Sending a baby into cardiac surgery is hard.
I brought Sammi to the hospital that morning in 2006, and she was wearing fleece pajamas covered in frogs. She was 13 months old and had a light layer of soft duck-fluff hair that stuck to my face when I cried, but she had perhaps a word or two in her vocabulary, neither appropriate for anything approaching real communication. She was beautiful and soft, and she smelled wonderful, and I could trace the shape her body made on my torso as she laid there, but had I lost her that day, far more of what I would lose of her was in the future and amorphous. Our experiences together until then were primal still — nursing and holding, touch and smell, fear and love.
It was all uncertain then: who would she be? what was she like when she was not sick? how would her voice sound when she learned to sing?
She was a mystery, yet, and grieving a mystery is still grieving, but it’s fuzzy and intangible. I would never know quite what to miss.
In 2014, sending Sammi into cardiac surgery was another thing altogether. Unlike the first time, now I knew all about what was coming that day — the pre-surgery check-in, the stream of nurses and doctors and aides and forms, the questions and how we’d answer them. I knew the gown she’d wear — Winnie the Pooh, probably, with the terrible paper underwear she hated — and the hour of waiting and watching cartoons, or reading. I knew the waiting room we’d inhabit, and I knew the greasy hashbrowns in the cafeteria that I’d eat, and the feeling of the bags I’d lug, full of her clothes and books and my sweater and my books which I would never read.
But worst of all, this time, I knew Sammi.
She was eight years old. She had two dirty blond braids her sister had done for her, tight so they’d stay in, and a preference for clothing that was not too slippery or too stiff. She only liked to read books that were realistic, funny, and ideally had a male protagonist with a younger sibling. Her favorite movie was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and she could imitate Gus, the father, perfectly. She had my mother’s dark brown eyes, ringed in dark eyelashes, and my pale skin. She hated peanut butter and loved peppermint hot chocolate.
She was funny — throw-your-head-back-and-roar funny, with whip-fast timing and pride in her ability to wreck our composure with it. She was kind. She played soccer, ukulele, and Uno. She had two best girl friends, and with each of them had a secret special language so that, with Celia, she became “Shmammi” and with Sophie, she was “Pammi.”
With me, she was little Shmoo, little blueberry, my Sammi Sunshine. And now I knew her, and if I lost her, more of the things I lost would be in the past, concrete, and tangible.
It was so, so much harder. It was terrible.