Our days in the PICU blurred together as the doctors ordered more tests and continued to observe Annie. We relied on our family during this time as we groped through the darkness of unknown illness toward an unwanted future. Our parents, sharing the responsibility of caring for Bill, brought him to see us, and he proved to be the best therapy of all! His presence not only boosted our spirits, but motivated Annie’s recovery as well. When she saw him, she would produce wide (albeit crooked) grins, while weakly reaching for him.
The joy at having Bill at the hospital with us meant that we experienced the pain of separation as he left. At the end of each visit, he would be carried by a family member to the elevator. When he realized I wasn’t accompanying him, he would struggle and reach for me, his cries loud enough to hear as the elevator took him away from me again. I felt excruciatingly disconnected from both of my children, as though my arms were powerless and paralyzed; I was wholly unable to soothe their hurt and fix things.
God, in His ultimate planning, had been busy decades earlier to provide a balm for this pain. My mother frequently updated me with messages and letters she had received with news of people praying for us. One of these people was Aunt Catherine, my grandmother’s sister-in-law. As a young mother, she had experienced the trauma of a child’s critical illness. She had watched helplessly as her bright, energetic two-year old son became ill–and almost died–from encephalitis. She had managed doctors and therapies, and the ugliness and mess of disease as she continued to care for Doug and her three older sons. She, more than any other mother I knew, understood my feelings of helplessness and failure. Our conversations were infrequent and brief, but she always ended them with a comforting, “Oh, I love you, honey.” I was grateful for her acceptance and resolve in the face of trauma, and her successful endurance gave me hope.
Soon, new faces appeared in our corner of the PICU. First, we met Betsy Hockey, a physical therapist who came in to assess Annie and do some exercises with her. Annie was still very weak and sick during Betsy’s first visit. Nevertheless, Betsy talked to her, using soothing tones, and smiled the whole time. She smiled at me, too, and squeezed my shoulder as she left. I was glad to have her caring for Annie. In addition, we met Speech Therapists Davinna Cohen and Monique King. Both women, each in her own way, comforted and challenged Annie to communicate. We watched as they assessed her receptive language, which was intact. They then began working on helping Annie to speak again. I tearfully cornered them one afternoon, pleading them to give me assurance. “I miss talking to my daughter!” I choked. Their knowledge soothed the aching void I felt as I silently begged Annie to talk again. Both women provided their services with immense compassion. They, like Betsy Hockey, seemed to be tailored to fit our family’s needs.
One afternoon, Dr. Bass emerged from the PICU to greet us in the waiting room. “Well,” she announced as our anxious extended family stood in anticipation. “She is MUCHO BETTER-O!” She then told us that we could move later that day to a regular room. We knew this was a cause for much rejoicing, and we were immensely relieved to leave the PICU behind. We settled into our new space, and then enjoyed the best treat of all…Bill came for a visit to the new room. As soon as he entered, Annie sat up independently and hugged him with both arms.
Even though we celebrated our “graduation” from the PICU, we knew that we still had much ahead of us. The doctors were still working hard to determine the cause of Annie’s stroke, which meant more tests and uncertain treatment. In addition, more therapies and medications were being added. As thrilled as we were that she seemed better, fear kept barging in and crowding out our peace of mind. My sister reminded Tom and me to try to go outside during the day to get some fresh air and exercise. “Parents in these circumstances often forget to care for themselves,” she said. She and my mother made sure that we went to the cafeteria for food and also for breaks from the hospital room. Even though I knew I should be eating well, my stomach was in a constant, nauseous knot. The only food that was even slightly appealing was the hospital’s mashed potatoes; it was on those that I subsisted for much of the first weeks in the hospital.
I confessed my potato obsession during a late-night phone conversation with my friend, Juanita Bell Edwards. She is my “first friend,” and we’ve known each other since we were three years old…we’d played in the baby pool together as preschoolers, enjoyed training wheels, trampolines and treehouse sleepovers together. We’d dished about boyfriends and summer jobs. She knew all of my stories…her long-term place in my life gave her the ability to understand my aching heart in a way no other friend could. During Annie’s hospitalization, she called daily, not only to gauge Annie’s progress, but to check on me as well. When I mentioned the potatoes, she chuckled knowingly, and then shared her own story of comfort food…how she and her siblings ate spoonfuls of mashed potatoes right out of the pan in their parents’ kitchen after returning from the hospital the day their father died. “I get it,” she said. “Just don’t worry. You’ll feel better soon.”
Later in that week, I received a card from Juanita, its brightly colored cartoon art a great contrast to the flowery scripted cards I had opened earlier. The outside of the card read, “Life has ups. Life has dips.” And, on the inside of the card: “At least we have potato chips.” Underneath, Juanita had scrawled, “See? I told you potatoes were the ultimate comfort food! Chin up, sweetie. Love, Juanita.”
Life has ups.
Life has dips.
At least we have potato chips…
And good friends.