Aside

Earliest Memories: #1

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Earliest Memory

by Sally Reece

That’s me in this photo, on the left—

curly-top baby in a galvanized tub

with my  toddler brother—

half in the willow tree’s shadow,

bees buzzing orange marigolds that stink

like sour milk and dirty diapers.

 

Long before this photo was found,

I remembered being almost drowned

in peed-in bathwater poured from my brother’s boat,

Mother yanking my arm, pulling me out

and spanking my back, stopping my splashing and sputtering.

 

Here in this photo, the same brother, last June,

grown up and gowned in preacher robes, posing

beside a lone apple tree, Mother’s camera  focused

away from the rotting bushel basket and worms.

This poem is still under construction, but it belongs in this collection of posts about early childhood.

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Who She Was Born to Be

I was still in bed at 8:05 in the morning when my daughter Kristen called and calmly said: “I think Gracie is having a seizure. The ambulance is taking her to St. Luke’s.” Kristen’s slow, steady speech told me we were a family in crisis.

By 8:15 I was at the hospital. A nurse was trying to get an IV needle into my two-and-a-half year old granddaughter’s tiny hand. Grace was in grand mal seizure. Every part of her body was convulsing. Her eyes in were open in a fixed gaze and foaming saliva came from her mouth. This image haunts my daughter whenever she thinks of the day. She shakes her head and closes her eyes, as if to make the memory go away forever. We gave away the pretty flowered pajamas she was wearing (our favorite until then) to help us forget.

Our baby, my daughter’s first child, my first grandchild, was still seizing at 9:00. As a nurse, I had learned most seizures lasted two to three minutes. Any seizure lasting longer than five minutes was considered prolonged, dangerous.

The staff of the community hospital was obviously uncomfortable working on a tiny toddler. The emergency room physician told the EMT that he should have gone to Children’s Hospital. The young medical technician said: “I couldn’t. She wasn’t stable.”

I remembered to tell the doctor that Gracie already had a neurologist. She had suffered traumatic birth injury, but we had not seen seizures since the day after she was born, when she had a stroke because of damage to her right temporal and parietal lobes.

When neonatologists showed us films of Grace’s brain injury less than two days after she was born, we were devastated. They could not tell us if she would walk or talk. “She may learn differently,” they said after a long pause. My daughter reacted by pacing the floor, pounding her feet, marking time to her mantra, “Nobody’s gonna label my baby!”

So far, until this day, this unrelenting seizure, there were no obvious signs of problems from that damaged area.

Now the emergency physician was telling us it would take a while for the pediatric neurologist to call back, maybe half an hour. “It always does,” he said.

Thankfully, the neurologist called within minutes, giving us hope the seizure would soon be controlled. He ordered two intravenous doses of Ativan to stop the convulsions. When  Grace’s body relaxed and she appeared to be sleeping, Kristen asked if her baby’s seizure had ended.

“We can’t tell what’s going on inside the brain,” the doctor said, “but the symptoms have stopped.”

By 10:00 an ambulance and pediatric intensive care nurse arrived from Children’s Hospital to transfer Grace to their pediatric intensive care unit across town. I don’t think I can ever forget how tiny and helpless she looked on that stretcher, not resisting and not responding. Kristen rode in the front of the ambulance, keeping her eye on Grace through the window behind her seat. How Kristen kept her composure, only a mother can guess. She had to. She’s the mom, on high alert, in crisis mode.

Grace awoke late in the afternoon in ICU. How confusing it must have been for her! The last thing she could have remembered was going to sleep the night before. She was limp, and couldn’t stand. I thought it was due to the drugs, but I realized (it took more than 2 days for her to get her strength back), that her body must have been as exhausted as a child who would have run miles and miles.

We stood by Grace’s white iron hospital crib, talking to the neurologist and worrying what the damage might be from lack of oxygen, though Grace had remained unusually pink during the entire episode. The neurologist was telling us about his son, who had been Kristen’s classmate in sixth grade. He said his son and daughter-in-law had adopted a girl from Bolivia and she was now 5 years old.

We had been talking in near whispers. Grace, who had been quiet up to that point, said: “Mom, I’m not five! I’m only two and a half!”

“Well,”  said the neurologist, laughing and turning up his palms as if to present a gift,” there’s your answer.

The next two days, Grace kept asking to go home.”Mom, I need to go home to that green house,” she said and she named her town and state.”

Apparently, her advanced verbal skills had not been compromised. The MRI showed that the seizure was “a focal seizure” meaning that it came from a specific part of the brain. In this case, it was caused by activation in the scar tissue of the area damaged at birth. This was good news! The scans from this episode and the one at age 31 hours (birth) showed no further damage or troubling area!

Just to be safe, an anti-convulsant medication was prescribed for six months, then a different, milder medication until age five. We wondered about side effects, but Kristen never missed giving Grace her medication. It was a matter of weighing risks.

Grace is now ten years old and does not need medication. She is in the 98th and 99th percentile in reading and math. She plays piano, has a green belt in karate and swims on a pre-olympic team. She is a better artist and writer than her grandmother. None of these are labels. They are miracles, miracles that happened because science and a mother’s determination to see her daughter as undamaged allowed her to become who she was born to be.

Just Graffiti

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I never should have emailed the photo of crayon marks on the computer stand to my daughter Kim after our Thanksgiving dinner last year. I was hosting 28 people, and occasionally sent my two daughters upstairs to check on the kids in the playroom. My office door was closed.

The photo was proof that I am not crazy for wanting six children under age twelve to be supervised. But it wasn’t long before the phone rang, making me sorry for trying to prove a point. It was Kim’s home line.

At first there was only frightening, sickening silence. Then, I heard my four-year old granddaughter Alexa crying, trying to talk. I couldn’t understand the words through her sobbing. What had happened? Was she hurt? Was the family alright?

Finally, Alexa was able to say between sobs: “I marked on your computer.”

“I can clean it off, thank you for telling me you did it. Just color only on paper.”

My daughter, who had me on speaker phone, interrupted before I could calm Alexa and reassure her it wasn’t a critical mistake.”You’re not the parent!” Kim said.

In the background, Alexa was crying louder than she had been when the phone rang. It was a distress cry, one that begged her mother to hold her and comfort her.

“You’ve already made her say it, punished her, and made her apologize,” I said.”Let it go.” Her concrete consequence was no crayons for a few days, but that would not cause such guttural sobs.

“You have no right to say anything,” Kim said.

“I was raised that way, having each mistake judged and punished as if the least annoyance were as horrific as a felony.”

“This is not your time to try to feel good about yourself,” Kim shouted. “I am the parent.”

“For the record,” I said, “it was marker, and I cleaned it off easily while talking to you.”

“It would have been nice to know that,” she said. I could taster the bitterness in her tone.

“I just did it as you called. “It’s drying as we speak.”

When punishment is relentless, it’s emotional abuse. It’s a consequence of trying to perfectly shape and control a child’s personality, especially when a child must parrot what the parent tells her to say. Perfection parenting has consequences: a child raised with such control will learn to please but might lack sincerity. Worse, she will hesitate to stand up for herself.

The good thing is, nothing worse happened on Thanksgiving. Thank God it was just graffiti. Next year I’ll supervise the children while my daughters do the easy work— in the kitchen.

1950s Childhood

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Sandwiched between green meadows and purple clouds....

Sandwiched between green meadows and purple clouds….

Dehiscence.

Emotional scars of childhood are not tiny. They grow in silence, like criminal tumors. Toxic hurts leak into our adult facades of normalcy, sometimes bursting like infected surgical wounds. Memories, sandwiched like the day’s heat between green meadows and sunset, rise toward purple clouds, toward precious truth.

Did parents think their children would not remember? Pediatricians preaching “babies are miniature adults who should be left crying in cribs to learn lessons” contributed to (sometimes innocent) abuse.

Defenseless. until the pen.