When Polly was born and we were told of her Down syndrome, almost immediately we were bombarded with possible health threats. She’s had her heart tested, her eyes, her ears, her thyroid, her spine. At two months old, she had to lay on a gurney after drinking a chalky liquid out of her bottle and get pictures taken of her digestive track. During Polly’s first days, I fought my imagination. I imagined her sick, I imagined her plagued with heart disease, taking pills, and going to various specialists for check-ups for the rest of her life.
A few days ago I took Polly to an ophthalmology appointment at Children’s Memorial Hospital. We had been there, on the same floor even, a week earlier to see the Ear Nose Throat specialist. I am thankful that we have a world renowned hospital ten minutes down the street. But, the first time we went to Children’s, I was a bit scared. I was scared of seeing kids that were sick. Not just sick kids, but really, really sick kids. I was sad that my daughter had an appointment there.
The first time we went to the hospital I looked down at the ground a lot, I tiptoed. I was preoccupied with location. I found our floor, signed in and picked out a quiet spot to wait for our turn.
The second time, the ophthalmology time, I was a veteran. Polly seemed more comfortable too. She was talking her baby talk, waving at people who passed us, pointing at the sun and the trees swaying in the wind.
A woman held the door for us as we came out of the parking garage. I thanked her as I glimpsed at her child, bundled up in a stroller. The little girl’s eyes were the color of chocolate. She looked calm, and very sad. Then I noticed that her forehead was enlarged and raised. I noticed that the lower part of her face, from her nose down, looked typical, but that the upper half was elongated and slightly puffed up. I did not want to see this little girl sad. I did not want to see her sick.
Something deep inside me shifted when I met the gaze of that little girl, like someone had put a quarter in my slot and made a selection. In an effort to make their lives better, I immediately became a cross between Vanna White and Santa Claus. I batted my eyes, commented on the little girl; what beautiful eyes, what a big girl, how sweet. The mother thanked me with a tired smile and started to move across the street. I, in my jukebox mode, hurried to catch up with her, and proceeded to talk, and talk, and talk until we got into the building. She said goodbye and I cheerfully bellowed out my sing-songy farewell.
I liked this new me, it felt right. I wanted people to see that I belonged there at the hospital. That I was OK with "sick". I decided to take my show on the road, all the way up to the fourth floor. I was a veteran, after all. I could bring a little brightness to someone else’s day.
It surprised me to see the mother and daughter in the ophthalmology waiting room. I smiled hugely and plunked myself down beside this little family who really, I think, wanted to be left alone. But the mother was gracious. She made small talk with me as I asked her question after question about her little girl. I asked basic things like her name, her age, is she a good sleeper?
There was another little girl in the waiting room. She was just two months old. I noticed her right away because her little head was full of jet black hair. It stood on end. Zoya had hair like that as a newborn. So I flung some of my goofy love on to her and her mother.
When their name was called, the mother stopped as she passed by me. She told me that her little one had Down syndrome and that she was so grateful to see Polly today in the waiting room. The mom looked tired. I looked over at Polly who was throwing toys and cackling. Her pony tail was falling out and she still had some vegetable beef baby food on her cheeks from lunch. My ideas of her living a sickly life flashed before my eyes.
The baby had a feeding tube in her nose. The mother went on to say that heart surgery is scheduled for early January. Some of our friends who have kids with Down syndrome have been through feeding tubes and heart surgery. I've heard of child after child championing heart surgeries, getting stronger, and through Early Intervention getting past tube feedings. This thought process really stepped up my new act as I congratulated the mother and gushed on and on about her beautiful daughter. The whole waiting room watched my performance.
I came to Children’s hospital with some deep, hidden feeling that Polly belonged in a place for sick kids. But Polly is not sick. She is healthy, she is hearty, she is vocal and strong. She does have some health concerns, but they are being managed with medicine and therapy. And even if she were sick, I would not think of her as sick. I would think of her as mine, just as the mother of the girl with sad eyes and the mother of the new baby do. Those who work at the hospital probably don't think of the kids there as sick; they think of them by name.
Having snapped out of my euphoric, annoying parent mode, I slumped in the car as I drove down to the exit of the dark parking garage. I was crying. I was tired. And I was thankful for children’s hospital.