Monday, August 22, 2005


Sunday morning.

I woke up before anyone else in the house and was thinking virtuous Sunday morning-like thoughts such as I’ll tell Consort and Daughter that I am going to clean out the car before we leave. Then, I can sit in the garage and eat that glazed donut without having to share it.

I drifted past the computer and saw an email from one of my dearest friends, with the subject heading: “A request”. Thinking nothing in particular, I opened the email.

My friends’ six year-old nephew had just been diagnosed with Leukemia and is now facing two years of chemotherapy. The request in the title was that those of us who received this letter would pray for him in whatever way it is we pray. I got up from the office, slid quietly into Daughter’s room, and stroked her sleep-fluffy hair while she slept.

Every thing in my life which is causing me stress right now could clear up and it would be nothing if I was scheduling chemotherapy sessions for Daughter. My kid is healthy. Why am I not grateful for that on a more conscious level? Am I deluding myself into thinking good health is a given in my kid simply because I cannot fathom how I terrified I would be if it weren’t? Part of what allows me to show up for my life every day is the hallucination that I can fix whatever might happen to her. If I give that one up, and admit the truth -- which is that little kids get sick and hurt every day, and it can take a long time for them to get back to normal -- I’ll start trying to stuff her back into the womb.

This is not to say Daughter has never had an emergency situation; I’ve just developed more rigorous standards of what qualifies as an emergency. The first time Daughter choked on food as a baby I had to give her the Heimlich maneuver [Side note: There is something really satisfying about seeing the offending Cheerios fly out of her mouth and halfway across the room. Something akin to “…and STAY out!”]. I was shaking for a half-hour afterwards. The seventh time I had to perform the Heimlich, I was on the phone with Consort. I clamped the phone receiver into my shoulder, grabbed Daughter, did the magic squeeze, and never missed a beat in my anecdote. And no, I wasn’t feeding her radishes, whole hot dogs and hard candy. Daughter choked easily.

Since I had handled this problem before, it couldn’t have been an emergency. If correcting the situation required a skill I learned off of a laminated card at a restaurant, it couldn’t have been an emergency. Daughter was never really at risk, she will live to be 105 and never experience anything more unpleasant than fast-growing cuticles. That’s my delusion. You may borrow it, if you like.

Hell, you can keep it. It was always based on the flawed premise that the universe had agreed to my demand for eternal health and wholeness for my daughter. All the universe ever said was “You get to have a kid, and you will fall madly in love. Later, some stuff will happen; some good, some not so much. We suggest you find something enjoyable in every day you have with her.”

To participate in the world is to gamble and I have to make my peace with that. Here’s an example: Daughter loves gymnastics. She seems to have some ability and might have the physical build for it (genetically, my side of the family should either be gymnasts or work at Disneyland wearing Styrofoam mouse heads). I’m not saying you’ll see her wearing a red, white and blue tracksuit and waving to the crowds during the Opening Ceremonies, but I think it’s good for kids to have something to work for, to accomplish. Also, it makes her tired at bedtime, and I like that.

Anyway, a few months ago, Daughter was taking a class on one side of the gym while a few older girls were practicing floor exercises on the other. One of these older girls, an eleven-year old, fell wrong and broke her arm. I reached 911 first on my cell phone so I got to answer the dispatcher’s questions which, of course, meant crossing the gym and looking at the girl’s condition. The bone in her forearm was sticking out of her skin and she was screaming in terror and pain. She was unaware of the coach comforting her. The ambulance was there in minutes, and the gym slowly got back to something resembling normal. Daughter, along with her classmates, was being kept focused away from the medical drama by her gem of a teacher so I stepped outside, sat on the gymnasium steps and contemplated throwing up. My brain swam with words like fracture, concussion, paralysis.

My first instinct was well, that’s it for Daughter and gymnastics. After a few minutes, though, my nausea and terror abated and I realized my fear of an accident isn’t enough of a reason to cut her off from something she loves. Besides, statistically, the car is a far more dangerous place than a gym, and she has spent the better part of her waking hours in one of those. Twice a week, we walk into the gym, Daughter bounding ahead of me, eager to do something new, preferably airborne. I do my job as a parent, which is to pack my fear into a small locked box and let her find new places to be brave and strong.

But it’s one thing to look at the external world, see how many different ways it could harm your child and find a way to live with that. It’s another to have part of their own body be the enemy. Leukemia isn’t a car barreling towards your kid, where you can push him or her out of the way; it’s a bunch of white blood cells replicating madly and badly. The treatments have gotten a lot smarter and more effective, but the parents of a cancer patient still face an awfully hard ride. This isn’t driving your kid to gymnastics even though you wish she would take up scrapbooking. This is watching your kid get really sick in pursuit of getting better, living with the most basic fear a parent can feel, and still getting breakfast made and the Christmas cards out.

I am sending out a prayer to my friend’s nephew, his parents, his brother and sister. I am sending out a prayer to parents of sick children everywhere.

I am imagining a future where my friend’s nephew, now an adult, sits at the Thanksgiving table and says to his kid ‘You won’t believe this, but Daddy was very sick when he was your age…”, and his child refuses to believe that Daddy was ever anything but strong and perfect. And permanent.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a truly lovely post.

My kid isn't even out of the womb yet, and I already know what you mean about wanting to stick her back in and PROTECT HER from all danger.

Anyway, this post is getting sent out to a whole bunch of friends. thanks for putting it together.

12:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) Someone once said to me that having a child means you are now forever one heartbeat away from annihilation.

2) Since it is easier to ponder the terrifying from a safe remove, we appeal to pop culture, and the finale of Six Feet Under. HUGE Spoiler ahead, please stop reading here. You've been warned. The point of the very very end was this; the notion of "...and they lived happily ever after," which, in fact, the characters all do, to just about the greatest extent life allows, is not the entire story. The rest of the line goes "...and then they died." It is an inescapable fact, and it makes love come with suffering. It means we all have to live in a certain amount of denial in order to get dressed in the morning. And it makes parents the bravest people in the world.

9:27 AM  

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