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.
I’d forgotten that.
Years ago, I was able to stare calmly at Sammi’s healing incision and assess, without wavering, whether it looked more healed than the day before, to wipe the weeping away from the wound and keep singing to her as I did it. I used to watch the plunger of the hypodermic needle and count down the amount of fluid in both my daughters’ vaccines for them. I could peer into their mouths at the bleeding holes left by teeth that just fell out and say not so bad. It was easy and painless for me.
Since Sammi’s cardiac surgery five years ago, though, something strange has happened to my body when it comes to medical challenges or even routine healthcare like shots and blood draws. I feel an odd weakness in my ankles when I watch a needle pierce the skin of my daughters’ arms. It’s worse when they ask me to tell them when the blood draw is almost done. When Sammi had a first surgery for this week’s issue last summer and asked me to look at the incision site, the blood rushed away from my ankles so quickly that I had to reach down and rub at them. The tingling spread to the tops of my feet. I can’t keep it from happening; it’s like nausea but in my ankles, or like I’m falling, but only one part of me.
I know this is a post-traumatic effect from too many years of things being wrong with my daughter’s body, of having to see and consider more parts of her than most parents ever do. I know in my bones that this sensation is not going to hurt me, not going to let me drop to the ground or get worse and travel up to my brain. It’s not a problem with a consequence. It’s just there, all the vitality leaving my ankles, separating my heart from the ground, removing my agency from the situation at hand.
Pay attention to me, says my body. This isn’t normal.
Years ago a woman I know with a daughter who struggled to eat told me she refused to let the doctors give that daughter an endoscopy. “It’s just too scary — general anesthesia!” she told me one afternoon, after I’d spent three years putting my daughter through a dozen of them. Privately, I judged that woman, her fear and her cowardice keeping her daughter from the medical attention she needed. Now, I’m not so sure. She wasn’t wrong to take the decision seriously. Is the lesson of the swirling, draining energy around my ankles that I have too-long normalized scenarios that should be treated with more horror, or more fear, or at least more reverence?
We spent the day after Sammi’s surgery yesterday cramped behind a curtain of the hospital room into which other patients drifted between their own surgeries. Fourteen years ago, she and I spent many nights here in her infancy, back and forth for her idiopathic breathing issues. At the side of her bed this time, I watched tv with her and tried to resist the urge to disconnect her IV and run, her body somehow carried on mine even with its weight making up almost two thirds of my own. I wanted to crawl out of my skin, and I wanted to stay put near the nurses and the medicine and the doctors on call, and I wanted to leave her there and go outside, and I wanted to climb into bed next to her. I wanted her to get better quickly so she could go home and then back to school, and I wanted her to stay small and needy so she’d reach for my hand and ask me for something I could get for her. I wanted in, and I wanted out.
The truth is that we are not built for scalpels and needles to pierce us. This isn’t right, and my sensations are all alarm bells. Unfortunately, these alarm bells sometimes go off during experiences we need to have despite them, and so the cliched advice to “sit with your feelings” applies here. I didn’t need to jump enthusiastically into acceptance, nor away into denial. There’s no jumping involved: just standing in the middle, dark canyons below, sirens blaring, to wait.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by Mardra of MardraSikora.com and Kristi Campbell of FindingNinee.com. The theme this week was “Jump,” with Tim Wright’s photo above as an inspiration.