Eight years ago, on a Wednesday morning in Birmingham, Alabama, I said goodbye to this tiny little thing and her lambie, then stepped through a nondescript doorway to a hospital waiting room, fighting back tears and the urge to go running back through those doors to find my baby before they placed a scalpel into her spinal cord. I knew once she went under the knife, her life would be changed forever – I hoped for the best, but feared the worst.
Over the course of that long day, other families whose children weren’t having multi-hour procedures came and went. I paced the floor and pretended to listen to the friends and family who sat with us in a show of support. It was one of the longest days of my life; I felt more helpless and out of control than I’ve ever felt before.
It was messy.
On the following Monday morning, I watched in awe as my baby did something she’d never been able to do before: sit “criss-cross applesauce” – such a simple thing that most parents of three-year-olds take for granted. Parents, that is, who don’t have a child with cerebral palsy.
It was beautiful.
Today she has a long scar on her spine, a permanent and visible reminder of that day. But – Praise God! – she can walk, and I don’t think she would ever have achieved that skill without that scar. I know she would never have played softball, or been on the swim team, or shown hundreds of people that she is The Most Awesome Kid in the World.
But puberty brings growth spurts, and growth spurts wreak havoc on a body whose muscles are always too tight.
So on another Wednesday morning – last Wednesday, to be exact – in a new building at the same hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, I once again said goodbye to a larger, but still tiny, little thing, her “brave bear,” and her American Girl doll, then stepped through a nondescript doorway to a hospital waiting room, fighting back tears and the urge to go running back through those doors to find my baby before they took a scalpel to her legs.
I knew once she went under the knife, her body would be changed forever. Before she was taken back, I cast furtive glances at each of her legs as often as possible, hoping to imprint upon my brain what they looked like, knowing that after the surgeon removed wedges of bones, shortened tendons, inserted plates and screws, and sewed her back up, her legs would never look the same again.
Over the course of that long day, other families whose children weren’t having four-hour surgeries came and went. I paced the floor and tried to converse with the friends and family who sat with us in a show of support. It was very much like that other Longest Day eight years ago.
It was messy. But it was beautiful, as well.
My mother’s friend Deborah who arrived with fresh baked goods and sausage balls was beautiful. My mother’s success in getting Nathan to sleep, leaned back in his stroller in the waiting room, was beautiful. My dad’s smile when he learned how to text for the first time was beautiful. My sister’s matter-of-fact demeanor that helped keep me calm was beautiful.
The relief I felt when I saw Sarah Kate in the late afternoon for the first time after her surgery was beautiful; the look in her eyes as she struggled to press the green button of her pain pump was not. Watching her struggle to speak and to eat were messy and painful to watch; hearing the doctor say that her legs could be extended fully to a straight position for the first time in almost a year was beautiful.
I chose her cast colors – purple and pink, her favorites. Messy. Beautiful.
Nathan went home with my mom after the surgery. Nana took a dozen or more photos of him in her kitchen in a futile attempt to get one good one to text to me for Sarah Kate.
Sarah Kate struggled to get herself a teeny bit upright so she could use the hospital’s web access to check Edmodo for messages from her classmates.
Nana tried again with the sign, catching Nathan as he was waking up so he’d be more likely to stay still for the photo.
On Friday, after two days of pain and spasms and helplessness, a physical therapist named Molly showed up in Sarah Kate’s room. Her kind, firm, sensible voice coaxed Sarah Kate out of her bed, into the wheelchair, and down the hall to look out the tenth floor window. She didn’t smile and she didn’t talk much, but she was mobile at last.
Nana persisted and finally … SUCCESS.
After the IV was removed and she realized that she shouldn’t be afraid to move, Sarah Kate decided to put on a T-shirt. Fearless to the Finish.
On Friday night, we made our way down to the family waiting area and watched a few minutes of the Birmingham Barons baseball game out the window. The nurses told us it was “Fireworks Friday,” so we encouraged Sarah Kate to stay long enough to see the show, but she refused. We made our way back down the hall to her room, shut off the lights, and turned in for the night.
A short time later, I heard a boom … then another … and another. In the semidarkness I scrambled up, found my camera, and set it on the windowsill next to the convertible plastic sofa that was my bed. As I snapped shot after shot, hoping for The One that would represent our time there, I looked off to the right and saw the high-rise buildings of downtown Birmingham – including the building where Mr. Andi and I met almost two decades ago, the corporate headquarters of the company where we both began working in 1995 and both abruptly left in 2003 after Sarah Kate was born.
On Saturday afternoon, we left the hospital and made the 40-minute drive to my dad’s house, unsure if she could handle a four-plus hour car ride home. Our quiet, subdued, sad little girl came alive as we drove away from the hospital. Gone were the tears, replaced by chatter about dreams.
When we called Nana to let her know we were planning to head home on Monday, she gathered up Nathan’s things and posed him one last time with a message for Sissy. This time, Nathan knew what to do.
No matter how many colors they come up with, casts aren’t beautiful. Not even a little bit. But Mr. Andi picked up some pink and purple nail polish at Wal-Mart and brought a little sunshine to an otherwise cloudy day (and yes, he did the painting, too).
Messy. Beautiful. My young warrior carries on, always.
The Longest Days | My Messy Beautiful is part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! Learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life (written by my Sigma Kappa sister, Glennon Doyle Melton, who I will have the honor of introducing at our convention this June!), CLICK HERE!