It's one of those wide-sided carrier bags, a foot and a half high, with sit-up-and-beg twine handles. This one is stuffed full of pharmacy medications. Holding the bag on her knees is Tina, a 13-year-old girl about to be discharged. She's shaking and exhausted.
Tina has defied odds that have held her in intensive care for weeks: silly odds, studded with zeroes. Steroids, tubes and monitors threaded her to her mattress. But once her immune system showed up again, not without their help, they buggered off. Today her dad, a single parent, has wheeled her in to say farewell to us. I say to Tina:
"Oh, my sainted aunt!"
"Whaaaaatt? Say that again!"
I nod at the bag:
"You really have to take all of those?"
"Yeah. But say what you just said again, and in that accent! 'Sainted aunt'? "
"Better yet, I'll write it in marker on your bag."
So I get busy with the fruit-scent pens. Her dad hands me a Sharpie to underscore the words that sound Especially English. I'm just pleased that the immobile figure I saw in the ICU now has a slurp of familiar teen animus about it again. The contrast is a privilege to see, and I feel relief that I (at least) saw it in this order. She's on the mend.
My colleagues and I meet a lot of families with sick kids. We work at a center where these folks are neither right at the bedside, nor at home. We operate in the spaces between those two poles, and get glimpses of what pediatric illness and injury does to families of all kinds.
For a start, it can defy the order of things in their lives. CEOs used to being in control of everything are, overnight, not in charge of this . Timid moms ordinarily so disinclined to say "Boo!" to a goose that they'd rather die, suddenly find themselves advocating ferociously for their child to agencies and insurance companies: getting right in their faces, spittle flecking the floor. Such a mom said to me: "I'm not making friends, but making friends isn't my job. My son's my job."
Some days, after writing this blog about my family, I hurry straight to work. (Oh, shit, forgot to make myself sandwiches again. Cafeteria ahoy!) Then I'm right in the mix of a ton of other clans. To get to my office, I jog down the corridor where cellphone reception happens to be best for families. Half a dozen calls are being made. All different. All the same. The middle-distant stare out towards the evergreens; spare hand wrapped across the chest and under the armpit of the phone-holding hand; a muttered "We will, as soon as we know anything... let's cross that bridge... no, thanks, just the mail and the plants. Bless." Bless hangs there.
Each family's elasticity is tried, often to the utmost. Hopefully it holds. Relatives and friends pitch in from odd corners. New alliances are made with sweet shock: boozy cousin Mike coordinates the meal drive with brand-spanking sobriety, or those jerks at work raise $4K in a week.
Sometimes, of course, it doesn't work out as well. Not immediately, at least, and not without a lot of anguish. But what is awesome, again and again, is watching families who have been tipped into this sinkhole of uncertainty find their own way to the surface again. They usually need a bunch of help to nudge them back there. Frankly, any family can do with all the helping hands it can get.
In the evening, on my way back down the passage, a parent is on the phone again: "Nope, the big tests won't be back until tomorrow... of course we will, mom. Soon as. And in the fridge you'll find the sack lunch he was supposed to take to school today: you'd better give it to the dogs."