We’re in the big waiting room of the neurology outpatient center.
Welcome to Neurology and Neurosurgery
I imagine high school interns made the bulletin boards for a service project. No amount of glitter letters from the Oriental Trading Company is going to cheer this place up.
It’s only 9:30 but the place is already packed. I forgot my breast pump in the car. Shit. Jim has already driven away with the other kids. Just realizing I am without it, I feel engorged. One more thing. One more thing.
No time for that now, I have to check in. Last night while half-watching 60 Minutes I suspiciously printed out the QR code receipt for pre-check-in. “Simply present this at the kiosk to confirm your arrival.” How did I know that wouldn’t work the way it was supposed to? The desk staff, as usual, are sweet and courteous, but don’t know a damn thing about the kiosk, and I can tell that their morale is low because of it. I don’t blame them for being resentful of how these machines were installed without warning, so now they are forced to train customers on their mechanical replacements.
Charlie starts to squawk. I am afraid he is going to make a scene. I say quietly, to myself, what kind of genius came up with this kiosk thing?
I text Channell where we are, what to say to the guard to let her up, what to say to the desk in case we are in an exam room when she arrives.
Charlie’s neurosurgeon walks by in scrubs, but he doesn’t see us. A wave of anxiety washes over me. Again.
We are called back for vitals.
Ten minutes later, Channell arrives. I catch myself sending a split-second prayer of gratitude out to the universe for giving me the good fortune of finding a behavioral support person, and friend, like Channell. She is radiant as always, looking like a cross between Mary J Blige and Michelle Obama, her skin glowing like an airbrushed magazine cover, her clothes comfortable, trendy, stylish, and confident. Without saying a word, she pulls out her phone, loads up Rocket Speller, and hands it to the screaming Charlie. He is angry that the guest Wi-Fi at the hospital is slow, and he can’t get the show he wants on his Kindle. Channell and I know this without being told, because Charlie doesn’t remember how to tell us… He greedily grabs the phone and stops screaming.
I look up, and three little girls are sitting in the kid chairs in front of the TV, taking a break from chatting to stare at Charlie with prissy, sour expressions on their faces and cold eyes. The stares come so frequently I rarely even notice them anymore, and don’t care. I wonder what’s wrong with them, or if they are here with a sibling. Is this a follow-up for a one-time-only febrile seizure? Is mom concerned about “staring spells?”
People wonder how I can be so comfortable sharing my life in my speeches, blog and social media. Every day, I am forced to share my most intimate, private, and often humiliating moments in front of the whole world. I submit my tax returns to case workers when I apply for medical assistance, I let a steady stream of Charlie’s therapists, case managers, home health aides and nurse supervisors into my messy home each week. My genetic testing results are blasted all over the world for research studies. I am usually covered in one or more of Charlie’s body fluids, managing a sudden deluge of urine or nosebleed with a good-natured smile. I have lost all sense of privacy. When you have a child with profound and obvious special needs, there is no grieving in private. Everyone can see exactly what you are grieving about, and how you are handling it, everywhere you go. Like being followed by the paparazzi of personal tragedy.
Another little girl, about two years old and impeccably dressed, sits down at the tiny and colorfully painted table and chairs. I look up to her mother and can see that this child is her pride and joy. Rightfully so. The girl’s eyes squint and she is a little unsteady on her feet. She has the unmistakable signs of a child whose morning meds just kicked in. I know that look all too well.
I realize that I’m staring at her, and I wonder if her mother is still at that phase where the stares bother her. I am making it worse. Channell and I both comment on how much we love the little girl’s sparkly shoes. I project all the kindness, softness, and humanity I possibly can to her mother through my smile and gaze.
“You missed vital signs,” I say to Channell, widening my eyes, trying to force levity in my voice, but I am stretching it, and she knows it.
“Oh boy, how did that go?”
“He ripped the head circumference tape measure in half, wouldn’t do height, and waved bye-bye to the blood pressure cuff. But she did get his weight. Not bad.”
She goes along with my decision to pretend I have accepted this as my life, that I am impossibly strong, that I am “giving it to God,” or some other optimistic philosophy that I really want to believe but we both know is complete bullshit on days like today. She smiles wearily and looks down at Charlie, the love all over her face. “Oh Charles, my Charles.”
We look around absentmindedly, grateful for a break in caregiving, however brief.
A father is walking his son “around the block” of the waiting room. If I had to guess I’d say the son is about nine. His gait is off, he seems frail and he has that thing, that aura that’s always so obvious but difficult to put my finger on…he seems to have some sort of cognitive impairment.
I am no better than the other nosy spectators.
They decide to take a break and sit down by his mother. He has a blue Convaid transport chair just like Charlie’s, only newer. I want to commiserate, to ask his mom if she had to go through the rigmarole with the Seating Clinic trying to get that thing approved. The Seating Clinic pretends to be about customized equipment and individualized service, but everybody gets one of the same three chairs, no baskets or other frills unless you need to carry something like oxygen, because insurance won’t pay unless you can prove there’s a medical reason to need a basket. But we are all grateful to tears when we finally receive it. Or maybe just relieved that the tedious process of procuring it is over.
I wonder if the boy, like Charlie, was always this way, or if something catastrophic happened to him as a normally-developing child. I wonder if he has epilepsy like Charlie or something else, like a neuromuscular disease. I wonder if it is degenerative, and if it is, if his parents are also getting the, “You never know, don’t lose hope, one step at a time, we just don’t know, he’s looking really great” line from the doctors.
His parents are also looking around at the other parents, at me and at each other. It’s obvious to me that we are all wondering how we got here. We have a vague look of shock, like we just stepped out of the rubble of a building bombed in a terrorist attack. One minute we were normal moms, shopping at King of Prussia mall and doing Zumba in the church basement. The next…we were in a Facebook group typing words like ‘prognosis’ and ‘epileptologist’ to other parents whose kids have the same catastrophic illness.
The stress of that morning, that year, that decade is written across our weary faces. This morning alone: packing the diaper bag, the feeding supplies, the special cups, the emergency meds, the insurance cards, pre-registering, loading equipment, rehearsing our questions, communicating our schedule with the home health staff, taking off of work, getting them in and out of the car…
My eyes settle on a teenage girl in a wheelchair, talking to her mother, but not in complete sentences. I feel a pang of jealously that they can communicate at all, then realize how wrong it is to compare when clearly our lives, at least today, suck equally.
For some reason, my mind drifts to the time a few years ago that I worked at this very hospital. I was behind the scenes in the offices in the back, and there were doctors and nurses there who didn’t know my personal connection to this world. It was clinic day, and the clinicians were discussing the patients that they were about to see.
“…he was here through the ER six months ago, had an MRI, some inflammation but not enough to cause—“
–“Yup, yup. All negative, but he is very fair-skinned, fair eyes, fair hair and he is a FLK, so he has something”
“What’s a FLK?” I ask, innocently.
“Funny looking kid.”
I would be forced to quit working there because I didn’t have enough vacation days saved up to cover Charlie’s second brain surgery, which took place at that hospital. The irony. Probably just as well.
I watch the doctors and nurses walk by, trying not to make eye contact, glancing at us on occasion, then quickly back down at their clipboards and phones.
I wonder if Charlie is an FLK.
I absorb the energy of sleepless nights and unspeakable choices, broken marriages and ruined careers, a laser beam of doom pointed directly at our lives. A piano over our heads.
The nurse calls us back. I recognize her from when she took care of Charlie in the hospital. I am awash in gratitude and memories.
After the appointment, I check my phone. Jim is in parking level A1. He has both my breast pump and the baby. Redundant, I am thinking.
He has talk radio playing in the car.
They are talking about Trumpcare.