By Debi Lewis
Sixteen times, I’ve stood at the side of a raised gurney in an operating room and sung my daughter to sleep.
Sixteen times, I could faintly smell the scented oil the anesthesiologists rub inside the mask, the mask that delivered sleeping gas, the oil they put there to cover the smell of the gas, the gas she could still smell and taste, making her grimace until she was overcome.
Sixteen times, I kept singing. Sixteen times, I planted a kiss on her still-warm skin above the mask. Sixteen times, I walked back to the pre-operative room and gathered up my husband and our belongings, and sixteen times I shrugged and stiffly shook the vision of my limp and drugged daughter from my head.
“She’s fine,” I answered my husband when he looked at me, questioning. Though who knows? By then, many times, she may have had tubes down her throat, things pinching and scraping her insides in places I would never see with my own eyes. Fine? I suppose.
Sometimes, I must have cried, a little. Most times, I don’t believe I did. The routine of it makes them all blend together; the coffee sipped while we waited, the nausea rising at the smell of a hospital breakfast, the same sixteen pages of sixteen books read a hundred times, all of them dull and timeless. Always, I wondered how she could still be in there. Every time, the clock was a demon, moving slowly as they mucked around with my daughter’s insides. My eyes and mind paced when she was asleep, circling around the room.
No matter the conversations I had while we waited, I walked and moved to the beat of the song I’d sung as she fell asleep, my eyes locked on hers so that, if she didn’t wake up again, my face would be the last thing she saw in this world. She was born into medical equipment, strange doctors’ faces, suctioning, poking, bright light. I would not let her leave like that. Let the end be a comfort, I always thought, and so I always found myself as focused as a yogi at her bedside in the operating room. I imagined myself an angel, a guide, and I stared peacefully into her eyes and sang. I sang lullabies from my childhood and hers; nursery rhymes when she was a toddler; a pop song called “You and I” that she was learning to play on the ukulele. I sang and held her hand and I was not scared. I did not want her to think I was scared. And after I walked out of the operating room, my soul was alert for the sensation of hers, leaving or staying.
So if she asks, “what did you do when I went to sleep in the hospital?,” how can I ever tell the truth? Played cards. Checked my email. Barely noticed the time going by; it was so quick!
In my daughter’s eyes, I was in charge. I had the power to fix, to arrange, to demand. If she had to pee, I knew where the specimen cup was and where to deliver it when it was full. If her grandmother, often at her side before and after each time, was in charge of entertaining and distracting her, I was in charge of making my daughter’s few small demands into reality. I told them to put her IV in the left hand, not the right. I asked for cold water afterward and orchestrated the return of her underwear as soon as possible. I was ready with an audiobook in the car on the way home, with her drowsy and limp in the back seat.
But leaving her side in the operating room, I shrunk three feet. “Come this way, mom,” a nurse said, hand on my back as she led me through the swinging double doors. The long walk away from my daughter felt like a punishment, a time-out from a toy I hadn’t treated appropriately. The weight on me as I walked away from her – down the hall, away from the room where someone would be cutting her, hurting her, digging through her for anti-treasure – was heavy and heavy and heavy. The nurse always smiled at the door of the room where my husband waited and recited a variation on “we’ll take good care of her.”
Don’t you worry about her for a minute, mom.
You go get a snack. We’ll let you know when you can see her.
She’s in good hands.
But she wasn’t in my hands.
In those sixteen times, I assumed the role of sickbed stenographer, sending the family emails and text messages with the news of the day. All clear. She’s awake, doing fine. When test results were available, I shared them, with shiny exclamation points and keywords that set a tone of hopefulness and expectant recovery. We’re so relieved to share… She’s on the right track! The doctor was glad to see…
These messages, like all such messages, were coded orders to the universe. I read about intention, about gratitude, about the law of attraction. I may have had the inside scoop direct from the operating room, the recovery room, the hospital elevator, but inside my daughter’s body were cells without a view to the world she left during her sixteen times teetering between me and oblivion. I sent my emails secretly to those cells, to those parts of her disobeying the hopeful can-do attitude I faked so beautifully.
The texts flew back to me as I watched my husband hold her sleeping hand in the recovery room. Great news. Keep us posted.
“If you ever need to go to sleep at the hospital,” I overheard my daughter tell her older sister one day, “Don’t get the orange smell in your mask. It’s terrible. Pick the strawberry one.”
From the kitchen, I added this to my mental list, then excused myself to the back porch to sit, head in my hands, and cry over my six year old daughter who had a favorite scented oil to cover the smell of nitrous oxide.
Sixteen times, I had to be the grownup and then not-the-grownup. I had to care for her and then let others take over. I had to be tough and then be softly led. I had to take control and relinquish it, over and over each of those sixteen times. It made my heart freeze and melt and freeze and melt. My face didn’t know what to do with itself.
Every anesthesiologist who learned that I would insist on accompanying my daughter into the operating room would give me a speech about the side effects of anesthesia, which are mostly not dangerous but also mostly unpleasant to watch. Sometimes my daughter experienced those symptoms – though she never remembered them – and sometimes she didn’t. I was prepared for them, and they didn’t scare me.
No one ever talked to me, however, about the side effects of walking your daughter into an operating room sixteen times. No one ever talked to me about the lasting memory that would be for me, about the way it would change me as a parent. I never heard a list of symptoms to watch for – a disinterest in discussing it with my friends, a drop in patience for other parents unable to shut down their tears, an inability to picture my daughter as an adult although every prognosis was exceedingly positive.
Sixteen times, I was and I was not the adult.
Sixteen times, I wished they’d put me to sleep alongside her, so we could play together in our dreams.
My daughter went from a year old to eight years old in those sixteen times. She does not know a childhood without general anesthesia, and until she could remember between visits whether the next stop was a procedure or a clinic visit, she’d cheerfully ask me on the way into the hospital parking garage, “am I going to sleep today?”
I’d stare forward in the front seat, navigating the turns, and answer her, sometimes yes, sometimes no, and realize that for all my preparation, I was no more ready for the next experience than she was. The difference was that her child’s mind was loose and able to flow with what the day brought, and mine was always braced, clanking against the sides of my skull, bruising with the impact. The more routine it felt, the more the bruises ached.
There was no anesthesia for parents, and the repetition was only numbing until it wore off.
Sixteen times sounds ridiculous. There are sixteen mornings she’ll never remember, sixteen IVs inserted when she was still asleep. Sixteen long, long walks from her bed during which I made peace with losing her, with the hours I had between then and joy or then and horror.
There are side effects from sixteen times like that. Bedtime is extra sweet, and extra dear, in a bedroom covered in glow-in-the-dark stars. I am gentle about extra quiet chatting in the light of the universe around us, willing to whisper long after I’ve sung a lullaby, happy to lie on the pillow next to her and run my hands along her bare arms, brush the hair away from her forehead, and feel the warmth of her shoulder under my lips. We linger there, languid and dreamy.
I don’t see her as a solid creature. She is made of strawberry-scented air and spun sugar, and she has never been altogether mine. She has belonged to whatever flowed through her IV and returned her to me on the other side. She is lovely, and in this moment, she is here.