Dispatches from Ward 41

Though we’ve been assured that this is a simple surgery, there is still risk involved. Infection, complication, the psychic trauma of seeing your healthy child with a feeding tube and an oxygen tank. On the night before, Moira has already made a name for herself: “Go see the little redhead baby in bed 25 if you need cheering up or a cuddle. That’s a cheeky one.” The surgeon explains the procedure again but with a new wrinkle: if the hole in her diaphragm is especially big, they will patch it with Gore-Tex. Neither of us can help but crack up at the idea, since we associate Gore-Tex with inclement-weather jackets; if there’s a sudden rainstorm in Moira’s lungs, everything under will stay dry.

Private rooms don’t exist on this ward; at least, not for children in Moira’s condition. The last thing you want in an NHS hospital is to NEED a private room. All the evidence I need to draw that conclusion is in the room across from our curtained bedchamber, receiving chemotherapy in germ-proof seclusion at the ripe age of 24 months. I feel ashamed of my terror and fear; this is so simple to fix, and we can go home and never think about it again. What a luxury! And I’m further ashamed when I get annoyed by the noise on the floor–a baby has been screaming for a long time, distracting Moira from settling down. Who am I to be irritated by a little noise? That’s a child in pain or scared, and parents in agony listening. Later, we will be put next to a boy who is never going to get better. Not ever, and he’s been in the hospital since January. Again, we know what’s wrong and how to fix it. What an amazing luxury.

“A parent can stay overnight, but not both of you.” That’s news to us. Nowhere in the info packet did it say that we were limited to one parent on the ward. I set up the folding bed next to Moira’s with Tom’s help while he frets about when to come back in the morning. The nurse who gave him the bad news is busy and distracted, so I motion to the family comfort/kitchen room. “Just keep a low profile and stay in there. Nobody is going to kick you out unless you make trouble.” That lasts fifteen minutes before a sturdy nurse informs him “You don’t need to leave this second, and come back any time, and sorry it’s so arbitrary, but you can’t stay overnight.” We pick 5am as his return time–that’s the cutoff for breastmilk feeding before anesthesia at 9am, after which we know Moira simply won’t allow me to console her if I have to refuse to give her favorite comfort. Tom can give her water until 7am.

Moira struggles when they hold the mask to her face, but this is easier than trying to install an IV while she’s awake. When she finally goes under a minute or so later, I whisper in her ear a few lines from her book. Moira’s book. “Only sleep for a while, for I shall miss my wild child–my wild child called Autumn.”

Under the doctor’s advice we take a walk to the mall during the surgery. We load up on fatty comforts and free wifi at McDonalds, and then go to the DVD store and a Poundland. We fill bags up with children’s movies and loads of toys and extra batteries to donate to the children’s ward play room, as if a positive surgical outcome could be bartered with enough AA batteries and picture books. An hour after we were told it would be over–not long enough to be unreasonable but still long enough to make me nervous–we are summoned back to the ward. The surgery was a straightforward smashing success. No Gore-Tex required.

She sleeps hard the next 20 or so hours. When she’s awake she’s obviously not feeling well but also clearly not in real pain. Fasting has gone from 5am before the surgery and anticipated to continue through 8am the next day. At 2am on Tuesday I have to summon a nurse to get a breast pump and produce 12oz in 15 minutes. I send it home with tom the next day to freeze. One nice thing about being a breastfeeding mother is that the NHS will feed me too–all the wilted bananas in the snack room and hot omelette lunch I can stomach. Moira won’t be allowed anything but milk until we leave. She doesn’t even ask to nurse in the beginning. She only wakes every few hours or so and whimpers until I rub her back, and goes back to sleeping the stone-still sleep of the drugged.

The next three days pass in a blur. They come for my bed at 8:30am, long before I’m actually done needing it. The first day I asked Tom to bring a camping pad with him because there’s nowhere for me to lie down. Moira improves at an exponential pace. It’s awful to see her with cords coming off of her–one in her back for the epidural, one in her foot for IV fluids, a monitor on her other foot, and an extra port in her hand just in case of…something. I ask for it to come out along with her fluid drip, only to have them need to numb her foot and reinsert it “in case something goes wrong with the epidural.” It turns out that method actually isn’t traumatic at all–not nearly as much as holding down your infant’s limbs so they can hold a reeking mask over her face. Too late. Next time. But she improves visibly by the hour, standing up naked during a diaper change to salute the nurses. They applaud.

Tom brings cake every day for us and the nurses. We’re a hit. “I did it so they’ll remember that adorable American baby with the dad who brings cake and take good care of her.” They remember, and they do. They are incredible. I miss Tom, though. Five hours of company out of 24 isn’t enough, but he has to bring Maggie to and from school and take care of her at night. She just isn’t comfortable enough with strangers for an extended babysitter–her overnight stay on Sunday went badly, with a pee strike and sobbing until midnight–and it doesn’t occur to us until the end of the hospital stay that we should have just sucked it up and flown my mother over for the week. Next time. I hope there’s no next time. Let this be it for my poor little girl, who is recovering beautifully but exhausted and stir-crazy.

By Thursday I’m a raving mess, and so is Moira. The constant monitoring for the epidural has landed us directly opposite the nurses’ station, which is the noisiest spot in the hall. Moira is terrified that she might miss some of the party, which leads to us pacing the quieter sections of the ward for four hours. She dozes off around 2am, gets up again at 5:30 for an hour, and I call Tom at 7am and tell him that I didn’t care who he had to wake up, or how many people he had to call, but I didn’t think siblings were allowed to stay long and he needed to get down here before Moira and I both collapsed and I didn’t know how long it would take to discharge us and just find a sitter for Maggie and and and…I ramble on into my Diet Coke. No hot drinks allowed in the ward, and I need a coffee. Moira needs me to have a coffee. That jerkoff kid making earsplitting karate noises because his painkillers are working a little TOO well needs me to have a coffee before I commit an act of violence.

Moira is pronounced perfect and gorgeous and healthy at 9:45. We get verbal discharge instructions, a promise to send us a letter with a date for a follow-up appointment, a fare-the-well from the staff, and are out by 10am.

And that’s it. We’re done. And lucky. And grateful.


The Cave

One of Maggie’s talents/quirks has come up here a lot: her ability to memorize and recall. She’s committed over 100 books, song lyrics, and lines from other media to memory and often pulls that out as conversational contributions. Usually they have some sort of related context, but aren’t quite appropriate. She loves music, though, and one of her activities with Tom is watching music videos and listening to new music together. One song that’s been a hit–I think it’s the strumming sounds–is Mumford and Sons’ “The Cave.”

Told you that to tell you this: the other night she was having a really rough time settling down for bed. She asked to snuggle up with me, but when I tried she pushed and shoved me away. Behavior is communication and Maggie usually has a good reason when she lashes out like that. Her words said “Snuggle” but her body said “This is not working.” So I tried to engage her.

“Honey, let’s try to think about what you need and see if you can tell me. Do you need hugs? [no] Do you need a kiss? [no] Do you need a backrub?”

And then…she busted out of the cave:

“I need freedom now and I need to know how to live my life as it’s meant to be.”

I nearly fell off the bed. Of all times the expression “I need” is uttered in one’s day and in one’s media (I can think of three or four other books that we had read just that day that had “I need” as a central theme), how did she pick that line? That specific line?

“Okay baby. I’ll just lie here quietly until you decide,” I said. After a minute she picked up my hand and wrapped it around her until she was comfortable, and we snuggled.

I texted a friend afterward: “Should I take that as a sign from the universe or just casual inappropriate scripting?”

Friend: “I think you should take that as a sign that Maggie is too cool for this galaxy and that she’s going to be just fine.”

And so I shall.


Moira has surgery on Monday morning, an event that will take us off the grid for the majority of the week. I’ll report back about a week from now on her status. While this surgery isn’t routine, it it also not very complicated.

That hasn’t stopped me from being absolutely stone terrified. I want to write, but everything I come up with on my own is as dark and moody and Full of Feelers as a teenage girl’s poetry notebook that she thinks nobody knows about but they totally do, because hello, she’s 14. Of course she writes about darkness and rhymes “pain” and “insane” and compares her thoughts to the fleeting wings of butterflies.

So that’s where my mind is. Fleeting teenagery angsty butterbrains.

That said, I need to do SOMETHING to distract myself, so I Googled “creative writing prompts” and said “Self, you will write about the first topic you pick.” The first thing I clicked was this:

“Start freewriting with the help of this image: “A melon strolling on two tendrils.” (From a Sylvia Plath poem.)” …I don’t know about y’all, but when trying to call up some sparkly sunshine and light I don’t invoke the memory of Sylvia Plath. Could just be me. Next!

“Write about the most boring day you’ve had, but make it not boring.”

That’s far more promising. I’ll even narrow it down: how I chose a dining room table. If you can make it to the end without your eyes glazing over, do tell me so in the comments.


Something you might have gleaned from past posts of mine is that we tend to skew hippie. No, I don’t mean we actually skewer hippies on stakes; we just tend to be a little crunchy in our habits. Like all stay-at-home-mothers with too much time, too many golden-lit fantasies of raising children with a Waldorf aesthetic, and a PayPal directly linked to Etsy, I read a lot of Soulemama.

Soulemama is natural living blogporn; Martha Stewart gone homesteading rogue with a litter of earthy children and acres of land sprinkled with animals and handcrafted wholesome toys. While I enjoy her blog, I try to take it for what it is–a glossy highlight reel of a life I don’t actually have any real interest in living. What on earth would I do with five children? All my first ideas involve some sort of Roman coliseum recreation and that, to me, says that I should stick with my two. We already know Moira can wrestle.

One post leapt out at me, though–her husband crafted a dining room table built for seven plus their extended families. A harvest table, conveniently finished for Thanksgiving. I became consumed. I didn’t need the five kids or the sheep named after the Brontes or the vintage fabrics, but wouldn’t our family be more wholesome, more bonded, more…Instagrammable (is that a word? it is now) if we had a farm-style dining room table of our very own?

First I decided that we–or rather, Tom–would build one. My beloved hastily nixed that idea. Then I priced local shops. Tom nixed those as well–too costly for furniture that would, in all likelihood, be beaten like a flat woody mule by our children. A friend hipped me to a weekly auction in town–estate sale stuff, some good deals–and I found it.

It was THE TABLE. It had a rustic look, room for six with leaves that I could add on for more space, and a beautiful dark finish. My eyes grew misty as I imagined fancy holiday gatherings, the leaves creaking under the strain of specially cooked carbohydrates; mistier still as I fantasized doing crafts with my children and one day my grandchildren as we all dressed in simple organic linen frocks and hummed “You Are My Sunshine.”

Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t even own any linen. The point is this: this was the table I wanted at the price I needed and I would not be dissuaded. We bid, I won, and I arranged for delivery.

Now might be a good time to remind you newcomers that I can’t see out of my left eye and my depth perception is severely limited. Giving measurements means nothing whatsoever to me. I have almost no spatial reasoning skills at all. Until a geographer friend corrected me, I couldn’t even SPELL “spatial.”

The table arrived with the leaves in.

…Do you know how BIG a 12-seater table is?

It’s massive. It’s enormous. It’s a table for a family who is letting God call the birth control shots. It’s a military barracks table. When I described it to Tom over the phone I told him “I think we’re Quiverfull now. Maybe FLDS. I need a sisterwife and her kids to fill the other half of the table.”

And I couldn’t get the leaves off. At one point I actually became stuck in the gap between the leaf, which had jammed on the runners, and the table as I was trying to use myself as a brace to pop that heavy oaken bastard off. I cursed the idea of farmhouse tables, of happy natural living, and wished I had just gotten some reproduction Pottery Barn nightmare and had done with it.

But it came off and I reduced the table down to a manageable six seats, popped a little tray on there…and you know, it came together. Like The Dude’s carpet, it really ties the room together. It’s turned out to be the center of a lot of our family life–breakfasts, crafts, audiobooks, playgroup lunches, activities with friends, a buffet for parties. So many memories already in just a month’s worth of ownership, and even a few blemishes: “Oh look, that’s where Maggie Sharpie’d her seat.”

Dammit. That hippie homesteading nut in Maine was right. A harvest table is where it’s at, guys.


Hubris, Haddock, and Me

(Yar! There be graphic descriptions of tummy ickiness ahead!)

Some months ago, at a time in my life when I was obviously feeling quite optimistic and spry, Tom mentioned that some friends of his were going to Munich for Oktoberfest. He had been invited, he said, but was not going. He cited Moira’s as-yet-unscheduled surgery and wanting to keep the fall open.

“Not go?!” Cried I, the supportive wife. “Nonsense. You’re going. What a great opportunity. We’ll schedule her surgery afterward.”

“But I have to go away for a six-day work trip the week before. Won’t that be too much alone time?”

“Nonsense!” I cried again. So convinced was I of my prowess as Super-Earth-Mother that I said, nay, insisted that Tom join his fellow lads on a trip that I then dubbed “Bro-Cation.” I had every confidence that I could manage two trips flying solo while also organizing a playgroup or two, several speech therapy appointments, Little Gym baby tumbling for Moira, preschool for Maggie, and keeping a tidy, organized home.

The first week went well enough. Tom emailed me on Thursday with a shopping list for the 30+ person dinner we were hosting the following Monday (I told you we were busy). Thursday night I decided that I was the Grownup-In-Charge, goddammit, so we were going to get some delicious fish ‘n chips takeout.

(Oooh! Plot point! Haddock-shaped hubris!)

That night I read on Facebook that one of my playgroup friends and her ENTIRE family of three kids and Dad had been felled by an especially swift-moving and intense strain of stomach virus. Because I’m nothing if not slow on the uptake, it didn’t register to me that I should be concerned…until the next morning, when I went to get Maggie up for school without putting my contacts in first.

J. Maarten Troost once wrote “There’s nothing like a dead pig in the backyard to help determine the day’s priorities.” And so it also goes when one comes within an inch of sitting in a pile of regurgitated fried food in your toddler’s bed. I knew we were in trouble when I went to pat her hair and the telltale stickiness around her face met my fingers. After twenty years of chronic sinusitis, my sense of smell routinely fails me, which has been both a blessing and a curse along my mothering journey.

Luckily that was the only round for Miss Margaret. Naps, laundry, and a day spent entirely in the living room soon put her right again. Tom came home, spent a few days with us, and the haddock came out of the blankets–of all the special wash-alone handmades on her bed, guess which one she hit? If your answer is “Every damn one, resulting in 5 loads of laundry with one item each,” congratulations. You’ve got a bright future in vomit.

Tom left for Munich the following Sunday, and I was sure we were in the clear. I even made a point of saying to several friends “Yeah, Maggie had it but the rest of us were fine. Went through pretty quickly. No problems at all.”


Needless to say, by the time 6pm on Monday night rolled in, I had been taken down hard. How hard?

Clipped. Flipped. Freakin’ flattened.

I hustled the girls off to bed as fast as I could and assessed the situation. Moira still–STILL–wakes up 3-4 times a night and nurses. There was just no way I could keep down enough water to preserve any sort of milk supply. She was just going to have to drink water from her sippy…and scream. I put on the soothing tones of When Harry Met Sally and let the fever wrack me. When I finally heard Moira do her usual 10pm  siren-cry, it took me a full ten minutes to get up the stairs–I had to keep stopping to revisit my new familiar, Mr. Bucket.

Turns out this time she was crying for a reason, and that reason was covering her entire crib, the wall, and three layers of bedding. But it’s true what they say: mothers, when pressed, can find enormous reserves of strength. In the time it took me to clean her up, clean her bed, and soil yet another towel trying to catch the remains of her dinner, I didn’t even come close to feeling sick.

And now that at least a few of you have run to the phone to make sure your birth control pill prescriptions are current, let me assure you that we made it through the night. Maggie was fed a steady diet of “Mickey’s Clubhouse” the following day and Moira was in disgustingly fine fettle after her brief run-in with the virus. I grimly managed to get through the day, bitterly pining for some magical person to show up at my door with a bottle of Powerade. Tom called from Munich that afternoon to check in:

“How are you? I left the beer hall early this afternoon to see how you are.”

“No! No! Go back and drink! Carry on! Enjoy your vacation. Someone in this family is going to have fun this week, so help me.”

Tom bravely set himself about the task of having fun for all of us, came home a few days later, full of promises to care for the girls all weekend so I could rest, and then promptly fell ill himself. Obviously.

Moral of the story? Never agree to a solo vacation unless YOU are the one taking it. And also? I can survive just about anything…as long as I keep an emergency Powerade in the cabinet.