(it took me forever to write this post. I have to thank Shoes over at shoesonthewrongfeet for inspiring me to open up about difficult things. I have to thank my friends and family, who listened with sympathy and without judgment to this story when I first had the courage to tell it. An especially heart felt thank you goes to the family member who actually went to the hospital with us, who supported me, comforted me and Sufyan, and got us through the ordeal. Here goes…).
A friend of mine commented that at the moment of a traumatic experience, something is decided about oneself. That’s an interesting idea. I have been mulling it over in light of something that was incredibly difficult for me to let go of. What did I decide about myself in that moment of trauma?
In reality my “moment” stretched over hours.
And though I no longer believe about myself what I believed at the time of the traumatic incident, it was powerful and has taken work to unravel.
What I decided about myself as things fell apart around me is that I am not a good mother. I have caused my child’s pain and suffering. I could have stopped the forward momentum of events, but I didn’t (because I am not a good mother). I am not as strong as I need to be to shepherd the little souls entrusted to me through their early years as humans. My inner mama bear isn’t up to the job. The guilt is physically painful, a cold assurance that I am not enough.
I am remembering my sweet child in his car seat, which we had to install in a friend’s car because our car didn’t have the right license to enter East Jerusalem. I had to go alone, as my husband and co-parent was/is also not allowed into Jerusalem.
The occupation seemed especially bleak the morning of the surgery. It’s amazing how much we rely on subliminal visual cues to orient ourselves. I wanted something to assure me that my child would be safe, a sign that meant I could trust. Outside the car, half-built buildings and yellow taxis flashed past us in the no-man’s land of chaos and refuse outside Qalandiya checkpoint.
I thought of how nearly every system from water to electricity that I had encountered in the West Bank was incomprehensible to me. Kafka-esque short-cuts and jury-rigging everywhere. Improvisations largely made necessary by the occupation. Improvisations that often fail. Extension cords over a street. The lights go out when it rains. The internet goes out when it’s windy.
This is fine when you are persisting against all odds, showing you will not be stomped out. But this is not ok when things absolutely cannot fail. As with surgery. Still, I had been told that the hospital where my son would be put under full anesthesia was run by French nuns and therefore more orderly and clean that other hospitals. Phone calls inquiring about the anesthesiologist turned up his past as head of a major anesthesiology clinic in Jerusalem that had served Palestinians as well Israelis (and this point is stressed because Israelis have access to the best care. They have options. The implication is that he is good at his job). Passing beneath the ugliness of checkpoints, guns and hostility, I wanted to shield my son from the very air around us. I learned how to say good morning in Hebrew and put on my “Nope, nothing wrong here!” face. All to get to a doctor who I understood to be the only specialist in our area for my son. I had done what I could to vet her. Not only had we interviewed by phone but I had come to see her in a preliminary visit. The doctor practiced in a way that I approved of. No holding a child down. Conservative treatment. Lots of patience with my son’s anxiety. She was loving and kind to my son and we both liked her. I looked into where she studied, but I have no idea how to evaluate an overseas dental school. I looked into her creds and looked away from the the decrepit building her practice (which was contrastingly clean and welcoming) was housed in.
When she suggested a course of treatment, I got a second opinion from our trusted doc in the states by sending my son’s X-rays to him. We talked extensively. He gave the treatment plan a (mostly) thumbs up. My son wanted to listen to Fairuz and ABBA the entire way there.
Oblivious and sweet. Happy for the adventure. I should have turned around when I saw the aging hospital. The dismal waiting area which turned out to be the ER. The muddy puddles and gravel visible through gaps in an unfinished wall.
I begin to think of all the corners that could be being cut here. All the possible, disaster-making shortcuts. I am thinking now of the intake nurse with her red scarf tied excessively tightly on her head, making her eyebrows lift. She is poking a tongue depressor into my child’s mouth so roughly that I grab her arm, push it away, soothe my son.
Later, my son is getting more thirsty, more tired and more nervous. Things are moving slowly today. I change Sufyan into a gown that is way too big for him. He looks very small, like a skinny little angel.
The linens on the bed are mismatched. The comforter looks like something from someone’s house. There is a water stain on the ceiling, a mop in the corner.
We wait and wait. He’s 3 and now he’s been hours without water or food. He is cold. He starts to cry. I am thinking now of the chipper nurse who told me and my now sobbing child that she had the water he was begging for. She holds in her hand a syringe full of clear liquid. Great, I think. A little water. I hug him and smile, “They brought you water, baby!” When he opens his mouth she quickly depresses the entire syringe into it. He screams, spits, writhes. It is not water. IT IS NOT WATER. Instantly he withdraws. He is in his lower brain of fear and survival. I am afraid he must think that now even I cannot be trusted. Biting back tears, I say, “WHAT WAS THAT???” to which the chipper nurse proudly answers, “Droog,” and walks out. My mind momentarily goes blank with disbelief. Ok, a) What drug did you just force into my child? b) What the f*ck, lady? c) what will the drug do to him? Will he pass out? What if he is allergic? She’s gone. No one else is coming. (Later research shows that this was likely liquid Valium, a drug that they have generally stopped using on children in the US because it doesn’t reliably do what it’s supposed to do, and it causes nausea. i.e. it doesn’t relax them but makes them feel woozy and powerless. Plus it only sometimes causes an amnesia effect. My son remembers everything.) No time. I have to comfort my child. He crying and I am scared. The machine is railroading us and we move forward. A man that turns out to be our anesthesiologist appears outside the OR. We are waiting on a gurney and now my son is looking drugged.
The anesthesiologist sees our little panda stuffed animal that is my son’s comfort toy. Panda sports a band-aid in the same place as my son from his blood drawn this morning. A sympathy band-aid. The anesthesiologist takes Panda and draws a military symbol on Panda’s band-aid. He keeps asking, “al-Jeysh, ah?” as if 1) my son knows what the army (al-Jeysh) is at 3 years old and 2) panda needs to man up. He doesn’t introduce himself and when I ask if he’s the anesthesiologist he barely speaks to me. He just says “yes” and doesn’t look at me. This is the man whose hands will hold my son’s life, I think.
The induction for surgery I can’t talk about except to say that it was terrifying. My husband suggests I write it anyway. Get it out. So here is what I can write: I was in the OR with him. I am thinking of those eternal minutes before the surgery. I am telling myself that this is where I have to be really strong for my son. No tears. He’s starting to get really scared. So I get close to his sweet face, I get his eyes on mine. I tell him he will be ok. His eyes dart around, and I recognize panic. The room is small and full of steel tables, lights, tubes, machines and people.
A thick armed man is trying to shove a mask on Sufyan and Sufyan…Sufyan swims back to the surface from his haze and begins to fight and scream. His eyes get wide, wet, and he screams, “MAMA!!!!” and I act on instinct. I push this man’s hands away. The anesthesiologist is talking to me, the thick armed man wants to force the mask immediately. Our doctor keeps them at bay for a moment. She is giving me a chance. Sufyan is sort of like attached to my eyes with his eyes, his arms are around my neck, and I lay down with him this way, I talk to him. I know he is listening. The anesthesiologist is pushing us, saying let’s just give him the IV. I look at Sufyan and I know the mask is the problem. He is terrified of it. Here is what I wrote at the time about the next few minutes: So I think quickly and I tell Sufyan, “we have a choice baby. You can try to take a couple breaths with the mask or we can do a little pokey.” He chooses the mask.
At this point, the thick armed guy whose role I cannot discern except that now he is getting impatient and wants to hold Sufyan down, is getting pushy. I tell him to back off. Please. I move his hands off Sufyan again.
There is more crying, I am crying. Sufyan is crying. I can’t see anything but Sufyan anymore. Sufyan is fighting me, resistance turns to shear terror for Sufyan. Sufyan is screaming. I help him take the mask, I actually hold the mask on his face myself. At this point I think, I know, he needs me to help him. There are only 2 options: strangers can hold him down and be rough with him, or I can help him accept the mask while I whisper in his ear how much I love him. I whisper over and over “I love you so much and I will be right here. I am right here. I love you so much.”
In reality, it was probably about 4 or 5 breaths before he was under. But those 4 or 5 breaths that he struggled under the mask under my own hand are an eternity of terror and agony and regret for me. He screamed, “MAMA!!! HELP!!! KEEP ME SAFE!!!!” He screamed into the mask. “Keep me safe”.
And then his breathing changed and he was under.
His breathing got weird. It got mechanical, though no machine was attached. I practically yelled, “IS HE ALRIGHT??? IS HE OK??? HE DOESN’T BREATHE LIKE THAT!!!” and they said, “No no. This is right. That is the way. It’s perfectly normal. It’s ok….”etc.
And they press me toward the door. At the door the doc’s assistant, my escort out, turns to go and I fall apart completely.
“No!” I sob. “They said I could stay! I can’t go back inside?”
“No, mama.” She says to me, and says other things in arabic.
“But he’s my son!” I sob. She starts to tear up, too. No, she shakes her head. I beg. She says no, it’s the rules. So I go back to the room.
Then we wait. We wait and wait and wait and it’s so much longer than it should be.
Eventually the assistant comes out and tells me Sufyan is fine and he is waking up. I want to see him immediately. She says not yet, a few more minutes.
After 10 minutes the doc comes out. She tells me that he is fine, but that she had to do ________ and this was not in our plan. My brain is screaming, “SERIOSLY!?!?! you did ______ and only now you tell me?”
But I can tell she is certain this was necessary and I trust her. Throughout this all, she has been nothing but forthcoming and kind to us. Calmly, I ask to see him. They consent to let me back into the initial recovery room. Apparently this is because I am pushy enough, as no one else there that day gets to go although many people are waiting. I quickly surmise why. It’s ugly back there. People are in a very vulnerable, post-operative state. I try not to invade anyone’s privacy as I walk back. And there he is. Here is what I wrote at the time about these next minutes:
My baby boy, so small and so pale, is lying semi-conscious on a gurney. He calls to me, wraps his skinny arm around my neck, and cries weakly. He has bitten his lips and has bled at some point but it’s dry now. He has a little dry snot and dry blood under his nose. I don’t know why, and I don’t care because I just want to get out of here.
A brisk and slightly arrogant male nurse comes to take his vitals. All he will say is Sufyan is fine. “Normal,” he says to me in a thick accent. The doc’s assistant is with us, and she is saying soothing things in Arabic. She is kind, though I don’t know what her role is exactly. I’m glad she’s there. She’s very hands off. She doesn’t touch Sufyan. She just comments about him.
The doctor is there. I have no idea what she is saying because I am focused on Sufyan. She’s saying that he’s fine, probably.
I got him back, thank God. He was so nauseous. So small. Pale and coughing, crusted and dried out around his mouth. A little blood. He was miserable. Maybe this is normal after surgery, but assuring the parent of the normalcy is second only to making sure the child is actually ok.
Here is what I wrote about the next few hours:
We get a male orderly to wheel Sufyan back to his room. I have seen this guy before, and my mental note on him said “avoid at all costs. Weird energy.”
Which could not have been more right. He is at Sufyan’s head, wheeling the bed. He literally leans down into Sufyan’s blinking face so that there is no more than 2 inches between his nose and Sufyan’s eyes and says over and over in a weird low voice “HEY. BEBE. YOU HEAR ME?” When we get to the room, his only job is to lift Sufyan into a bed. That’s it. But he pauses, and my little tired, confused sufyan is laying there, and he demands, “HEY. BEBE. Which bed yours? You know? Which one?” Sufyan can barely move, but the man keeps insisting on this question. He asks loudly over and over. It’s awkward. I am trying to intervene, but I am not being allowed to get close to Sufyan, who finally realizes this man is not going away without an answer so he points to the bed on the left with one very weak finger.
“NO!” shouts the guy. “It’s THIS ONE! hahahahah!”
So clearly now we are in a Felini film. Now I know this is a fever dream. This is me freaking out. What. The. F*ck.
The ensuing hours are Sufyan sleeping, puking, refusing to pee, no interest in water, complaining of pain in his legs and back.
Once and only once a man comes to get Sufyan’s blood O2 level and pulse (though I only found out later what it was he was measuring because no one told me at the time). The reading on the machine was 153 and a red light flashes one word: “HIGH”.
The guy looks at me and says, “Normal”. And leaves us. Forever. I’m no expert but a red flashing word “HIGH” does not seem to mean normal to me (later research has revealed that a high pulse rate of 153 is relatively normal and expected after surgery.) No one came to check on us for hours. Forays into the hospital got no one’s attention. Before she left, our doc told us no food or liquid. The assistant, who is with us, says let him eat and drink. I am sure she meant well, but here is what the assistant offered us in terms of help: “This is weird. They don’t usually sleep this much,” and “Strange. They usually want food,” and also a shrug of the shoulders as to whether or not Sufyan’s extreme nausea was normal. She left after an hour or so. Maybe 2 hours.
After that, we were completely on our own.
Eventually Sufyan began to get better. He used the bathroom with my help. A male doctor came to dismiss us…he walked in like a gunslinger and pulled a hand from behind his back long enough to shine a light in Sufyan’s eyes, mouth and nose and say, “Fine.” Then he was gone, too.
That was it.
We left. All I cared about was getting him home. If I could have held Sufyan on my lap all the way home I would have. I would have let him crawl inside my skin if he had needed to.
No wonder I sometimes wake up in a sweat at night, reliving this. At night I sometimes hear his breathing change from waking breath to sleeping breath and flash back to that day.
No wonder I can’t talk about it without utterly falling apart.
The surgery left Sufyan in terrible pain, by the way. He has needed 2 subsequent surgeries to be pain-free.
The surgery, this experience, is the reason we left Palestine. It wasn’t the occupation, it wasn’t the doctor herself, it wasn’t the adjustment or the language or the distance from “homeland” and it wasn’t the reality of daily life there (some parts of which I will probably always miss–particularly my friends). It was this: I no longer felt safe about having my children there. I could no longer believe what I’d been told over and over: that if we needed a good hospital we’d find it in Jerusalem. To my mind, the safety net was gone however imaginary it may have been.
You know that place where your stomach, brain and heart overlap? That spot in your gut that turns when you think about falling in love or the time you loved and lost something that mattered deeply? For me, the sadness, anger, regret, and guilt are locked in a box right at that spot. Once I look inside, I can’t easily close it up again. I just fall into the sadness and chaos that are remnants of the trauma. The box keeps the trauma fresh. The box is Tupperware, apparently. That’s a joke.
Yet clearly I want to talk about it. It’s been absolutely begging to come out. I don’t usually hold back, so why haven’t I, before now, written specifically about the event here on this blog? I think it’s mainly because I want to keep the people who were involved in that day from feeling accused. I believe the main characters had only the best intentions for us. I believe in the midst of the chaos we also had people who showed us love and kindness. Also, because it happened in the politically charged atmosphere of the occupation, in East Jerusalem, Palestine, I hesitated to write anything that would support anti-Palestine feelings. Not to mention that over there, pretty much everywhere you look people have it way worse than my little story of woe. I got my son back, after all. I think, too, that I am sheltering myself from the judgment of the “other, better mothers” who have not made any mistakes and can therefore throw the first stone. Never mind that they don’t really exist. They think they do. We moms can often be the harshest critics of other moms. Judging each other is a way of keeping our own inner turmoil at bay. You know how it goes: “Well, at least I’m not doing ______ to my kid”. Or whatever.
Another friend of mine commented that when a trauma is experienced by a mother about her children, that trauma holds a special kind of long lasting power. Yes. I think that might be true.
However, this event is losing it’s power over me. Finally. I have been working very intently on letting it go. Writing this post was a big part of it. I no longer believe I am a terrible mom. I see these events now as something we lived through. Something that makes me grateful for the medical care I can access here. I look at these events as part of our story. The event is also losing it’s power over Sufyan. He has been slowly getting over his fear of dental work (we are working on this together diligently) and I believe he will not be one of the many unlucky folks suffering from dental phobia.
Found Object for Today:
Parenting Thought and Yoga Thought will return next post. This post is long enough.