Elle sits at her art table, scribbling color on paper and singing. Her voice is still a little like a frog’s croak; being intubated and on a ventilator is bound to cause some prickliness in that little airway. But other than the hoarseness of her song and the grayish-black stripes of adhesive residue that still cling obstinately to her arms and chest, left over from nearly a week of being attached to IV lines and monitors, the visible remnants of this little girl’s recent harrowing voyage have all but vanished.
I see my little girl, doing normal little girl things and singing normal little girl songs, and my soul is flooded with a tidal wave of emotion. It is a noxious mélange of anxiety and appreciation; it grips my sternum, my lungs and my trachea in a tight fist. I accept its barbed grasp resignedly, wide-eyed, knowing by now that all I can do is wait for it to subside – holding still, like I’m trying not to vomit – until it passes and I can return to “normal,” too.
Moments like these reveal my weakness, in the light of my child’s strength.
Our kids are stronger and more resilient than we – that has been the most transfixing enlightenment I’ve accepted since Elle’s recent brush with death. I don’t want to say that word, death. It sticks like a viscous sickness to the back of my throat whenever I start to say it. So in conversation I substitute words like “scare” and “illness.” I tell and retell the story mechanically. She woke up having a hard time breathing. Croup, I figured. I brought her to the clinic. They put her on oxygen. She improved. We went back home. She got worse. I drove her to Montrose. We walked into the pediatrician’s office, and were promptly escorted to the ER. “Pediatric respiratory distress,” the pediatrician called out when we walked through the doors. She received a nebulizer treatment – albuterol and epinephrine – and seemed greatly improved. I took a picture of her, smiling, sent it to her dad. Told him not to worry. The baby was with Grandma at a hotel. Elle was doing better. They would keep her overnight, just to be sure.
He worried anyway. He drove that night to Montrose, stopping by City Market in the dark to buy her grapes and watermelon.
“Daddy, I knew you would come,” she told him, in whispered, breathy bursts, her little body still struggling to move air through a trachea swollen by what we had by then determined was Influenza A. She’s a tough kid, we agreed. A sick, but tough, kid.
She ate little bites of the watermelon he brought her, her little chest heaving, the effort causing the skin to suck in between her ribs and below her sternum. But she was talking, and eating, and her blood oxygen level was decent. She was a sick little girl, no doubt about that. But she seemed relatively OK.
That’s why the nurses didn’t believe me when she quit breathing.
It’s here that it’s hard to continue telling the story mechanically.
You make me happy, when skies are grey You’ll never know dear, how much I love you…
There are times in a parent’s life when you know you have to be strong, for the sake of your kid. So you try not to gasp when they fall off their bike. You suppress the urge to hover over them, fretfully protective, when they climb high on the ladder at the playground. It is inborn, this compulsion to protect one’s offspring from harm. It is natural, to want desperately to take the hurt away. To want, desperately, to save them from fear.
That’s why it’s so hard to remember looking into my little girl’s wide blue eyes that night. They bored into mine, frantically. Help me, they said.
“HELP HER!” I screamed.
I once watched a mouse shoot into a blazing bonfire. Suicide! I thought, enthralled. Then I watched her emerge, seconds later, clutching a limp, hairless, miniature version of herself between her jaws.
It is instinctual, this compulsion to protect one’s offspring from harm.
I stand in the corner of a cramped, chaotic hospital room. I hear nurses calling for doctors, and then doctors calling for more doctors. She is being given drugs to sedate her. She is being breathed for. She is being intubated. This is what my rational mind registers.
My physical body, meanwhile, was absent from this scene. My physical body was running into a burning conflagration, searching, frantically, arms outstretched. Every cell, neuron, synapse was aflame. My heart was a hard silver ball, thrumming crazily against the inside of my ribs, inciting a chorus of ringing bells and flashing lights like a pinball machine in anarchic overdrive.
But there are times in a parent’s life when you know you have to be strong, for the sake of your kid. So I hugged Craig. Nodded, when a doctor told me they’d be flying us to Denver. Put my cell phone charger and a clean pair of underwear into a bag. Discussed the plan for Baby Emme with my husband, and then my mother. Got into an ambulance, then onto a plane. Then into another ambulance, which sped at 110 miles per hour, lights flashing and sirens blaring, through Denver at 4 a.m. Singing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” into my child’s ear the entire way. Squashing the desire to scream in despair each and every time it rose, like bile, from my womb and into my throat.
Because this was a time that I knew I had to be strong, for the sake of my kid.
Please don’t take my Sunshine away.
But, really, it was my kid who was strong.
It was my kid who fought off the infection that stopped her from breathing. It was my kid who, after three days on a ventilator at the pediatric ICU at The Children’s Hospital in Denver, was back home singing songs and doing art projects less than a week later.
Our family has many people to thank for Elle’s songs and her art projects. The staff at Montrose Memorial Hospital; specifically, Dr. Dreitlin and Dr. Thurston. Montrose Pediatric Associates’ Dr. Suchon, who has continued to support Elle’s (and our) healing process. Kalee Tilli, who drove to Children’s Hospital at 5 a.m. that morning to hug me, then came back hours later with home-baked cookies, lip balm and a toothbrush. Susie Wood, who clothed and bathed Baby Emme that first long day in Denver, and along with Kalee provided me the comfort of longtime friendship when I needed it most.
Chris and Kerry Hudson, who may never know how incredible a comfortable sweater and clean T-shirt feels after a night like that.
My sister-in-law, who flew from Boston that day and who, along with my parents-in-law Ed and Ellen, offered Craig and me indescribable relief by providing warm, safe, and loving arms for Baby Emme throughout the six days her sister spent in the hospital. My stepfather Jim Wells, who left Santa Fe at 3 a.m. to be with us. My family in Denver: Jen, Brian, Alex, Jon, Caryn, John, Pam, and Sherman, who offered us everything we needed while away from home. Our families across the country – from Boston to Taos to North Dakota – whose thoughts and prayers helped us through more than a few rough hours.
And our “family” here at home has been nothing short of amazing. We returned to Telluride to the solace of home-cooked meals courtesy the Auras, Sokolowskis, Greenes, Blounts, Lisa Chism, and the Butcher and the Baker’s Cinda and Megan.
Seth, Marta, Jessica, Gus, and everyone at The Watch – thank you for the support. And to our friends and coworkers on the Telluride Ski Patrol: We are blessed to be a part of such a dynamic, albeit dysfunctional, family. Thank you for the “therapy,” both on and off the mountain.
Thanks is not a big enough word to express my appreciation for my mom, who delivered Emme safely to my arms in Denver despite being tackled by the same malicious virus that put her granddaughter on a ventilator, and is at present doing my laundry and watching my kids so I can write Raising Elle. Nor can I ever describe my gratitude for my husband. Thank you for being strong when I could not.
Thank you, too, to Baby Emme. For smiling when I cried, reminding me of the breathtaking miracle that is parenthood.
Thank you, too, to Elle. For drawing pictures splashed with color and singing songs about sunshine. And for being strong.