My three-year-old daughter Alicia loves the song “What Doesn't Kill You” by Kelly Clarkson. Whenever it comes on the radio while we're driving in the car, she sings along at the top of her lungs and dances in her seat. Alicia is a spunky little firecracker, and the upbeat tone and message of the song suit her perfectly.
“What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!” Alicia sang along with KellyKelly, and Alicia, sing. “Stand a little taller, doesn't mean I'm lonely when I'm alone.” And I am only a little bit embarrassed to admit that I am the kind of mom who will sing and dance along with her. The more embarrassing truth is that that peppy song actually has special meaning for me…
I was driving home alone from Primary Children's Medical Center, the car strangely empty since I am used to having three children strapped into the backseat of my little Nissan. I had finally left my four-month-old baby boy in the care of my husband and and the hospital staff after the longest twenty-four hours of my life. I had spent the entire night sitting in an uncomfortable plasticy hospital rocking chair, rocking my baby while he alternately dozed and moaned, the tubes and wires all over him occasionally coming out of place and beeping jarringly. Every few hours, he would start thrashing around and crying and I would ask the nurse if we could give him more medication. My little Eli had had cleft lip repair surgery, and his little swollen, stitched-up face was so painful that he couldn't take a bottle at all. At one point during that sleepless night, Eli had kicked the IV out of his foot and sprayed blood everywhere while I frantically pushed the call button. I had washed up quickly and changed my clothes, but I really needed a shower. My muscles felt like jello, my eyes were itchy with sleep deprivation, and there was a painful knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. How long would it take for Eli to start eating again? Would he get home in time for Christmas? Was I ever going to see his happy-go-lucky smile again? None of the cars in the next lane would let me in, so I missed the turn to get to the freeway entrance. As I circled back around to get on the freeway, I turned on the radio, hoping that some music would perk up my sluggish mind.
“What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!” Kelly Clarkson's passionate voice filled the car.
I thought about those words. “Do hard things make you stronger?” I wondered. I didn't feel very strong at the moment. Honestly, I just felt like crying.
My first two babies were darling little girls with blond hair and blue eyes that they got from their dad. When I was pregnant the third time, I was hoping for a boy. At the ultrasound, we found out that I was carrying the hoped-for boy. We also discovered that he had a cleft lip. I had heard of cleft lip before, but I had never met anyone who had had a cleft, and I had never imagined that such a thing could touch my life so closely. I tried to imagine what it all meant as I listened to the doctors describe the feeding challenges, surgeries, and speech therapy that our son would need. I searched the Internet for information and devoured stories of families who had already been through what we were about to face. The pictures scared me as I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a baby who looked so different. Would I be able to adore my child the way that every baby deserves to be adored by his mother? But as the weeks went by and my due date approached, the stress slipped away and I found myself accepting the situation with relative peace and confidence. I knew that my baby needed me and I knew (at least in my better moments) that, as his mother, I could do what needed to be done. I was determined to be as strong and as loving as the most powerful mother-love.
When Eli was born, he was perfect and healthy, and he had a cleft lip and palate. I insisted on keeping him in my hospital room and held him all the time. As I sat in my hospital bed holding him that first day, I knew that he did look different, but he was mine, and he was tiny and adorable just as a baby should be. As I worked through the first sleepless days and nights, trying to figure out how to feed him enough to gain weight, I noticed his sweet personality and felt lucky to be his mom. Eli had to have different contraptions in his mouth and nose, their tubes taped to his cheeks with first aid tape to position his mouth in preparation for surgery. It looked uncomfortable and irritated his skin, but he was still happy, relaxed, and smiling most of the time. I believed that the constant love of his big sisters, his dad, and me had given him that joy and security that made that happy smile possible.
At four months old, it was time for Eli’s first surgery. Having your little baby going in for surgery is nightmare material for a parent. It is the kind of thing that you always hope will never happen to you because you kind of doubt that you would be strong enough. And the real experience was actually quite nightmarish. The hour in the waiting room as my husband and I passed our angry, hungry child back and forth because he wasn’t allowed to be fed for hours before the surgery, handing him over to the anesthesiologist and forcing myself to walk away as the doctor’s last words echoed in my ears:
“We’ll take good care of your baby.”
Next, hours of waiting, my husband and I gripping hands tightly, meeting each other’s panicked eyes and trying to think about anything but our baby, “under the knife.” Finally, a nurse came in calling, “One parent for Eli.”
I followed the nurse into a big recovery room, divided by curtains into smaller spaces. I could hear a baby making strange pitiful whimpers. Could that be my baby? I had never heard my child make noises like that. It was Eli. I was going to learn that day that although the normal fussing and crying of a baby can be tiresome, the weak moans and whimpers of a baby in serious pain are much, much worse. My eyes zeroed in on Eli’s little baby face—the cleft lip was gone. Instead there were rows of dark blue stitches and smears of blood. One of the nurses was saying something, but it was like she was on mute. I couldn’t understand. I just reached my arms out towards Eli. I was too afraid of messing up the tubes and wires attached to him to pick him up myself, but the nurse placed him in my arms. He thrashed around and moaned.
“Do you think he’s in pain? Does he need more medicine?” I asked numbly, my eyes wide.
It was a long day and a long night, holding Eli and rocking him nonstop while he dozed fitfully. The uncomfortable fold-out bed didn’t get used that night; my baby needed me to hold him and rock him. We kept adjusting his medication to try to get the pain under control, but even all drugged up, he would never even let me set him down without screaming. There was another sick baby sharing the hospital room with us who always seemed to start crying whenever Eli stopped. Sometimes I would look at my suffering baby and feel angry towards the doctors who had taken my happy child and put him through this. I knew that it was unreasonable; the surgery was necessary for the normal function and appearance of his mouth, and the doctors did a good job. But there’s no reasoning with Mama Bear.
And now, here I was, driving home from the hospital as the words “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger” vibrated through the car. I thought again of the last night and day, and of the few months I'd had so far as Eli's mommy, and I knew that I had done my job well. I had been there with all of a mommy's love and care when Eli needed me. I was stronger than I had thought, and I would get through whatever else came my way. I sang along with Kelly Clarkson and blinked away tears, the knot in my stomach loosening and a little seed of hope growing inside of me.
It wasn't suddenly easy after that. Eli's mouth was too sensitive to be able to take a bottle, but after a couple of days, I had some success feeding him with a medicine syringe, and once they decided that he wouldn't get dehydrated, we were finally allowed to take him home. It was December 23rd. Just in time for Christmas.
I watched him shrink for about a week before he was eating from a bottle again, and then he needed me to feed him a bottle almost constantly for a while. It was many weeks before the pain was gone and things settled back down into a normal routine. Then, suddenly, he was smiling and playing again, as carefree as if nothing had happened. At first I was just grateful to have gotten through such a traumatic experience and tried my best to forget it. But there are some things that you never forget. Now that it has been several months, and we have survived another surgery, looking back on those days is not so painful. Eli is a joy, a good-natured toddling one-year-old, smiley and mischievous as I could wish. Being his mom is a gift and a privilege. Although I wish that I could protect him from the surgeries in the coming years, I know that I can’t. All I can do is to be there with him and love him, and that’s all he needs because he is tough. He's stronger than other babies because he's been tested in ways that they haven't. Sometimes those things that you didn’t want to happen are a chance to find out what you’re made of. When you face them with courage, you discover that you don’t need to be afraid of the future, because you are stronger than you think.