We both shift in cushioned chairs that fail to bring us comfort. The ceiling rises above us like a place of worship. There is modern wood paneling and a glass wall that welcomes the sun. Beyond the doors, people sit in a patio overwhelmed by trees.
“This is like the Apple Store of hospital waiting rooms,” my husband Kevin says.
I agree. The last hospital waiting room resembled a prison holding cell and wreaked of floor cleaner – the kind that steals your ability to breathe.
Before the age of thirty-five, I had spent one night in a hospital. I was seven. What I knew about hospitals I learned from television. Since my daughter was born four years ago, she has been hospitalized for two open-heart surgeries and six heart catheterizations. Today is number seven.
Just yesterday I explained the procedure to Willa as though it were her first time. The memory of a small child is patchy at best. I wish I could say the same for us. Willa pulled out her plush pink bear. I explained to her how they would insert a needle into her upper leg and send a line to her heart. She asked me for some ribbon and tape. As I spoke, she took the pink satin ribbon and created an IV for bear’s hand and heart leads for his chest – this much she remembers. She took the hoses from her oxygen tank and placed the cannula under bear’s nose. She patted his little furry belly and whispered to him. “Don’t worry Polka Dots, it won’t hurt.”
A big television sits in front of us. The screen is filled with numbers inside colored boxes. I locate Willa’s number. It is in a blue square. Blue means pre-op. We must make it through three color changes to land on purple. Purple means a patient has been moved to a recovery room.
“How long did the last one take?” Kevin asks.
“Two to three hours.”
Everyone in the room scans the screen like we are looking for our lucky numbers on a Keno game board. Kevin sits with his back to it. He prefers not to play. I hold the hospital pager on my lap. The nurse calls down from the operating room to give updates. The front desk stands like an altar at the front of the room. When the phone rings, everyone sits up in anticipation of their pager being the chosen one.
* * *
Three hours pass. The nurse calls down. “She’s doing great. We are just finishing up.”
I smile at Kevin from across the room. He packs up the books we did not read and the devices we used to distract us. We sit with bags on our lap, waiting.
Another hour passes. Willa’s square has not turned purple. The people at the front desk have gone home. Maybe they were responsible for changing the colors?
The waiting room has emptied out. It is ten o’clock at night. The elevator doors open and our cardiologist quickly walks our way. He stops at the entrance of the waiting room and waves us into the hallway. This is never a good thing. There is actually no one left to overhear his words but he doesn’t notice. I feel a prickle run down my shoulders and goose bumps are left in their wake.
I run my hand over the front pocket of my jeans where my beads usually are. I’m not religious. I would say I’m spiritual. I believe there is a force in nature. You are welcome to call that God. Sometimes I do. It is not something I find in a building but something I feel in my bones. Even when things feel hopeless, I know in the end there is some lesson in all of it – even if I’m not ready to listen.
When my grandmother died, we all sat around this small circular table in my grandparent’s kitchen. My grandfather cradled her purse like it was the only piece he had left of her. One by one, he pulled out the contents of her purse and placed them on the table. The smell of spearmint Velamints will always bring the feeling of my grandmother’s arthritic hands holding mine.
Even when she traveled across the country to visit us, my grandmother always located the closest Catholic Church. She didn’t want to miss Sunday mass. She carried a small chain of prayer beads in her purse. They were made of wood and looked ancient. I could imagine all the times her fingers had made their way around them praying. A metal coin picturing the Infant of Prague was attached. She loved the Infant of Prague. I don’t know why. I was too young to ever think to ask her. All the important things I wanted to ask her seemed to occur to me after she was gone.
My grandfather handed the beads to me. When I returned home, I placed them on a statue of the Virgin Mary and her baby – another item my grandmother told me she wanted me to have when she was gone. I never used them. I never had reason to. They served as a sentimental relic that reminded me of my grandmother.
The day after my daughter was born, we went home without her. Her nursery was the NICU. On that day, I took the rosary off the statue and placed them in my pocket. When she was seven days old and taken in for open-heart surgery, I kept them in my pocket even when I slept. When she was seven months old and underwent another one, I did the same. I took them with me during six heart catheterizations over the next four years. But for some reason, I left them home on number seven.
Maybe I got too comfortable? After all, she was going to have her final open-heart surgery in a few weeks and – as my husband put it – “It’s only a heart cath, right? We can do this!”
While they were putting a stent in her heart wall, they saw a little bit of matter hanging off her heart. Then it was gone. When they scanned her brain, they saw where the snowflake landed. It was lodged in the left side of her carotid artery and preventing blood flow to the left side of her brain.
Just hours before, a doctor stood in front of us rattling off all the things that could go wrong. You have to be informed of every possible risk. It’s like preparing you to jump off an airplane with a parachute; for the most part you are safe, but sometimes the parachute doesn’t open. After his long-winded list of possibilities, he told us not to worry. If something does go wrong, they are prepared to fix it. His words made me tear up and he apologized for making me cry.
I turned to my husband who was a little surprised to see me crying at a heart cath. “What was that?” I laughed nervously.
I didn’t want Kevin to think there was anything to my tears. I blamed the doctor for being a little too thorough. I didn’t want him to know that his words felt like a bad omen.
Now something had gone terribly wrong. We were told a world-renowned neurosurgeon – who happened to work out of this hospital – had been called. He was twenty minutes away. All we could do was wait. Time felt still and prickly.
Since the day she was born, we did not have any choice but to trust our doctors. We listened to what modern technology could do for her. She had a possibility to live life like any other kid, but in order to do that, we had to subject her to all the necessary medical procedures.
Just this morning in the hospital, we decorated a mask that was going to be used to put her to sleep. They make pink ones just for little girls. Willa thoughtfully picked out sparkly stickers and characters from shows she knew and placed them carefully on the plastic. Fragrant oils were presented to her. She smelled them one by one and settled on orange. The nurse rubbed the oil inside the mask, inviting her to try it on. “No thanks,” Willa said.
The nurse presented a plastic bag with white scrubs neatly folded inside. Only one parent is allowed in the operating room. “Who gets to wear the bunny suit?”
The head to toe white paper suit swished between my thighs as we wheeled her to the sterile room. I had taken her to operating rooms many times before. The trip was usually brief but this time she refused to put on the mask. Nurses and doctors surrounded us. I was not sure what most of them did.
Time allowed me a good look around the operating room. There were countless tools arranged on paper-lined metal trays. The amount of monitors and machines rivaled a space station. For the first time, the thought of a person having this sort of responsibility terrified me. They had my daughter’s life in their hands. It was my job to convince her to trust them, but I didn’t even know their names.
She was so angry everyone was trying to manipulate her into putting on the mask, she offered her arm and asked for a needle instead. She was familiar with needles, not masks. They surprised her by sticking her in the back of the hand instead of her arm. She screamed through tears, “I didn’t want it there!”
I reminded myself that the next day, she would be home playing with her toys like this never happened. I told her everything would be okay and played with her hair as her eyes fluttered and fought to stay open.
The nurse next to me said, “There was a woman in her twenties in here last week with a heart condition. When she lifted her shirt, she had an EKG tattooed on her torso. When I took a closer look I realized it said in between the lines, ‘this day too shall pass.’”
No better words could have found their way to me. In the bright, metal glare of the operating room, I felt a calm.
This day too shall pass. I kept repeating it in my head as I left the operating room, wiping snot and tears all down the sleeve of the bunny gown. I tore it off, blew my nose in it and threw it away.
* * *
The once vast ceiling of the waiting room was now bearing down on me. The dim lamps cast shapes that appeared like flames against the dark wood paneling. As the clock approached midnight, we sat in silence as though we had been sent to purgatory for reasons we couldn’t quite understand.
My mother is a nurse. When I was growing up, she cared for a teenager whose brain was deprived of blood flow for an extended period of time. He was paralyzed from the neck down and lived in a wheel chair. She fed him through a tube and he communicated by looking at letters on a board my mom held. My mom always treated him like any other kid. But he was not. After seven years, his family let him end his own life through assisted suicide. This was what I knew.
We sat waiting.
“Should I go get your rosary?” Kevin asks.
“No. You can’t leave.”
I had not realized, until this moment, Kevin needed the rosary as much as I did.
The rosary sits on my desk where I work everyday. The little coin on it always catches the afternoon sunlight and demands my attention.
The Infant of Prague was Jesus as a baby. People in a small town outside of Prague knelt at the feet of the statue to pray for unborn children in their bellies. Somehow I felt rubbing the same coin my Grandmother had would channel her devout Catholicism and allow my daughter protection; it was not church that makes one’s prayers heard but their faith in the possibility – or something like that.
It was my direct line to all the women who had passed before me. I envisioned my grandmothers and my great aunts in a world beyond us. All the strong, loving women I grew up with but were now gone. My grandmother used to run her fingertips lightly across my arm to put me to sleep at night. She knew the kind of love a mother has for her child. She would make sure to keep her with me.
We didn’t want to terrify our parents, so we called our closest friends. They are the kind of friends who drop everything and come to hug you in the middle of the night or light candles for you when the distance is too far.
One at a time, Kevin and I found our way to a tiny, quiet chapel at the end of the hall. I filled out a prayer request card and promptly folded it up and stuffed it in my pocket. If my prayer were going to be answered, it would have already been heard.
* * *
The cardiologist appeared before us, no longer wearing the mask of a worried man. They successfully removed the clot from her brain. He pulled out his iPhone and showed us a photo of a petri dish with a tiny flake in a pool of pink liquid. “That is what we removed from her brain.”
We stood in the vacant halls of the hospital corridor in the middle of the night huddled over the phone like a bunch of stoned teenagers. My husband asked if he could have the photo. The cardiologist laughed and tucked his phone deep in his pocket. They re-scanned her brain and could see no serious damage.
We sat back down in the waiting room, relieved. My husband mumbled about promises he made that he now he had to keep. I announced that all the little stuff didn’t matter anymore. We almost lost our lives.
* * *
The next day I sat at Willa’s bedside waiting for her to wake up. The beads were now secure in my pocket. My fingers routinely searched for their shape below the fabric of my jeans.
I don’t know what determines whether we win or lose, but sometimes just a tiny relic can make us feel like we have a chip to play in determining our own fate.
This is a tense, beautifully-explored essay of the inherent terror of a child going through life-threatening surgery. Thank you for this essay, Kim.