Dianne D. Spatafore, Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students
2017-2018 Staff Essay Contest
It had been a long twenty-four hours. My son, three years old, had had surgery the day before at 7 a.m. Not serious this time, but as a child with complex medical needs, any surgery is serious. Post-surgery we were sent to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and, as was often the case, found ourselves sharing a room with another patient. The curtain was drawn, and while I could see our neighbor’s information on the white board, I couldn’t see him. We were at a children’s hospital, but the birthday on the board told me that it was a teenager, not a toddler, on the other side. Nurses came in and out, attending to my son and his neighbor throughout the day, and soon I realized that the boy on the other side was alone and that he was non-verbal. The nurses turned the television on, bathed, and fed him. As the hours ticked by with my husband and me fussing over our son, I struggled with the thought of this child, albeit a teenager, alone on the other side.
A previous three-month hospital stay for my son had taught me the rules: stay on your side; you don’t need to introduce yourself; it is none of your business; and that curtain that separates the room . . . pretend it’s a wall. As a result, the toughest times of my life were shared with strangers I’d never met, who were breathing the same air a few feet away. Families I didn’t know, whose challenges, while possibly not that different from my own, I tried to block out as I stumbled through my own long, difficult days. Everything about hospital life went against my nature.
Normally friendly and outgoing, I learned to keep my head down, to avoid the eyes of moms whom I saw pushing children in wheelchairs, offering weak smiles to other weary parents when I snuck to the cafeteria for coffee, preoccupied with my own worries for the day. I did not have to ask questions to learn heart-wrenching stories. A crying child wakes you from sleep, even when they are not your own, and everything is shared. After a while, everyone else looked like merely a reflection of how I felt, and I did my best not to see them.
So, somewhat battle tested, I focused on keeping my head down and getting through the day. With any luck, this was going to be a one-night stay and we would be headed home in the morning. Before my husband left for home, I took a little walk to stretch my legs. I would, once again, be sleeping on the chair-now-turned-bed next to my son’s hospital crib. When I returned to the room, I heard a woman’s voice on the other side. The nurses updated her with the news of the day. I heard her comfort her son, and by her soft stream of chatter, I could tell that this was a routine that had played out many times. I felt relief knowing that someone had come to be with him. At some point I fell asleep, and while I still hadn’t seen the woman on the other side, I had felt her pain.
The next morning, I waited for my turn in the bathroom and was a bit startled when the woman, the mom from the other side of the room, came out. She was dressed for the day, her clothes beautiful, her makeup perfect. She had long black hair with silver streaks that seemed to sparkle. She moved gracefully, like a swan. While I felt (and looked) rumpled and weary from a night of not good sleep (there had been a lot of machines beeping and middle-of-the-night meds), she bore none of that. She disappeared to the other side of the room, and I heard her speak softly and gently to her son, check in with the nurse, and then she was gone.
Would the people she encountered that day have any idea of where she had spent the night? Based on the age and significant level of disability of her son, this was one of many nights spent in the hospital. As someone who wears her heart on her sleeve, I know that my weariness is quick to show. I had been putting on my best face for years through doctor appointments and hospital stays, and while I had toughened, I was often left struggling for an answer by a basic, “How are you?” She showed no such weariness, displayed no weakness, and looked as if she had just stepped off the page of a catalog. I couldn’t get the image of her out of my mind.
Completely put together, bold, beautiful, and yet, I imagined, so tired. Were people kind to her that day? Did they see the weariness behind her eyes? If I saw her on the street, I would have been jealous, envious of how put together she was, how cool. When the barista gave his usual, “How are you?” did she tell him? Did she close her eyes in the elevator and steel herself against the torrent of guilt as she left the hospital like I did? Did she spend the day glancing at her watch calculating how long it would be until she made it back to that bedside, forgetting to pay attention to the meeting or customer in front of her?
We left the hospital a few hours later, and I never saw her again. I didn’t know her name, but I have thought of her and her son every day since. When my son says I love you, I say a little prayer of gratitude for those words, for his words. He can’t color me a picture for Mother’s Day, but I know those words are my gift. I think of that mom who must fuel herself with other gifts because no such words can be offered. I think of the armor she puts on every day, the beautiful exterior she presents to the world, and I hope that her day is filled with kindness. I see her in the people I encounter, and remind myself to be patient and thoughtful because there are so many things that I can’t know about the stranger in front of me.