When we contemplated moving to Long Island, one of my biggest fears was not having family and friends around if “something bad happened.” As a high anxiety person, I can think of bad things happening while sitting at a pool (a tree branch falling), on a beach (a tsunami or sand cave-in), or in my backyard (sinkhole). So, I obviously gave this quite a bit of thought. Giving up your support structure in the middle of life with kids who get sick and husbands who travel and pipes that burst — well, I didn’t take that lightly. We knew no one. Who would be the emergency contact on our school form?
But we pulled the trigger and moved.
And, of course, the tests began immediately. A daughter with a concussion. Kids with viruses that they lovingly shared. Broken pumps and furnaces. Trips to urgent care. Snow too deep to shovel when your husband is away.
But in between came birthdays and Halloween and living out of boxes and getting those boxes unpacked just in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
And then we hit summer. Someone close diagnosed with cancer. A puppy who was gravely ill with meningitis for a month and nearly died.
And on the very last day of summer, a 5:00 AM wake up call from our 7 year old son crying with complaints of a sore tummy. A tummy that had troubled him all summer. The first step of child illness is to put the patient in your bed and attempt to go back to sleep hoping for a perky smile later in the morning. But morning came and went. He kept complaining. He didn’t want to talk or move or play Minecraft. He seemed clammy and lethargic. By lunchtime, the pain had migrated to his right side.
Emergency room by 1:00.
By 3:00 he had x-rays, bloodwork, and an ultrasound. By 3:30, my husband called and said that my daughter and I needed to come immediately. As we feared, suspected appendicitis.
My 12 year old looked me straight in the eyes as I panicked and cried and got dressed. She told me everything was going to be OK. The child really does become the parent, don’t they?
I really should have taken a shower earlier in the day.
We got to his ER room and as I walked in the surgeons were there and said they were concerned it was something else. Something not appendicitis — which as much as I hated, I at least knew what I was dealing with. I came in to the doctors saying he needed a CT Scan. It could be something else, they said, but they didn’t want to go into those details until we were sure. The options were wait and see, exploratory surgery, or the scan. We opted for the scan and I almost fainted and had to take over half of his bed. Crackers and juice.
Two hours of a hysterically crying little boy. He was so little on that bed. Trying to drink the CT scan juice. Trying to play “I Spy” with me to calm down.
“But Mommy, I can’t calm down. I can’t relax. I’m so scared.”
We waited. He drank. He held every ounce of that disgusting liquid in his sore tummy until the last few seconds of the scan, when he threw it up all over everything. They wheeled him back to his room.
And a doctor, a beautiful doctor, was at our room waiting for us. The results were already back to the ER. She immediately confirmed appendicitis.
I could breathe. But my son could not. The word “surgery” sent his panic even deeper. What do you tell your little man when he says, “Aren’t you scared for me, Mommy? I just want to go home. Please take me home.”
We just hugged and kissed and assured him everything would be OK and tried to be silly and thank goodness they sent us to a private room to wait. Surgery would be around 11 PM that night. The first day of school was supposed to be tomorrow. His sister was supposed to nervous waiting for her first day of junior high — and now she was trying to sing and be silly for her brother and deal with her own fear.
More waiting. As my husband was racing back to the hospital after taking the dog out at home, the nurse told us they were coming for the boy. More panic and tears from my sweet little boy. “Daddy has to get back here. I can’t go without him.” And Daddy ran every red light to do just that.
We wheeled him down. (The staff of a hospital has to be the closest thing we have to angels on Earth. Transport people talking to my son about Star Wars. Anesthesiologists who tell him to imagine he’s going to travel into space tonight. Surgeons who put you at ease the minute they walk in the room with their calm demeanor. Recovery room nurses who stroke your son gently to wake him after surgery so he isn’t scared.)
We get to the OR and confirm what is happening while they mark my son with a Sharpie. They start to give him the happy drugs in his IV. His exhausted body folds as soon as the needle hits the IV. I am thankful that he can close his eyes and turn off his brain. He is surrounded by the two stuffed animals I thought to stick in the bag when I left the house. Cowie and Mr. Quackers would keep him company during surgery. The pillow I brought along would have to stay with me.
And then they wheeled my little boy away.
And I held his pillow tightly as we walked to the waiting room, as we walked to Starbucks to get a drink, as we watched the surgery board with his initials on it, as we waited to hear the noise of the doors slam as our surgeon walked into the empty waiting room at midnight. And he finally walked in. Everything had gone just fine. A very red, inflamed appendix, but no rupture. Straightforward surgery. All of the words I needed to hear.
His little, exhausted body slept for almost two hours before they attempted to really wake him. We had the pleasure of being in the recovery room with a very elderly gentleman who just had brain surgery. His singing and yelling of “Shit! Shit! Shit! Cocksucker! Mother Fucker! Get me out of here!” was enough to make us all laugh in a punch drunk kind of way. An hour or two later, the fact that he was still yelling and was completely alone made us sad. And anxious.
The girl went to our room to sleep, hoping that she might make it to school in the morning (She didn’t). They roused the boy. He woke just enough to go to his room. I stroked his head and told him to sleep as we went over every bump and doorway on the way back to room 40 — marked with his name.
My husband and I sat, shell-shocked, in room 40, listening to beeping monitors and trying to read vital signs that we shouldn’t have been looking at. 5 AM had turned into 1 PM and then 7 PM and then 11 PM and then 2 AM. I also had the sense to stick a bottle of wine in the bag for the hospital. My husband and I drank it. We took deep breaths. We made each other laugh. We reclined in our hospital recliners by 4 AM — he in the adjoining room and me in with the boy. The surgical team came in at 4. Rounds started at 6. I slept for 45 minutes.
The morning brought the realization of the people living on the pediatric floor with sick children who were battling things much worse than an appendix — and all the while, they were still trying to eat and get work done and do laundry in the Ronald McDonald House. We exchanged glances in the hall, sharing the pain that only parents can know.
The morning also brought my boy back to me, who woke up smiling and not in pain. And it brought the realization that we have support. An early visit from my husband’s work colleagues at the hospital. A 7 AM visit from his wonderful pediatrician who came as soon as he got the call from the surgeon. Phone calls and texts from friends. Get well gifts sent to the house. Offers to take the dog out. Another visit from the surgeon who told us we could go home as soon as the boy ate solid food — hopefully that day.
And the morning brought my parents who traveled from Pennsylvania and met us at the hospital to take the girl out for lunch and get her out of the hospital. All was OK. It really was OK.
The afternoon brought us home, and despite missing the first week of school, my boy is back. So today, I am baking his 8th birthday cake thinking about the fact that both 8 years ago and 1 week ago today, I was in the hospital with him. As I say every night at bed time, you are “my world and my everything.” And it’s a hard fact of life that things can change so dramatically in one day.
But I’m relieved to also have the reminder that we have people around us who care. We have friends and support in case “something bad happens.” They are here. They are everywhere. We — and specifically I — can get through what I need to get through. And I am not perfect, but I am strong. I showed up and I held my boy’s hand and told him everything would be OK, even when I wasn’t sure it was.
Happy 8th Birthday, buddy. And a humble thank you to everyone who has helped hold us up during the last year, month, and especially, week.
And here’s our favorite chocolate birthday cake that I’m making. We suggest serving it in pieces cut “as big as your head.”