One day in July

July 13,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

This week marks another anniversary--I told you July was a roller coaster month for us, didn't I? Five years ago, on July 12th, our baby T had surgery to correct her metopic craniosynostosis--a birth defect she was born with. Scott and I stood in a very sterile, cold, purgatorial-type room at about 6:30 a.m. waiting for the word that it was time to hand over T. for the surgery. She'd been up since 4:00 a.m., poor thing, and I hadn't been allowed to nurse her, or even give her the tiniest sip of water. She had ceased being fussy at that point and was dozing, fitfully, in Scott's arms. Her plastic surgeon came in--a man about our age so scrubbed and disinfected that you just couldn't imagine a single germ on his body anywhere. He had a clipboard with him and papers to sign. I signed first and looked down briefly at the page and saw the words: craniectomy with lateral orbital advancement and I felt sick. I knew well--intellectually--what the surgery would entail, but the words seemed suddenly barbaric, discordant with the sight of my dozing 6-month old, in a ridiculously large hospital shirt, who had giggled and chattered after her bath only the night before. And then it was time. I walked her into the operating room, holding her to my chest. There was nothing reassuring about the place, no sign of warmth and comfort. I watched them put the mask over her crying mouth, watched her little fists ball up in fear and surprise and then go limp and I was ushered out, away, leaving my heart, my child, behind. After the surgery relatives clapped us on the backs and hugged us and proclaimed, It's over! It's over! And it was, but Scott and I will always share the horror of that time--the raw surreal numbness of handing over our baby to scalpels and drills and IVs and pain. We have sketched into us the memory of that day; we hover over her a little more than we should, perhaps; marvel at her accomplishments a little more, protect her just a little more neurotically than we should. She's fine now, she really is. But I think when you go through something like that with a child--when you lose them for seven hours to a major surgery, and spend days wishing away IV lines and needles and pain medication, you can be forgiven for keeping your child's rocky start in life always in your mind--boxed up, under lock and key in some vaulted corner of your mind, but there all the same. When Scott comes to bed at night, and if T. happens to be there (she's not supposed to be--we're working on this) I see him lean over her in the dark, while she lies between us. We whisper our I love yous to each other over her, joke about how much space she takes up now that she's five. We lean in and kiss goodnight and settle into sleep, our bodies around her, protecting her, supplanting what had been.