A Born Healer
For once, I’m not posting about Ana, or me. It’s all about Emily. Today is her 11th birthday. I’m opening this post with a short video of Emily singing Amazing Grace to our old cat Kasha to calm her down before going to see the vet (Kasha has since crossed the Rainbow Bridge).
I think Emily had just turned eight in the above video, and Kasha didn’t have long left to live. Emily spent hours stroking her and sitting with her quietly. She provided comfort and love right up until the end. She has always been a healer, but I didn’t know that at first.
When I was twenty weeks pregnant with Emily, I found out she would be born with a cleft lip and palate. I still remember the phone call I got from my midwife. I was coaxing a then two-year-old Ana to please, for the love of all that is holy, just TRY and use the potty. I had it in my head that if I couldn’t get her fully potty trained by the time she was three, I would be a failure as a mother. I was stressed. She was stressed. We were both incredibly stubborn…
And then the phone rang and it was my midwife. The words she spoke have been whispering through my subconscious mind ever since – the stuff of nightmares.
“Jackie, there’s something wrong with the baby.”
I began a different parenting journey that day. I told Ana to forget about the potty. She could use pull-ups until first grade if she wanted. It didn’t matter. We got ice cream. We took a nap together. I went through a three week period of mourning.
But then I got the results of my amniocentesis back and the doctor said, “The baby is perfect – except for her cleft.” Jim and I breathed a sigh of relief and I started researching cleft lip and palate, searching for the cleft team that would follow Emily for life, and learning about how to feed a baby with a cleft. I cried – a lot. A friend wanted to throw a baby shower for me, but I refused. At eight months pregnant, I went to NYU for the first time and met a wonderful speech/language pathologist who told me to call her the minute the baby was born – she would make sure that baby ate.
My focus refocused. So, you see, even when Emily was still in my belly, she had begun to heal me – to make me realize that perfection was a myth and striving to achieve it was hurting me, and it was hurting Ana too. Emily taught me how to be an advocate for my child. She showed me that I was strong enough to travel to New York once a week for six months so she could have her nose and gums molded before surgery (a ten hour round trip). She smiled at barely a month old – I swear she did! She was born to smile, that kid.
I blogged about Emily and she taught me that there was power in my writing. So many parents reached out to me to say, “Thank you so much. I’m not alone. We’re not alone.” I walked Emily into the Operating Room when she was just six months old and when I saw her again, she looked completely different.
When we brought her home, Ana said, “Who is that baby, mommy?” And I cried. Because my baby’s first face was gone, and now she had an entirely new face that I would need to get used to.
But Emily taught me that was okay. Everyone’s face changes. I loved her new face as much as I loved her old face. She brought nothing but joy, and in this way healed the hurt and devastation that Jim and I felt when we learned that something was wrong with our baby. And through the years of advocacy, and more surgeries, and Emily’s absolutely unflinching joy with life – her strength, her talent, her perseverance – she prepared me, in her way, to deal with Ana’s cancer.
Emily taught me how important it was to find a good surgeon. She taught me not to be afraid of online research – no matter what the doctors might say. She has adored Ana her entire life. Emily was eight when Ana first got sick, and when we sat her down and explained that her sister had cancer, she cried. She couldn’t have known exactly what cancer was, but she knew it was serious – it’s the healer in her. Since that day she has never once complained about the gifts that Ana gets, or the time we’ve spent with her at the hospital, at doctor’s appointments, getting labs, staying up at night and talking – or fighting – about what to do next. She may feel frustrated and left out sometimes, but she doesn’t complain, as if her healer’s soul wants to protect us from her own fear and hurt.
Now she’s eleven, and she continues to surprise me every year with her enormous joy which bubbles to the surface in epic bursts of silliness that belie how strong she is.
I wish I could go back and talk to my younger self – the one who thought our world was ending, and that things would never be as good, or as perfect, as they were when it was still the three of us. I would tell myself that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the baby. That this baby is very, very right – and she will be the piece that completes your family. Well, we all know what they say about hindsight.
Emily’s birth announcement reads, “Yes, I worry about her future, her challenges, her resilience and her pain. But in the quiet night, when I hold her against me, for those few moments, all that matters is that she is mine. My baby. My own.” She is still my baby, my own.
Happy Birthday, Emily. I love you so much!