There are so many things I had to refuse her.
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.
The winter turned into years, isolated and treading water.
Then she got older, and her body’s protests came from her digestive system. No chocolate, the doctors said as she coughed and gagged. No oranges. Or tomatoes. She grew slowly, like a redwood tree; we couldn’t see the progress for years. I watched her from every vantage point and learned to spike her food with oil, cream, and butter. I worried my Jewish mother heart into wrung-out puddles over her size and her nearly nonexistent appetite.
When all my worrying brought us to new doctors, they shook their heads harder than the first and said no to even more things. No dairy, they said. No soy, or eggs, or nuts, or wheat. Also: no peace for you, Mom. Hand her over; we’re putting her to sleep and looking at her insides. I paced between the hospital and the school, watched for problems, learned to cook for the diet I called joy-free despite its ample rainbows of fruit and vegetables, its every-variety-of-bean teaching us new flavors.
My mind filled with food. My cabinets filled with strange ideas.
When the final probe led to a solution — technical and frightening – to the problem of my daughter’s and my health-dominated relationship, I was left in mourning for the years we didn’t have.
Yes, I taught her to blow bubbles in the yard, but only between phone calls to the pediatrician.
Yes, I read to her every night, but mostly to calm her down enough to sleep so that she could grow.
Yes, I kissed her little cheeks over and over, but partly, I was checking for fevers, for filled-in flesh, for reassurance that she was still here, that she was staying.
I’ve thought to myself: If only I had those eight years back, untainted, I would spend them like the mothers I watched from the windows and the edges of the class parties and the aisles of the grocery store. I would worry about her never sleeping through the night, learning to read, riding a bicycle. I would get frustrated at the tedium of motherhood, and I would sleep fitfully when she had stomach flu and strep throat. I would fill out school forms and drive to soccer practice. I would tuck warm girls into beds and hold hands crossing the street and make birthday cupcakes.
But in truth, that’s what I did: all those things, the parties and the books, the bicycle and the strep throat, soccer and hand holding and dozens of cupcakes. That, and the hospitals, but that. When I asked my daughter, now fourteen, what she remembers from the years of doctors, she remembers almost nothing. When I ask her about the Dora the Explorer scooter, the rice cereal “cake” from her fifth birthday, the walks to school, she smiles.
“That was fun,” she says.
And it was. Over and over, as we redefined the boundaries of our relationship, the details that impacted our interactions, I look in the rear view mirror and see now all the ways joy permeated everything, even the joy-free diet. We were hunting joy, stalking it, never accepting its defeat. They were eight hard years, but photos don’t lie. There was joy there. Looking back, now I know it.
Nothing should define us completely. Nothing should define years completely.
There was joy.