It’s been two weeks since my daughter first complained to me of stomach pain. In the bustle of our family life, I wanted so badly to believe that she simply had the flu, or a stomach bug, like everyone else around us. I had never seen my daughter that ill, and yet it took nearly 48 hours before we landed where we should have been all along—in the emergency room.
A ruptured appendix is no joke, folks. By the time we realized what was happening, my daughter’s symptoms were so acute that every nick in the pavement between our local hospital and Mass General in Boston shook the ambulance, stabbing my daughter in the gut and me in the heart. I held onto her side, hoping my arm would act like a splint to relieve some of the pain, some of the pressure, some insignificant point in the grander, wide-open unknown.
For two weeks I have been nursing my daughter, lifting her in and out of her bed, on some days helping her to the bathroom every hour and a half through the night, wishing her pain away, only to find it there again the next morning. Some of it has been physical, some of it the pure emotional gravity of setback.
We went home for two days, but landed back at the hospital because of complications that the doctors, at least, were expecting.
Her father has spent the night with her also, giving me some reprieve, allowing me to dive into my own bed and forget, for a short time, what was happening. Still, the emotional weight has not lifted. Instead, it has turned.
When you see your child suffering, the only thing you can do is surrender to those who know best what to do. I have given away my plans for each day, slept in my clothes, forgotten to eat and then eaten too much. I allowed my family to fly in from LA and DC to help me. I learned to ask for what I needed, without filter or fear of being judged.
To stand here and sob because I still can’t really forgive myself for not knowing what was going on with my girl before it was too late.
That last one, though.
In our normal life, except for the morning or two each week when they’re with their father, I spend the first two hours of the day rallying my three children into their routine. Get dressed, brush teeth, eat breakfast, clean up, pack up, review the schedule for the day.
When they’re finally out the door, I settle in to my own day: hunkering down and splitting my time between work and creative projects, and taking care of myself.
Merely hours later, the afternoon routine takes yet more effort. I help my children work through their piano lessons, homework, special projects, social anxieties, and big questions that come from both nowhere and everywhere—questions related to social injustice, war, and why their father and I are not married anymore.
Sometimes, we have fun, especially when half the neighborhood shows up on my doorstep for snacks, and to kick around the loose chocolate chips all over my pantry. I give them free-reign of my house, my couch cushions for fort building, and my backyard for more active roving. This is all part of a solid childhood.
Parenting is a particular art of teaching, wherein you remain flexible, taking in feedback, pushing out love and teaching children how to be good people, all the while wondering if you’re actually being a good person yourself. It takes skill and finesse, and most of all, practice, even though the puzzle is re-cut each year. The syllabus for this kind of teaching, if one were written, would be basic. Health. Education. Kindness. Success of any kind, which children should be able to outline for themselves.
Sometimes, parenting is putting your head down and getting through the day, despite constant interruptions. Sometimes, parenting—especially single parenting—is veiling the minutia, just to get by.
After my daughter’s first surgery following her ruptured appendix, her father and I walked into the recovery room. She was still coming out of anesthesia, her cheeks gaunt, her red lips drawn on top of one another like font serifs.
It struck me then, that despite my attention toward my children each day, my flexibility, my hard-earned skill at both parenting and living my own life, somehow, I had not been able to prevent this. I collapsed under these thoughts, buckling over and holding my head up with two hands, sobbing. I had failed at protecting my daughter from this kind of pain. I had never felt so alone in my life.
In the days to come, her recovery was more difficult, more painful for her and more agonizing for me to watch than I could have imagined. Life cooled down: there was no routine, there was no making of plans.
Caring for a person you love is an intimate thing, and I had not given this kind of nonstop attention to my daughter since she was an infant.
Despite her pain, we found small moments of humor.
When my daughter was too weak to take a shower, I suggested that I hose her down with the sprayer I found in a holster next to the toilet. How courant, I mused to my daughter, that a hospital would offer something like a bidet to its patients, on the pediatric ward, no less. Later, the nurse informed me that the hose was only used to clean the toilet itself, not the patient. We are still laughing: I got it wrong, and—oh, well.
Perhaps most importantly is that my family has been forced to hit the reset button. What is most important? What do we love? Who are we, really, even under such difficult circumstances? How much can one family handle in any given period of time? It seems to me now that there is no limit. With that, oddly, comes endless peace, and a peculiar kind of burrowing, steady joy.