The tiles in the bathroom look like an optical illusion. They seem to move, a small and continuous wave, the solid floor undulating in front of me. I know there is a reason for the design, even though looking at it makes me both nauseated and irrationally angry. The corner the wave moves around acts as a barrier, guiding the water from the open shower back down towards the drain so the toilet doesn’t get flooded, so it doesn’t flow out underneath the door.
I’m in the bathroom at in the pediatric ICU at the floating children’s hospital, exhausted and staring in the bathroom mirror while letting the water run. It’s 9 PM; I’ve been at a hospital with Lucy for fourteen hours. She’d had a cough recently; no fever, not acting different or anything. I have been having trouble with allergies, and since she sounded the same as I did, passed it off as the lovely effects of post-nasal drip. That morning, there was something in the way she was breathing that I didn’t like. She sort of slept in, and when she woke up, she was very cuddly and quiet while I changed her diaper. That’s not my girl, I thought. She seemed like she breathing hard after I’d laid her down to chang her; I lifted her, pressing my ear to her back. I thought I heard wheezing, and the rate of her breaths was too fast for my comfort. I tossed some clothes on her and sat her on the couch while I grabbed a couple diapers and refilled my coffee. We were out the door within five minutes of deciding to go.
It has been years since I worked as a paramedic and teched a call; I feel like I remember enough to make me a parent than has a strange continuum of “Oh, shit,” to “Nah, you’re fine.” I certainly remember how long kids can compensate, and how quickly they can tank. Something just didn’t feel right about this; I had zero compunction about throwing her in the car for the 10 minutes to the hospital. She needed an ER, I felt, but it wasn’t so imminent that I was going to call an ambulance.
The emergency room was empty; they had just a few patients overnight. Within an hour, the doctor had seen us and gave a likely diagnosis of bronchiolitis, but they were going to test for Covid, RSV, flu, and get a chest X-ray just to rule out the scarier things. The doctor said she had some concern about a small pneumonia she may have heard, or it may have been noise she was making, and they wanted to take a look. By this point, Lucy is laying quietly in the bed, far more still than I have ever seen her. I may have been hoping for bronchiolitis, but I was not convinced. She became much more animated when it came time to get swabbed; I held her tightly while they tickled her brain for the Covid test.
They took my tiny kid on the full-size hospital bed to the X-ray. She looked just a little scared, but she charmed everyone who passed by; this brightly dressed, dark-eyed little kid just dwarfed in the white sheets on the big bed. When we got into the room, two techs came to help me try to hold Lucy upright against the hard surface of the X-ray plates. If you have ever tried to wrestle a cat into a costume, or perhaps a wolverine into a bathtub, that’s about how it went. I, the least sympathetic parent when my kid gets shots, came close to crying while holding my child’s arms up in the air, her face pressed against the hard plastic. She screamed throughout, and I tried to comfort myself knowing her lungs were working well enough for that.
Back in the room, a couple nurses came in. Lucy was exhausted from the Great Battle of X-rays, and was just resting in my lap. I hugged her tight and the nurses performed some sort of magic, getting an IV in her arm before she even figured out that she was being held down again. It took a couple minutes to get her arm wrapped so she couldn’t pull it out, but then, all was quiet again. I pulled out my work computer, packed from the night before for work, and put Youtube videos of puppies on to keep her relaxed and happy.
The doctor came in, her face showing care with a touch of concern. Lucy not only had pneumonia, but RSV as well. She was negative for both flu and Covid, thankfully, but it was serious enough that they were looking to transfer her to a children’s unit. RSV had been going around, oddly, a breakout in the summer months. Lucy actually happened to be in the ED the day the story was out on NPR. They staff were looking for a bed and we would be transported as soon as that happened. I nodded along; I felt better that she was going to be watched, because her breathing still wasn’t getting better, though it wasn’t getting worse.
Someone brought some graham crackers and milk for her, and she perked up a bit with those. She just never seemed herself; I couldn’t put my finger on it. Tension was slowly rising with every hour passing. Thanks to Covid, I knew visitors were out of the question, and being on my phone meant not paying as close attention as I wanted to her.
About five hours after showing up at the ER, the ambulance arrived for transport. I was a bit taken aback that she had a full team: medic, EMT, and pediatric nurse. They tucked Lucy into the little adjustable harness used on the stretcher, and I grabbed the bag of stuff my sister had dropped off with triage. Lucy looked happier, but was not as excited as I had hoped to be going in the big truck. Everything about her was so subdued.
We got to the hospital in Boston, and I realized that the only time Lucy had been in an elevator was when she had been in the NICU in Vermont. She was wide-eyed, watching the doors open and shut. Up on the floor, just as they had on the way to X-ray, the nurses and techs all exclaimed over the tiny cute kiddo on the big stretcher. My throat clutched when they wheeled her up to the doors of her room.
If you’ve never seen what the hospitals use for beds for kids, there’s a few option, depending on their size. Lucy had been so tiny, she’d stayed in the bassinet style while in the NICU. For this, her bed reminded me of the narrow cribs that held too many kids in orphanages. The bars on the side could slide up and down, with little doors outside them, but with all the rails up it looks like a tiny baby jail, covered by tented, sterile plastic.
We were right outside the nurses’ station and we had the last room in the inn; we were actually in the pediatric ICU, because that was the quickest available bed. The nurses and doctor were in quickly; I got her changed while they wrapped the pulse oximeter around her big toe, covered her foot a sock, and wrapped that up with tape so she couldn’t get it off. Stickers were changed out for different set for the new cardiac monitor, and we were given the plan: start antibiotics and monitor a bit, possibly the night.
So that’s what we did. Lucy loved the delicious, medicinal taste of youth, amoxicillin; one day she will marvel at its odd nostalgia for a better time, when it meant that your parent was there making you feel better when you were sick, and maybe they’d make you chicken soup if you took your dose.
In the chair next to the baby jail, my composure started to crack, very slowly. I felt both alone and watched; like everyone was waiting to see which way this kid would go, whether she’d bounce, or end up needing more significant intervention. And really, they were; she wasn’t able to verbally tell us anything, all we had to go on were what we could see and what the monitor told us, which depended on her stillness. I remember sitting in the NICU, the magnesium still working its way out of my body; the hormones pinging around wildly. I’d watch in terror as the numbers would drop when Lucy wasn’t sure how to eat and breathe at the same time, or sleep and breathe. The NICU experience was as good as such things can be; incredible attentive and compassionate staff, moments of stark fear with long stretches of awe at the “perpetual motion baby” in the bassinette. Hawthorne and I took turns feeding her impossibly small amounts of breastmilk. Hawthorne was there.
It came over me slowly, a rising tide rather than a single hard wave. I wasn’t scared so much as I was angry. Lucy was exactly where she needed to be, in excellent care; safe, with super-qualified people to help her, just like she was in the NICU. But unlike that, I was alone. Hawthorne had been by my side, often quite literally, for the four-week endeavor of bringing Lucy into this world and home. Hawthorne should be here for this.
I had a moment where I thought, damn, how could I want them here to suffer through this? How selfish am I?
But you know something? I don’t care if it is selfish. For once in my life, I’m OK with being selfish.
This solo mom thing is hard as shit. Sitting in a hospital with a sick kid as a solo mom, even more so. I didn’t want to be alone. If Hawthorne was still here, I’d have them – to hold on to, to admit when I was scared, to be able to take five minutes to break. I would have been able to run down and get coffee, or use the bathroom without calling a nurse over. I mean, I had help; my sister and her sweetie stepped in so I didn’t have to worry about my car, or the dog, or how to get a change of clothes. They took care of all that, and I’m grateful.
But dammit, Hawthorne should have been there. We had handled so much in our time together; so much death and loss and grief. Family, friends, strangers, patients, coworkers. Lucy was certainly far away from Death’s door, but what happened to “in sickness and in health?” Where the fuck are you for this, H? I couldn’t stop thinking.
So there I stood, in the PICU patient/family bathroom, watching the tiles undulate in perfect stillness. My body hurt from sitting in uncomfortable chairs all day, usually with 23 lbs of sick cuddly kiddo on my lap. I’d be sleeping on the same chair, pulled out flat. Where are you for this?
Lucy slept poorly, but her oxygen never dipped low enough to alarm. I was awake every half hour or so, watching her breathe. Where were you to sit awake with me for hours, eyes trained on the minute rise and fall of our baby’s back?
By the time she woke up, Lucy was already on the mend. The night had been the peak, it seemed; by the time she eagerly took her third dose of antibiotics, she was much closer to herself. I got a video of her popping up in the crib, laughing, and looking over the bars. That’s what had been missing.; her laughter. I think it’s the only day I’ve known without it since she started. Where were you to offer me your handkerchief for the tears of relief that welled up?
We were discharged a few hours later, after Lucy was literally running around the room, the cords for the heart monitor and pulse oximeter trailing behind her. 9 more days of the antibiotics, some extra rest this weekend and Monday off, and she’d be right as rain.
By the time I post next, it will have been a full year since they died. Everything continues to change, both that which we expect and that we don’t. We have moved across state lines in a pandemic, starting a new job and daycare and meeting new people. We have a new political administration; there are vaccines and variants, new Olympians and catastrophic storms. Where were you for that?
Summer is loosening her grip as the scent of cinnamon begins to overtake the entrance to the grocery store. Grief is still my familiar; anger isn’t as distant as I had thought, but comes and goes without so much as an acknowledgment of their whereabouts. I watch the city skyline grow small in my sister’s rearview mirror as she takes us home. My eyes are closing against the overwhelming sun, and before I doze off, again I think, they should have been here.