Who brings a 4-year-old with strep throat and a 102.5 temperature out to dinner?
Oh. Um…that would be us. But it was Kids Eat Free night! And she didn’t actually have (much of a) fever when we left. Soon after we sat down, though, I noticed that she was shaking like Jennifer Lopez’s booty and her back was on fire. I put her in my lap, and she dozed off into a febrile snooze. So we went ahead and ordered because, you know, she seemed comfortable.
After the food came, she woke up and did this loud, weird burping thing and Hot Firefighter Husband said, “WATCH IT, SHE’S GONNA-” and then the Tyrant very graphically finished his sentence for him.
I caught most of it in a napkin then rushed her to the bathroom, where more spewing took place. Her brother and sister thought it was WICKED cool that their sister was puking in a restaurant, so they rushed in to watch. Husband stayed behind to finish his dinner.
When we returned to the table, I handed her to Husband and said, “We need to go.” He gave me a frownie face, because he still had a half-glass of tequila left. He said to the Tyrant, “Are you ready to go home?” She had just thrown up most of her internal organs, and her brain was fried by fever. I suspect what she heard was, “Would you like me to insert a straw up your nose and rip your Teddy to shreds?” because she started screaming, “NO! NO! NO!” and Husband smiled at me, sat back, kissed the Tyrant’s head and took a sip of tequila.
He never used to drink tequila. He was a couple-a-beers-on-occasion kind of guy. Now he’s a Gimme a shot of Patron straight up and chilled with a squeeze of lime, and a Sam Adams kind of guy. I think I did this to him.
As we sat there sipping our drinks, glancing fondly at our sick child, we reminisced a bit about this girl, and about her history of illness.
“Remember when we thought this was just her personality?” Husband said. He was referring to her infancy. When we first met her in Guatemala, she was quiet and still. She frowned a lot. We thought she was just sullen. But she was dying.
Honestly, though, I knew something was wrong on my second visit to see her because, at six months old, she never smiled. She didn’t cry, either. She just looked around with enormous scared eyes.
Once home, I started asking questions and doing research. “I think she has Failure to Thrive,” I told Husband. “We have to go back soon.”
We did, and we grew more concerned each trip. She was suffering from Failure to Thrive – basically, an infant’s version of depression. She didn’t possess a survivor’s instinct – instead, she laid quietly in bed for 23 hours a day, developing pneumonia, not eating, rubbing her head back and forth on the crib just to feel something touching her. It caused an enormous staph-infected lump on the back of her skull.
On my fourth trip to see her, my mother-in-law traveled with me, and we picked the baby up at the orphanage and brought her back to the hotel. She had lost weight since our last trip – I could see it in her face. She screamed through that night, and would only sleep with me holding her against my chest.
The next morning, she spiked a fever, and she wouldn’t eat. She could hardly keep her eyes open, yet she wouldn’t sleep. She went 36 hours without a wet diaper because she was so dehydrated.
We took her to the doctor, and he admitted her to the hospital immediately. She had double pneumonia; she wasn’t eating because her mouth was covered with thrush, and so it hurt to swallow and even to suck. Her oxygen intake was way too low because of the pneumonia; she was gasping for breath. She had chronic diarrhea.
For five days, I laid in the hospital bed with her. Her tiny arm was splinted in order to keep the IV line in place; she clutched my finger with her other hand as she slept. I dozed at night with my breath against her cheek and my body pressed against her, trying to infuse her with a reason to live. During the day, my mother-in-law sat with her while I went back to the hotel to sleep for a couple of hours.
What strikes me most about those terrible days is this child’s utter lack of control over her life, and her inability to feel anything other than a bleak resignation regarding this existence she’d been assigned. Even as antibiotics dripped into her veins, and she felt round-the-clock love for the very first time in her life, she had no way to comprehend that her life was turning around.
She had a colorful little cloth rattle I had given her. During better moments, she clutched it tightly, as though it contained her only connection to a brighter world. After five days, we left the hospital for a little Guatemala City apartment to live until she could come home to her forever family.
She returned to that orphanage only one more time, for an hour so that I could attend a court meeting. When I picked her up, the desolation had returned to her eyes. She clutched my neck as I held her; I didn’t put her down again for the rest of the day. I was furious at myself for thinking that an hour wouldn’t matter, that she wouldn’t even know I had left. The smells of that place, the noise, the melding of her being into a sea of tiny mouths to feed – that hour had been a lifetime for her. For that hour, she again had disappeared.
Today, after the children’s Advil had brought down her fever, she gave her Barbie dolls a bath, ate some mac ‘n’ cheese, danced to Jennifer Lopez’s new disco song, and ransacked her brother’s collection of Pokemon drawings. As her fever climbed back up, I waited before giving her medicine to see how high it would get, and in that hour or so, I saw shadows of that sullen child, the one who never smiled, the baby we thought might just be destined to live as a pessimist, and it gave me a lump in my throat.
We almost lost that child. We almost lost her before she could even be ours, before we could tap her open like a coconut and watch her fabulous essence pour forth and enrich the very air around her. When she’s sick now, I’m sad for how she feels, but honestly, I’m relieved, too – because she’s here, with me, and I can hold her hair as she throws up and give her a bath and make her fever go away. And Jesus Christ, I hope she doesn’t remember that there was a time when nobody even noticed that she could barely breathe.