The threshold

July 03,2008
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.

I've been putting off scheduling an appointment for some time now. It's been in the back of my mind, but I keep pushing it aside, putting it off. It's not an appointment for me, but for my daughter--a follow-up appointment with her surgeons for the major cranio-facial surgery she had when she was six months old. Time has been marked by appointments with these doctors; at first it was an appointment every two weeks, then every three months, then every six months, then once a year. When she turns five we won't have to check in anymore, thank goodness, and I hope I'll be able to push away the memory of those days into the recesses of my mind.

But this morning I dutifully called the number to schedule her appointment. As I listened to the voice mail options I got flashbacks from the whole experience, as I do every time I walk into that hospital building, or call in to speak with someone there. I smell the soap in the bathroom, see the clinical white of the walls offset by happy colorful paintings meant to make the place seem less foreboding. I see the giant aquarium in the lobby, the fish idly swimming by while so many people come and go in front of them, wrestling with worry and sadness, tragedy, and relief.

L.'s birthday, sadly, will always be inextricably linked with the memory of those difficult days. My daughter had her surgery only six days after L.'s birthday and, that year, only two days after his fourth birthday party. I found an album the other day, stashed on top of our guest room bookcase. It's filled with photos from that summer: T. in her little red and pink ruffled jumper, L. still such a little boy, overburdened even at that small age by worry. My parents and in-laws all came into town to be with us, and help us through that surgery week. The pictures look so normal, really--family gatherings, T. in her grandparents' arms, L. zipping down the slip 'n slide at his party. Yet I will always look at them and know that behind it all was the spectre of that upcoming event, the fear and even horror of that surgery day and the difficult recovery time still fresh in my mind even four years later.

I don't think any parent can ever forget a time when their child was at her most vulnerable: laid open on a table, hospitalized, stitched, or recovering from a serious illness. I know I'll never forget that time in our lives, or the fear I had that my little girl, the person I'd only known for six months, would somehow not make it through, and that those brief six months would be all I'd ever know of her. We can fix so many things as parents, and yet also so little. When you have stood with one foot across that threshold, in that dark place where you are powerless to make it all better, then you can never forget what a gift your children truly are, and how fragile life can be.