Joanie is fine. She had a complication from a virus that landed us in the hospital under observation for four days, but she has since recovered fully. So nobody freak out… for her… feel free to freak out for all the other parents and kids still there.
The Children’s Hospital in Montreal, like any children’s hospital is a terribly depressing place. No matter how many Despicable Me t-shirts the nurses wear or how many broken mobiles hand from the particle board ceilings, it’s still wreaks of sorrow. Tragedies are behind every curtain. Across the hall from our room a boy no older than thirteen recovered from a tracheotomy while escaping periodically to smoke. A mother was shipped off to the general hospital because she collapsed. She was, as I overheard, “non-responsive.” Walking down the hall of the seventh floor, I couldn’t help but peer through the windows at the rooms that looked a touch too lived in. Large sofas, cots made up with sheets from home, framed family photos on side tables; these comforts suggested a ramshackle make-shift permanence instead of the home all the kids were missing. Amidst all this weighty chilling sadness shine tales of unbelievable bravery.
On the other side of the curtain that separated our room, I heard the high pitch gasps of an infant struggling to inhale enough air into her too tiny lungs. It was constant but the rhythm was irregular. I listened, trying to intuit the kind of illness that would cause the squeals, until the second morning when Jim, her father, said from behind the curtain, “don’t worry, the team here is really great.” I couldn’t see his face but I could tell from the cheerful timbre of his voice that he wore a soft grin.
“They’re very nice,” I added. Without having much more to say I sat in silence.
Then his face, gaunt and stubbly appeared smiling from the other side of the curtain. He was clutching a mug with a picture of a baby boy printed on it. “We were here with my older son last year. He has a lesion in his brain. One in two thousand babies have it and he needs neurosurgery. We’ve been here for a month with my daughter. They transferred us from Ste. Justine a couple of days after she was born. She was diagnosed with down syndrome,” he said with a boggling degree of detailed nonchalance. “Everyone here is really great,” he repeated.
“I’m sorry,” I said, stupidly. Again, I was at a loss for words, and blurted something, anything out, when I probably should have said nothing.
“Don’t be sorry,” he corrected, “this was determined when she was only eight cells. She couldn’t be any other way. She wouldn’t be her if she wasn’t this way.” He had rehearsed this speech, but it was still so heart-warming. Maybe it was that it was rehearsed that made it so poignant.
For the following two days I listened to Jim and his wife Ella work together as a practiced team. They scheduled appointments, shared research, alternated the questioning of doctors and found time to chat excitedly about the hockey game. Despite having a daughter in the hospital, recovering from a cesarean, and planning another surgery for their son, Jim and Ella remained positive and proactive.
Could I do that? I wondered. Yes, I think eventually I could, but I imagine it would be tough. Much tougher than saying I could do it. Jim and Ella were professional parents in control of everything. I marvelled at the almost super-human qualities they displayed in the face of life’s most difficult trials.
Over the four days and three nights Joanie, Eric and I were in the hospital, I barely left the building, and when I did I felt distant from all the people around me. They were bustling to and from work, school, the gym, library, shops, doing their every day duties while I had slid off into this otherworldly space that is the hospital. It was as if I was very far away from the humanity of everyday, while simultaneously so close to the extremes of it: a mother desperately searching the halls for her missing son, a father collapsing at the sight of his daughter’s blood, families decorating hospital rooms, trying to make a dire situation and a sterile place seem like home.
Everyone there is really great.