I was all set for today to be a continuation of the pity party I’ve been having the past few days. We had to take Ella into the pulmonologist’s office today as a follow up to our little weekend ER stint, and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. When I got there, my heart was already cynical and prepared for the doc to be as dismissive as some of the other non-ER docs we’ve seen over the past few days.
But this guy was different. He listened. He asked probing questions. He looked us in the eyes. And then he did the most remarkable thing of all – after all the listening, questioning, looking and reading, he gave his diagnosis.
It was exactly what Rachel had been telling the docs all along. He confirmed almost every instinct that my wife had regarding Ella’s asthma, and he gave us a new plan to treat our daughter, insight we’d never heard before, and a brand-new medication we’d been wanting but couldn’t afford. It was, in case you don’t believe in these things, a by-God-miracle.
But that wasn’t what changed me. It wasn’t a sudden onset of good medicine, or the validation of all of Rachel’s hard work and research. It wasn’t even the pervading sense of hope that we felt when we left the docs for home.
What changed me was what greeted me as I walked into the examination area. Changed me so much, I was moved to tears.
As I opened the door from the greeter’s desk, the first thing I saw down the narrow hallway was a teenage boy, probably no more than 15. He was ridiculously tall for his age and it didn’t take much in the way of observation to see that he was still getting comfortable in his frame. He seemed embarrassed, or at the very least ill at ease, as if something were bothering him, and after shifting uncomfortably for a moment, he finally sat, elbows on his knees, hands dangling in between, and stared ahead at the wall.
Or so I thought.
By the time I reached him, I could see what he was staring at. His mother’s rear end.
It was right there in his face. To be honest, my first reaction was to laugh. Here’s this poor kid in a too-big body, embarrassed to be a pediatric pulmonologist’s office, and his mother, oblivious to his complete mortification, has her butt only a few feet away from his face.
But his mother moved, and a cold dose of reality was forced down my throat.
The woman hadn’t merely been standing idly by. She was standing over the body chair of her daughter, who looked to be twelve. She was a bone-sack of a girl, her forearms little more than suggestions beneath the skin. She was swaddled in a too-large Hannah Montana t-shirt and an adult diaper, and her socks were pink with rhinestones. Her brownish-blond hair, mussed but shiny, was pulled into two pigtails tied off by the old school pig-tail holders. The girl stared vacantly at the ceiling, her eyes far away and devoid of any hint of awareness. In short, she took my breath away because I was unprepared to see her.
And her mother, hovering over her, doting on her daughter’s needs, quietly sang, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
My heart broke. I know that I’m a sentimentalist, and all too often my heart bleeds for people in difficult circumstances without fully understanding the story. I imagined myself in that woman’s shoes and what I saw wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t as graceful or tender as a whispered song of love. It wasn’t as faithful and strong as her unhurried gestures of love and affection and care. It was ugliness – a raw and selfish ugliness that has been permeating my prayers and thoughts over the past five or six days. And it broke me.
I have long believed that we all experience some horrifically crappy things in this life, and that often all we seek is the opportunity and grace to just call crap as it is. Sometimes, well meaning people will try and remind us that our crap ain’t so bad, and while they are right, it’s not what we want to hear. We want to have our pain matter, even if just for a moment, even if only to ourselves. I have wanted that for the past few days and people have been gracious enough to allow me that chance.
But today, whether you believe in a God or not, I was reminded by something bigger than myself that my life, for all of its chaos and frustration, is pretty damned good. My daughter’s asthma is as serious as your granny’s drawers, but it’s not what that mother was living. My daughter may have a hard time breathing on occasion, but since she’s learned to do such things there’s never been even one day that she hasn’t thrown her arms around me, kissed my cheek, and told me that she loves me. I take that for granted.
I believe that woman, hovering over her daughter, would trade all the kingdoms of the world for just one moment of such affection. I get it daily. For her, it may never come.
Today I saw a picture of complete and unconditional love, and it broke my selfish heart. But a cold dose of reality was good medicine for my soul.
May God grant special mercy and grace to all those who take care of children who will never say “I love you.” May those parents hear it in other ways, like the bat of an eye or the sudden touch of a hand. May they know it in the deepest recesses of their hearts when the next moment seems too much to bear. May they know it, and may they be blessed by it.
A cold, hard dose of reality. It does wonders.