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Hope Is the Thing With Feathers

When my son Locklin was a month old, he became very sick. He started throwing up and kept throwing up and ended up in the hospital.

The hospital ID band on my son’s wrist fit on my ring finger. I could cradle my son’s whole body in my hands.

The oxygen meter clamped to his finger was the size of a paper clip. It glowed red and blue, the colors of emergency, like tiny police lights flashing against bleached hospital sheets.

Helpless, terrified, I sat by my son’s hospital bed for three nights, pumping milk from breasts he was too sick to suck while a nurse kept bringing me food I couldn’t eat. My husband was working long hours then, with a power-suit-wearing boss who said that a sick kid was no reason to take time off.

“Oh, please,” the boss said. “Your wife can handle it.”

I was trying.

“You have to try,” the nurse who brought my meal trays said. “You need to eat to keep the milk coming for when he’s better.”

The nurse was lovely.

Most nurses are lovely, but some more so.

This nurse, whose name I don’t remember, such is the mind under stress, wore a smock with Elmo and Big Bird all over it. Her lips were pink satin. She wore designer clogs painted with cardiograms, the visual rendering of healthy, beating hearts.

She brought me cartons of milk. She brought me hospital brownies. She brought me Saltines and tea and grilled-cheese sandwiches. She brought me Jell-O, that hospital staple that still makes me gag.

*          *          *

As a child, I spent so much time in hospitals. Born with badly clubbed feet, I had many surgeries.

My first memories are of hospitals—the squeak of nurses’ white shoes on linoleum, the clang of bedpans and call bells, the icy press of stethoscopes on bare skin, the way the squeeze of blood-pressure cuffs made, still makes, me nauseous.

Once, when I was in traction, a nurse’s aide left a tray of green Jell-O for me to eat. She laid the tray across my stomach. Both of my legs were suspended in midair. My head was supposed to stay flat on the pillow. There are many things impossible to eat when in this position, but Jell-O might be the most impossible.

“You have to eat,” the nurses said back then, not unkindly, and I tried. I wanted to be a good patient, the best patient. My mother was a nurse, and I wanted to make her proud. I wanted not to be an embarrassment.

But the Jell-O. It seemed alive. It squirmed off my spoon and plopped onto the white sheets, the way frogs sometimes fell from the sky in the Bible and in my parents’ beloved Florida.

Sometimes I can still see my mother’s lovely, worried face, the way it seemed to hover above my childhood hospital bed as I drifted like an astronaut in and out of drugged sleep.

*          *          *

“You have to eat,” the lovely nurse caring for my son said.

She said, “Please.”

She said, “Try, Mom.”

When you’re a mother, everyone in the medical establishment calls you Mom. Your name, whatever that meant once, is over. Whoever you thought you were is finished. The body you thought was yours becomes not yours.

At first, I was angry about it. Then I was grateful.

There is nothing more honest. Nothing in my life has ever felt more honest.

*          *          *

My son looked so fragile in his bed, with the hospital rails pulled up on both sides like a jail cell.

I slid one hand through the bars and kept it on his chest to feel his breathing. I watched the oxygen meter flash blue for oxygen, red for blood.

I’ve read that blue and red are designated for emergencies because everyone can recognize those two colors, even the colorblind. People who are colorblind to red can see blue, and vice-versa. Anyone looking at the tiny body of my son in that bed could see this emergency for what it was. Everything around us smelled urgent—alcohol swabs and bleach and metal, sweat and breast milk. My job as Mom was to watch and wait. Check the colors. Make sure my son kept breathing. Suction his nose and mouth. Keep his airway clear.

“Please, Mom,” the lovely nurse said.

My job was to pump and keep pumping my breasts, which leaked and hurt and swelled. I expressed the milk. God, that word, “expressed”—to convey a thought or feeling, to squeeze out.

The milk leaked then sprayed, pale bluish white, the color of oysters, cataracts, thin as rain, sugar water, into tiny bottles the nurse gave me. I labeled them with my son’s name just in case he could keep anything down.

The nurse took the bottles like sacred offerings back to a refrigerator filled with other bottles labeled with the names of other mothers’ children.

So many children were sick that year. There was a virus. There is often a virus, but once you have a child, that word becomes more terrifying. The hospital hallways echoed with the sound of crying, and the air felt heavy, as if worry had the power to shift gravity.

I think it does.

*          *          *

The disease my son had, respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, is so common that nearly all children get it by the time they are two years old. I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know anything about parenting, or the terror and joy that come with it. I’m still learning.

My son is twenty-one years old now, beautiful, healthy. Sometimes he falls asleep on the couch after work, and I’ll drape a blanket over him, then take a minute.

Express a thought or feeling.

Still here.

Still here.

Lori Jakiela is the author of several books, including the memoir Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, winner of the Saroyan Prize from Stanford University. She is a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg. Her next book, They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice, a meditation on a diagnosis and living even so, is forthcoming from Atticus Books. “Writing helps me make sense of the world and allows me to connect with others, which makes everything less lonely.” Her website is lorijakiela.net.

Comments

26 thoughts on “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers”

  1. Jessica Bloom-Foster

    Lori just want to echo the appreciation of your writing—making the clinical lyrical is a gift. And appreciate your responding to every comment so personally and thoughtfully.

    I’m a family physician and mom of 2–this brought to mind the night my daughter, now almost 15, was sick with (almost certainly) RSV at 9 months old during a severe February blizzard in Iowa that kept me from bringing her to the hospital. I stayed up with her all night while she wheezed and worked her little lungs, desperately hoping she didn’t get any worse because I wasn’t sure even an ambulance would make it.

    Someone once said the moment you have a child there is a piece of your heart that lives outside your body forever—thank you for capturing that feeling so beautifully.

    1. Thank you so much for this, Jessica! Yes. Having a child means having your heart outside your body forever. I forget who said that first, but it’s so true. And as parents we remember those early terrors like they’re part of our DNA. I can forget so many things, but not those moments. Thank you for sharing your story with me.

  2. Lori, the expression of this through imagery, thoughts, feelings, words is exquisite.

    May the sharing of this experience inspire expression from others with stories to tell!

  3. Zoran Naumovski

    Wow. Powerful.

    I am a pediatrician and father of four boys (ages 16-22 now) and remember vividly when my boys were sick with “just viruses” when they were young infants. And I remember, too, when I as a pediatrician cared for the sickest of the sick with RSV. Not only was it frightening for the parents (most often the mother who was present at bedside) but also for me and my colleagues who also happened to be parents of young children. And that worry never goes away. The ending is beautiful, and I think any parent can relate to it.

    Thank you. Beautifully written.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words and beautiful perspective. The worry never goes away. Yes. I’m so grateful for pediatricians like you who understood and go on understanding forever, amen. Best to you, Zoran.

  4. Yehudit Reishtein

    I didn”t realuze i was so deep into being with you there, next to your son’s bed until I read the last too words, and felt myself crying with relief. The story resonated with me on two levels, both as a nurse and as a mother. You have a wonderful gift for projecting emotion without being emotional.

  5. Such a skillfully written account; so good to read such consummately woman-centered writing. Your careful crafting of the narrative and carefully expressed but not over-stated emotion is so powerful. I was so involved and very relieved when I reached the coda ❤

  6. Louis Verardo, MD, FAAFP

    Reading this piece, I was unaware that I had been holding my breath until the last two lines…
    Very powerful essay, and so happy your son is OK. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  7. Ronna Edelstein

    Ms. Jakiela, I know you, but you do not know me. I taught for sixteen years at Pitt’s Writing Center/main campus, only ending my association when Covid changed the world. I know you because my colleagues often spoke of you and praised your talents as a writer. I learned to admire you and your abilities to turn language into poetry. Now, having read your essay, I know you even more—and I better understand why your peers hold you in such high esteem. Your essay is beautiful. I cried at the end, grateful that all is well with your son.

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