiting to drop, however. Regular struggle steals more than the moments in which it pushes us; it steals the innocence of all moments before and after. That summer when I set up house, learned to cook, anticipated Ronni’s kindergarten year and toilet-trained Sammi — that was another tease, another prelude like my easy pregnancy. Something sinister was always coming. Is always coming.
Sammi’s ears were perforated by tiny tubes — common among children now, she’d had them placed the same day that her doctor had discovered her double aortic arch. It meant that infection didn’t sit, festering, in her ears when she got a cold. It either drained into sinuses or, sometimes, out of the tubes and onto her pillow, leaving a puddle of ooze smeared across her face and in her hair as she slept. Once, I arrived at her child care to find her still asleep, the ooze soaked through her mesh cot and dripping on the floor below her. I took her to the pediatrician on-call — not our beloved regular doctor, but a cranky older man who’d seen everything.
“It’s earwax,” he said, when I described how I’d found her.
“But it was green,” I explained, “and a little orange.”
“Not an infection,” he declared.
We went home. The next day, her face was swollen and she had a fever. I called our pediatrician, who prescribed ear drops, oral antibiotics, rest, fluids.
This scene began to repeat itself until, ostensibly, the tubes fell out or became useless. Infections began to collect in her sinuses on a regular basis.
Her pediatrician mentioned adenoid surgery offhand. An aside. Maybe. For later. If this didn’t improve. Also tonsillectomy. Maybe.
David and I knew, the minute that the words “adenoids” and “tonsils” released themselves into our orbit, that Sammi would have them out. We saw it coming and waited for it, impatiently, like a train terribly late but utterly expected to arrive: she’d have them out eventually. The pediatrician had a magic number, and that was three. Sammi needed to have three sinus infections, and then we would return to the otolaryngologist for tonsil/adenoid assessment. There was no doubt she would have three infections, and so after the first, we secretly hoped that the next two colds would end up there. Colds became fevers became sinus infections became antibiotic stomach issues. The autumn and winter filled themselves with her misery, head down on a large cushion on our living room floor, watching tv limply.
When the otolaryngologist examined her in February of 2008, he used the words “impressive” to describe her tonsils. When she opened her mouth, he said, “Oh my lord.” The tonsils and adenoids came out in mid-March, her fifth experience with general anesthesia. Her airway issues interfered with her recovery from the anesthesia, forcing us to stay overnight in the hospital with her. A family member visited and observed, from the foot of the bed, Sammi propped against her pillows watching cartoons.
“Dora!” Sammi croaked, squeaky and hoarse at once. She clapped.
That family member burst into tears.
I could not understand what was wrong, and asked her. She said, “It’s just so hard to see her like this!”
Like this?, I thought. Happy to watch cartoons in bed? Eating a popsicle? This, I thought, is the best it gets. This is alive. This is another round of anesthesia over, another defective part of her gone. This is a damn party.
I am on guard. The perfect moments — children playing in a living room of empty boxes, summer squash sauteing on the stove, medicine that works, surgery that doesn’t kill my child — the perfect moments are always before or after something else. Since Sammi was born, I have lived every experience partly in reflection and anticipation, asking myself how I will appreciate or regret it later or how it compares to the moments before.
It’s a hoarding, truly. I am collecting my time with my children, categorizing it, weighing it, blessing and cursing it and setting it up on display in my head for assessment. The through line: are you appreciating this?
Well? Am I?