I nearly let my child die.
There it is—the stark truth, according to my mother’s-guilt brain. It’s been many years since it happened, but this fact has bored into my psyche the way carpenter bees bore into wood, settling there like an egg in a perfect hole inches below the surface. I don’t talk about it with anyone, not even my husband.
This is how it would go if I could reverse time:
My twelve-year-old daughter comes home from the pizza parlor and says “My stomach hurts.” I quiz her like a professional, asking “Where does it hurt?” And even though she says “all over,” I ask more questions and run through a series of tests for appendicitis—despite the fact I have no medical training and only know now, in retrospect, what signs to look for.
I palpate the lower right quadrant of her abdomen, applying hand pressure slowly and gently with a quick release to check for sudden pain in that area. Rebound Tenderness.
“How does this feel?” I ask as I palpate the lower left side of her abdomen, pressing down slowly and gently then releasing quickly to check for sudden pain in the lower right quadrant. The Rovsing’s sign.
I have her lie supine and apply resistance to her knee as she flexes her right hip by raising her leg against the pressure of my hand. If she feels pain, I have her turn and lie on her left side and extend her right leg behind her to check again for increased pain with this movement. The Psoas sign.
Once I finish with any number of these procedures, intuiting the signs of acute appendicitis, I whisk her to the emergency room, where the doctors confirm my suspicion and prep her for surgery to remove the as of yet un-perforated appendix. They catch the appendicitis in the preliminary stages, and using Laparoscopy, they slice into her with a one-inch cut that heals into a barely noticeable sliver of white near her bikini line. She spends at most two nights in the hospital and is back at the gym, working out with her gymnastics team, in a couple of weeks.
Yes, that’s how it would go. Neat and clean and orderly.
This is how it went:
My daughter came home from the pizza parlor two days after recovering from the flu and said “my stomach hurts” to which I asked “where does it hurt?” She said “all over.” I worried I had let her go out too soon after being sick and thought maybe she was having a relapse. I tucked her in and said good night.
She slept until noon and complained about her stomach when she awoke; then she began vomiting. Her temperature was 101 degrees. She had no desire for food, but I made miso broth and herbal tea and encouraged her to drink as much as she could as often as possible so she wouldn’t become dehydrated. She spent two days in bed, getting up occasionally to go to the bathroom or lie on the couch in the living room. On that second day, she said she was feeling better and had relief from the previous stomach pain. But she was weak from the fever and vomiting and continued to rest in bed.
That’s when it happened.
Later that afternoon, I walked into my daughter’s room to check on her while she was sleeping. Her face, normally alabaster in complexion, had a sallow pallor. I knew this look. I had seen it once before. It was the look of death. Five years earlier, my friend, Teri, who had cancer, had this same sallow skin tone when she refused to go to the hospital to be treated for a common infection. We called the ambulance anyway. The doctors at the emergency room said that if we hadn’t brought Teri in, the infection, not the cancer, would have killed her. As I looked at my daughter’s face, this memory flitted across my consciousness like a butterfly alighting on a flower, only to rise into the air and flutter away.
That was the moment. The omen I did not heed.
I checked on my daughter, and on my way out, I closed the door behind me—unaware that her appendix had ruptured, giving her temporary relief from the pain. As she lay in her bed that afternoon, infectious organisms from the contents of her intestines seeped into her abdominal cavity, causing a severe infection, which led to sepsis, a blood disease that in severe cases can cause organ failure and has a fifty percent mortality rate.
But my daughter survived. She survived a ruptured appendix, mild kidney and liver failure, sepsis, a compressed lung, two surgeries that left her with a five-inch vertical scar running the length of her abdomen, three weeks in the hospital, and months of recuperation.
In the immediate aftermath and during her recovery, friends tried to reassure me there was no way of knowing it wasn’t the stomach flu that made my daughter ill, that a doctor might not have diagnosed it because she had atypical symptoms. And I, too, tried to ease my self-blame by reading about the difficulty of diagnosis and talking to people who were either misdiagnosed or know someone who was, for there are quite a few. But it didn’t help. Even though I could rationalize the circumstances that led to my not taking my daughter to a doctor before her appendix burst, I cannot rationalize the circumstances that followed. I have this nagging sensation. I am haunted by that butterfly memory, the one that alighted in my consciousness and then flew away just as quickly the moment I stepped into my daughter’s room to check on her that day. That was my greatest moment of carelessness. My worst, in a lifetime full of mistakes.
And even now as I reveal this, I anticipate pointed fingers of judgment and blame—because those are the feelings I wrestle with myself.
This is how I see it:
A mistake implies wrongness, a failing; something should have happened in a different way other than it did. Mistakes inspire regret. And it seems the nature of regret is rooted in responsibility—whether the thing we regret is the result of our own mistake or that of another. Of course, some things are out of our control or “in the hands of God” as some people say and believe. Like terminal illnesses, which for the most part do not result from mistakes made by poor choices but, rather, assert themselves uninvited. But barring such circumstances, if you are not a “faith-based” person who deems events “God’s will” and who retains a safety net of beliefs to offer solace and aid in dealing with regret, then a natural response might be to trace a mistake back to its root. Rather than waiting for God to pass judgment, you might pass your own judgment and decide who or what is to blame for the wretched mistake that has now inspired your regret. It’s a linked chain, this interconnectedness of mistake-regret-responsibility.
Here’s the rub. As in a court of law, the determination of responsibility is either guilty or innocent. It’s got to be one or the other. For if a mistake is not the will of God or Fate or Happenstance then doesn’t someone have to be held responsible? The link that I struggle with in my chain is Guilt with a capital G. I was responsible for my twelve-year-old child. I failed to get her to the hospital sooner than I did. The result: She nearly died. When I allow myself to deeply think on this, my chest tightens, restricts. This is my punishment: to not let myself off the hook. For isn’t it a mother’s duty to not let her child suffer? Even beyond duty, don’t we inhabit a biological instinct to protect our young, to insure their survival?
I have craved absolution. If I were religious, I could go to confession, get cleared of my sin. But I’m not Catholic. I’m not Christian. I’m not anything—other than a woman who believes in kindness, the power of love, and the unpredictability and beauty of nature. I am a woman who has failed, a mother who loves her child and got Lucky with a capital L. My daughter lives, yet along with her so has my Guilt.
There have been times when I wanted to write a letter to advice columnist Dear Sugar and have her—in all her compassionate star-power and gentle, kind glory of advice giving—confront me on the role I have played in this hard-luck pain of a story and then say to me “It’s not your fault, Sweet Pea; everybody makes mistakes,” words that would feel like the soothing caress of a hand stroking my head. But even as I have desired such an empathic pardon, no such benediction has cleared away the haunting. Until the day I am able to accept that as a human in this life I am prone to making all kinds of shameful mistakes, until that day when this realization absorbs fully into the fibers of my muscles and the tissue in my lungs and I am truly able to allow myself forgiveness, a part of me at times will live as Guilt Mom, Neglectful Mom, Bad Mothering Mom. I wonder—how many of us are there? How many of us carry a radical need to be washed clean of our flawed choices? Do not all of us in our longing for absolution from the acts of human frailty, whether we are religious or not, aspire to the divine?
During her appendicitis, before being taken to the hospital, my daughter asked, not once but several times, “Am I going to die?”
“No, of course not,” I said. I didn’t know how close she was, or I didn’t permit myself to know. To have this awareness meant acknowledging my daughter’s mortality, greeting it at the door and welcoming it inside. And in doing so I would have somehow been complicit, amenable to the possibility of losing my child. Who would have thought that good judgment could be debilitated by a particular shade of skin tone? Denial is powerful; it can inhibit the senses.
Laurie Easter is Assistant Creative Nonfiction Editor at Hunger Mountain: the VCFA Journal of the Arts. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Chautauqua, Prime Number Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, r.kv.r.y quarterly, Hippocampus Magazine, and Connotation Press, among others. She writes from her home off the grid and on the edge of wilderness in Southern Oregon, where she is at work on an essay collection about loss and grief. Visit her at laurieeaster.com or on twitter @EasterLaurie.
*Featured image Laurie Easter and her daughter.
What a great essay! All moms have guilt over situations like this, sometimes several times over. You can’t have helpless creatures depending on you and not make mistakes with big implications. This was so well written and I learned a lot from reading it.
Thank you for reading and your thoughtful words, Caren. Much appreciated.
Terrific essay! I have met the flitting butterfly as well.
Thank you, Anna. I know you have met that flitting butterfly, and my heart goes out to you. I look forward to reading your book one of these days in the near future. Much love to you.
I’ve heard and ignored that flitter. “She has cancer,” I heard somewhere in my body. It was the Spring before my mother died 3 weeks after being diagnosed with liver cancer that had spread to her lungs. Would it have made a difference, if I’d listened? I don’t know. But I can’t hold onto it, forever wondering and blaming myself.
And I’m not Sugar, but SweetPea, it wasn’t your fault. It’s OK. She’s alive and she’s OK now, so be with her now. You’re the best mom you can be in whatever moment you’re in.
Thank you for saying just what I had craved to hear for so long, Joanna! I’m sorry you experienced that flitter and then the loss. But you’re absolutely right, we can’t hold onto it forever. “You’re the best mom you can be in whatever moment you’re in.” I’m going to take that one with me. Maybe we should step it up to: We’re the best people we can be in whatever moment we’re in.
Your daughter’s story is almost identical to mine… I also had a ruptured appendix at age 12 and nearly died. I remember rationalizing the intense pain in my side, thinking I had pulled a muscle from all the vomiting, which must have been due to all the junk food I had eaten at the county fair. I am sure my mother also carried that Guilt with her for the rest of her life, thinking she should have known to take me to the doctor sooner. But especially now that I am a parent (and have already lost a child who died in infancy), I know that my parents made the best choices they could and I am grateful to be lucky enough to be here today. Thanks for sharing your story.
Oh wow, Jen, yours and my daughter’s stories are so similar! I’ve written another much longer essay that goes much deeper into the story if you want to check it out. https://www.primenumbermagazine.com/Issue61_Nonfiction_LaurieEaster.html
My heart breaks to hear of your child. I’m so sorry. Thank you for reading and taking the time to share a small bit of your story.