He doesn’t just have his mother’s heart-shaped face

globe article.jpg

This essay was originally published in the Globe + Mail on October 6, 2005.

I gave birth to my baby boy, and he was beautiful. He was the product of a second marriage for both of us, evidence that broken people can heal. He symbolized hope and joy. He was our love child.

His birth was everything I wanted. No interventions, no medications, a baby who slipped out naturally after a few pushes to meet his parents. Even in the late stages of labour, Mike and I were giddy with excitement in between each contraction. “The baby is coming,” Mike kept saying, and I would grin and nod and kiss my love before another wave of contractions pulled me back under.

We took him home after 10 hours, and he was all wee and jaundice-yellow. He was a quiet, soft, sleepy baby with a sweet mop of hair on top of his head. His round face was mine, and his eyebrows were blond. He was our little peanut, our button. His dad and I fell deeply in love with him.

Then the dark clouds started to settle in. At the end of his two-week checkup at the clinic, the doctor hesitated. I could tell he wanted to say something.

“Do you remember we talked about prenatal testing?”

Yes, I had. I had declined the testing. I knew I’d carry my baby to term no matter what.

I looked him straight in the eye, and took a deep breath. “Are you trying to tell me that our baby has Down syndrome?”

Retrospect is such an easy thing. I had not forgotten the day after Aaron’s birth, when I had gotten up after a long night of scrutinizing my boy and typed “Down syndrome” in the Google search engine. I had broached the subject with Mike, and he had scoffed at me for being paranoid. Then I had asked the public health nurse later that day if she thought Aaron had Down syndrome.

“Yes,” she had said gently, but then she had inspected the palms of his hands and his toes and concluded that he had a heart-shaped face like his mom, and eyes like his dad — that’s all. No other signs. So we filed away this scare in the back room of our heads and carried on. Whew. That was a relief.

But when the doctor mentioned the prenatal testing, I knew. I could hear my heart beating in my ears. I was holding onto my baby for dear life. “Oh,” I said. “Can I use my cell phone here?” I had to phone Mike, immediately.

I don’t recall our conversation. I am sure I sounded as if I was being strangled — and, in a way, I was. I do know that I sat in that examining room, nursing Aaron until Mike arrived. I don’t cry easily and there was a choked bundled of tears sitting just beyond my throat. I remembered to breathe.

Mike wanted to carry Aaron over to the lab in the hospital. He wouldn’t put him in his stroller, and he marched proudly through the hospital corridors cradling his son. It was as if he was saying, “I’m looking after my boy, no matter what!” They drew blood from Aaron’s little arm. Mike and I didn’t talk much — I felt sick as the needle went in and Aaron gave a cry of protest. We had to wait two long weeks for the result.

We were back at home. Aaron was napping in his car seat. The day was beautiful . . . mid-April, sun streaming out of the prairie sky. We sat on the balcony of our house, watching Aaron sleep, discussed how our doctor was wrong, how he was too inexperienced, how he had surely misdiagnosed.

There was a waft of music coming from the house across the alley. I strained to make out what song it was — it was coming from an open bedroom window. A young man lived there with his parents. He had a rare chromosome deficiency and is one of the few people with such a condition to be alive. He wasn’t expected to live beyond a year old, but there he was, 20 years old, blasting music out of his window.

The song finally became clear. It was a song from my memory of junior high school dances. Our neighbour was playing ABBA’s Take a Chance on Me.

The results came back after the two weeks. And yes, our baby has Down syndrome. The deep chasm of grief seemed endless when we found out that the baby we expected was not the baby we received.

But slowly the sun peeked out from behind those clouds, and I was able to get out of bed and go about my business. My baby, now two years old, did not allow me to stay stuck in the grief.

Instead he holds out his chubby little hand as we trundle down the sidewalk, both delighting in this warm fall day. My ABBA-playing neighbour is outside as we pass his house, and his face lights up as I greet him by name. Take a chance on us, indeed.

make space for the suffering

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 9.52.46 AM

The older I get, the more conflicted I feel about everything.  I hope feeling conflicted is in fact related to my growing sense of humility as I open up to other points of view.  The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.

I used to despise the word suffering, as it is misused all the time in reference to people with disabilities.  The horrific term ‘burden and suffering’ is often widely applied to human beings with differences, both before and after they are born.  I still call bullshit on this stereotyping of other human beings in order to categorize them as less human.

So I dismissed the word suffering outright until I was diagnosed with cancer last year.  It was then I felt the true meaning of suffering, as the past few months have been fraught with unresolved physical and emotional pain which was triggered by my cancer.  I continue to heal from that experience.

I encountered Carlyn Zwarenstein’s writing about pain a few months ago.  She invited me to look at the notion of suffering in her important book called Opium Eater, The New Confessions.   Opium Eater is a small but mighty book that examines the use of legal opioids to manage chronic pain, looking at the historical, economical and emotional aspects of alleviating pain. Carlyn deftly draws upon the literary world for understanding. Andrew Sullivan’s recent New York article The Poison We Pick also tackles the concept of pain.  He identifies pain as simmering underneath the terrible mounting opioid overdose deaths.  As he explains about opioids: It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have comprehended the depths of such pain.  But today I have a glimmer of understanding.  While I am privileged enough to keep pain at bay with the occasional Ativan and regular therapy sessions, cancer has humbled me enough for me to glimpse at the great suffering in this messed up, beautiful world.

Part of my own healing has been writing.  A few months ago, I was asked by Dr. Janice Bell to write a guest editorial for the Journal of Family Nursing about my perspective on suffering.  It was published yesterday and is called Make Space for the Suffering.

I’m pleased that health care academic journals are starting to make space for the patient voice on their prestigious pages.  I believe the inclusion of the patient voice makes their pages even more prestigious (and legit).  This most recent editorial is a plea for health professionals not to turn away from patients’ and families’ pain.

I will continue to say over and over again – I’m a broken record – as I dare you, health professionals, families and friends, to draw upon compassion and not turn away from our pain:

Healers turn toward patients and families during their pain. A warm gesture, kind word, or gentle touch reminds us that we are not alone and makes space for our suffering. While health care can (sometimes) cure, it is love that will heal us in the end.

Twenty Days Last May, part II

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 12.21.36 PM

(A prompt from my writing class:  describe a moment you are at peace)

For twenty days in between appointments, I walked. I walked in concentric circles around the hospital – down to False Creek, up the Cambie hill, west to the fancy shops and east to the hipsters with their big beards.

For twenty days, I looked for a picture. In the hospital, all my photos were taken in black and white. But outside out on my stroll, I searched for colour.

I snapped a tabby cat sunning on a step, the city view peeking through the condos and a bicycle parked against a tree, its basket filled with flowers. Once a crow flew at me on 10th street, angered I had passed too close to its babies. I continued on. There was a coffee shop filled with books, a burgundy mosaic pattern on a store floor and the blossoms slowly filling the tree canopies with early spring.

On my last day of those long 20 days of treatment, I spotted some graffiti on an alley wall. It was a perfect pink circle with stencilled words that simply said – you are here.  And that is enough.  xo.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 12.24.22 PM

the radiation therapist & the patient

rumi

I am super proud of this article I co-authored with Amanda Bolderston for the Journal of Medical Imagining and Radiation Sciences.  It is called The Radiation Therapist and The Patient:  Epiphanies, Stories and Social Media.

It covers a lot of ground:  relationships in health care, how ‘complaints’ are handled by organizations and the power of social media.  I’m particularly chuffed because Amanda and I wrote this together – a health professional and a patient. It proves my theory that if we endeavour to see each other as human beings, and not merely titles…well, that’s where the magic happens.

the hospital world according to aaron

hospitalaaron

The Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health in Australia – a publication of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians – has an awesome feature for patient/family stories called The Patient’s Voice.  Yes, this is an academic journal that accepts stories.  They published my piece The Hospital World According to Aaron this month, and I’m pretty chuffed (as I think the Australians would say).

Even better – it is not hiding behind a firewall and open access, which is rare for these types of journals.  Kudos to these progressive folks Down Under.

Ps:  I’m aware that I’m not Dr. Sue Robins.  I only have a BA in English.  This amusing error is being fixed – and a symptom of a journal that generally only publishes the work of physicians!

trolls can suck it

trolls

suck it trolls

Last week, I had an essay published in the Globe & Mail’s Facts and Arguments about my time spent in Norway with my two young children.  I was so excited Wednesday morning when it was posted online that I forgot to heed my own advice about never reading the comments.  I read the first few comments.  This was a grave mistake and demolished any sort of initial joy I might have felt being about published in a major national newspaper.

Silly me.  Now, I’m not going to feed these trolls by talking about them or responding to them, except to say that it is rather amusing to see trolls crawling out from under rocks about an essay about Norway.  They can suck it.  What I do want to say to writers who are contemplating sharing their work for publication is this…

Do not be daunted by the trolls.  There will always be someone who feels that he/she must comment something contrary about whatever you write – even if it is the most positive, feel good piece you could ever image.  Ignore them, and don’t give them the satisfaction of the attention by responding to them.  In fact, don’t bother reading the comments at all.  The days of civilized conversation on the Internet are long gone.  (But if I think of it, I can remember being on a listserv about attachment parenting with a group of moms 20 years ago, and unsubscribing after being engulfed in what we termed back then as a ‘flame war’ – badly behaved people have always existed on the Internet.  And in real life too).

Ignore all that crap.  Keep writing.  Persist in telling your stories.  This makes you vulnerable, yes, but it also opens you up to some beautiful people, like Emilie, who took the time to comment on my blog:

Heres’s a good comment to read – your piece made me melt. Well done and thank you for sharing your past pain and healing with strangers. Keep writing!

Emilie is the person you are writing for.  Keep the her in your heart and banish the trolls to the remote mountains of Norway, where they belong.  As someone once wise told me:  if you don’t play the game (of engaging with any asshole in life), you can’t ever lose.  So no need to jump to my defence – I’ve checked out of the comment reading game.  Oblivion is bliss.

Ps:  for a much more thoughtful essay about trolls, read Stephanie Wittels Wachs’ super piece in Vox called My brother died of a heroin overdose.  Internet trolls wouldn’t let us grieve.

 

my great nordic breakdown

nordicbreakF1

Illustration by Lindsay Campbell

Just for something completely different, here’s an essay that I had published in the Globe & Mail’s Facts and Arguments this morning – My Great Nordic Breakdown.

You know when you are at a meeting and they ask the ice-breaker question:   tell us something nobody knows about you?  Well, this is my answer to that question.  After my first marriage broke up, I lived in Norway for five months with my two eldest kids when they were 7 & 4 years old.  While I have a journal I kept during that time (buried deep in a box), I have never written about our odd adventure.

The writer background is this:  an editor of another prestigious newspaper was interested in the story, but when I submitted it, she said:  this isn’t a good fit.  So after a couple of days of feeling hurt by this, I dusted myself off and submitted it to the Globe.  Who accepted it.  There’s a great amount of rejection in this line of work.  But this is a good lesson in not giving up.

The Globe and Mail has been good to me.  This is my third Facts and Argument essay that I’ve had published, and I had another one accepted that I had to withdraw because of a long story that I can’t tell you.  So to all my writer friends out here:  try the Globe!  They don’t pay, but the byline is nice on your CV!   And they are friendly to mama writers.  An editor there once told me:  if it makes me laugh or cry, I’ll publish it.

ps:  Don’t read the online comments.  Never read the online comments.  I sadly forgot to take my own advice this morning.  Ugh.