She’s ok, I thought, looking at her on the couch with her water bottle and her picked-at bowl of green jello. She’s ok and she will be ok. She’s ok and she will be ok. She’s-ok-and-she-will-be-ok, she-will-be-ok, she-will-be-ok, she-will-be-ok…
Parents like me, whose children have been through medical scares or ongoing health-related issues, often talk about the long-term anxiety that follows. Certainly in the immediate aftermath — even once the drama is months behind us — the expectation that we’ll worry more about our children is palpable. After my daughter Sammi’s last major surgery, the teachers and administrators in her school were incredibly kind and as careful as they could be to accommodate her healing, even in ways that might have been fussier than necessary for her but were utterly crucial for me and my comfort level. On major milestones — when she was allowed to return to recess, when she ate her first sandwich after years of a damaged esophagus, and on the anniversaries of the surgery that healed her, friends have cheered and celebrated with me, remembered and sighed in relief at my side.
But now it has been three-and-a-half years since the biggest legitimate worries subsided. There can be no mistaking her vitality. While there were years when even strangers could look at my daughter and suspect something was not quite right, now the most they might notice is that she’s slightly shorter than her classmates. I have little on which to base my worry these days, except for history and, I must admit, mild post-traumatic stress.
This summer, I did two things with my daughter that would have deeply worried me before. The first was an international, intercontinental trip — eight hours on an airplane and a jam-packed tourism schedule reminiscent of Chevy Chase’s European Vacation movie. As we fed both our children sustenance-level, no-frills breakfasts and walked them many miles a day, I occasionally studied my little one’s face for signs that she was running out of steam. Had she eaten enough at lunch? do we have granola bars? should I make her eat one? As these thoughts would wash over me from the primal, crisis-parenting brain center that had become imprinted in her early years, I would consciously force myself to look with the eyes of our current reality.
The truth was that, days before we left, I noticed that the temperatures where we were traveling would be cooler than we’d experienced since the spring. I pulled out long pants and long-sleeved shirts for Sammi to try on, and we discovered that she’d outgrown nearly all of them. Her strong shoulder pulled the shirts up at the bottom, revealing a flat but lightly-padded stomach and requiring us to race to the store the day before our trip to buy her all new shirts. The pants I could never imagine on her legs — outgrown by her older sister what seemed like moments ago — fit her perfectly, and she strutted onto the airplane in style and comfort. She’d grown, and I hadn’t even had to beg her to eat.
And so we made it through the entire trip without her ever flagging from hunger, without my having to encourage her to eat enough. The worst complaining was from sore feet, well-earned. One night, she and I took a long walk in search of take-out dinner in Amsterdam, and she inexplicably found a Mexican restaurant, where we bought her what she claimed was the best burrito she’d ever had. As long as her forearm and almost twice as wide, the burrito was gone by the end of the next day’s breakfast.
A few years ago, a few days of any extra impediment to eating would have set her back, shrunk her tiny stomach, and kept her in the vicious cycle of hunger, discomfort, food-refusal, hysteria, forced-feeding by her anxious mother. She hadn’t learned, a few years ago, what hunger was supposed to feel like and what relieving hunger fully could do for her. Both the physical healing brought to her by that last surgery and the maturity gained by more years on earth have taught her those lessons that nature easily teaches other children.
A few years ago, I would have left her teeth crooked forever rather than risk a few days when she couldn’t chew, but because of the growth evidenced in part by the burrito, when we returned home, still fighting jet lag, I took her to the orthodontist, who covered her teeth in brackets and wires and two shades of bright blue rubber bands.
The first night, she sobbed with frustration — her teeth aching, the brackets shredding the inside of her cheeks and her fingers still unskilled at the easy placement of dental wax. At bedtime, her screams reached me from three floors above, and a part of my psyche reacted as though we were together still in the bathroom of her hospital room, chest tubes dangling out of her as she stood in agony, begging for me to help her. Her pain from the braces, I knew, was not the same — but my instincts reacted differently.
I sprinted up the stairs to her, only to find her sitting in front of her mirror in tears, trying to get the wax onto the back bracket. Something in me took in her healthy body, our changed circumstances, the padding created by pounds, inches, and years, and I felt something shift.
I wasn’t as doting, as fussy, or as anxious as I had been when confronted with those screams. I knew school was approaching in mere days, and she’d need to manage this herself soon. And also: I knew she could.
“You are ok,” I said, “and you will be ok.”
And then I taught her to manage the wax herself, because although we are both breakable, we are also far stronger than we were before.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by Kristi of FindingNinee.com. This week’s sentence is “It’s back to school time, and I feel…”