In sickness and in health

Week 24: 06/18/2007


Aron's sister Jessie is in the hospital for brain surgery, and I'm worried about Sylvia's cough.

It is about as displaced an anxiety as that sounds. Jessie--my smart, funny, loving, weird, and beautiful little sister-in-law--has had epilepsy for a while, and unlucky for all of us, the drugs to control it just weren't working. In part because she wants to have children one day, and that would be a bad idea on these heavy-duty and somewhat mysterious medications, she took the advice of her doctors and is having this surgery.

This all sounded reasonable in the months--years?--we've been talking about this possibility. Always a scary idea, to cut open a loved one's skull, and tinker with the gooey insides. But it made sense, too; it was what was recommended. No one was letting themselves get too worked up or panicky about the prospect, especially since Jessie has always seemed so on top of the situation. If it had to happen, it would happen, and we would rally behind her and then she'd be better and that would be that. Because, really, what other option would there be?

For me--now that it has to happen, and is happening--it turns out the other option is to become a basket case about Sylvia's asthmatic cough; about my hour and a half long drive to Vermont, and all of the dangers that might befall me on the road; about writing this column and handing it in late.

When meanwhile, our Jess has been sitting in a hospital bed for a week, with electrodes sticking out of her brain, waiting, often in pain, for a "good" seizure that will tell the doctors that yup, it is in fact that part of the brain, the one with the electrodes protruding out of it, that they should remove. If she's as nervous as the rest of us are, she's not showing it. She's as in charge of the situation, and meeting with the doctors, as she's ever been, and says we shouldn't drive down to see her until after the surgery, when she's not all bandaged up.

So instead of following her stoic, good-natured and overall well-rounded example, I thought I should let Sylvia's cough--two colds, a crazily persistent ear infection, four weeks, and a prescription for albuterol (asthma medication) later--take over part of my own brain, a part I wish someone would stick electrodes into and then remove. (Little brain surgery humor. Not funny.) Every time I hear Sylvia's rumbly, wheezy cough, it's like a hammer to my heart. A sickle to my hammer. A rock to my sickle. The hammer, the sickle and the rock all saying the same thing to me: "Do something. Help her. Do something. Help her."

We've talked to her doctors, and might bring her in again tomorrow, since it's gone on longer than they thought it would--though maybe that's because she was getting better, but then caught a second cold. Or maybe it's because she is still consuming tiny amounts of dairy, or large amounts of wheat. Or maybe it's seasonal allergies. But they don't think so.

This is one of the many things about being a mother that I didn't really understand--just how often I'd feel like I should be able to solve something, but I can't. That it's my responsibility--and should be within my sphere of influence--to make her okay, always. That my internal reaction to her being in any way "off" is as if I'm hearing a constant, high-pitched siren, which will only quiet once I've taken the appropriate action, or the coughing stops, whichever comes first. Before Sylvia was born, I imagined being an omnipotent maternal presence; if I needed to help her, well then, I would. I didn't imagine hard-to-pin-down illnesses, or doctors who didn't know; I didn't know about whining or clinginess that doesn't stop, or that I'd experience momentary but intense rage when my daughter would throw food on the floor.

I think about my mother-in-law, sitting with Jess in the hospital, keeping her comfortable and cheery, talking to the doctors and the nurses, hoping for her daughter to have a seizure so that the electrodes will say what the doctors want them to. And how brave she is--we all are--to let all of this love into our lives, all of this potential for heartache, this potential for joy.

This week, the baby has been moving and squirming, leaning on her or his elbow, doing the moonwalk. When I was in the bath with Sylvia a few nights ago--trying not to imagine the steam from the bath loosening the phlegm in her chest--I felt the baby doing a little step-ball-change. I asked Sylvia if she wanted to feel, too, and she squirmed over to me, put her little hand in exactly the right spot on my belly. And then--nudge! Right into Sylvia's waiting palm. She shrieked with happiness, laughed ecstatically, like she had just discovered... well, like she had just discovered her sibling, her baby, as she keeps saying. "Again! Again, Mama!" she screamed. And then, leaning in close to my belly, she said loudly, "Move again, Annabel!" (We've explained that this is not necessarily going to be this baby's name, especially if the baby is a boy--but for now, Sylvia's having none of it.)

And then, the two of us laughing, me with some tears, kick, again, into Sylvia's hand.

More laughing. "You're in the bath, Annabel," Sylvia said, pouring water onto my belly. "Feel the water? You want some soup? I make you some soup, Annabel!"

And so we spent an evening together, my two kids and then me, the body that still separates them, laughing, snuggling, bumping into each other. An evening I could tell Jess about later that night, on the phone, when Aron got too choked up by the sound of her voice to stay on himself--a brother and sister, and then me, in the grateful position of helping them connect.

Join writer Emily Bloch each week as she chronicles her pregnancy.