By Tamim Ansary
The moment I saw Jessamyn, I was absolutely floored. My first child? This I had not expected! Oh sure, my wife was pregnant, so I knew a child was coming, but not this child! I’m sure it’s different for a woman: she has a relationship with her baby long before it’s born. She’s been carrying the little tyke around inside her all those months. But for guys—for this guy anyway—during the pregnancy, the child was an abstraction. The fact that he/she was coming meant only that Debby’s belly was growing bigger. Sometimes Debby would chirp at me to come, come quick, feel, the baby was kicking, and if I put my palm on her belly just then, yes, I did feel a creature of some sort wriggling inside her—in short, the pregnancy had a sci-fi aura to it.
And then Jessy was born, and oh my God. She came into the world wide awake and wet, after twenty-four hours of Debby’s hard labor, all of which passed in a blur because I was zeroed down to that Lamaze thing modern fathers did and perhaps still do, holding Debby’s hand and reciting rhythmically, “Breathe… breathe…” Debby was in pain and for me the labor was only about her pain. I wasn’t thinking about the impending child—until that ultimate sci-fi moment, when one fully formed human being came squeezing right out of another human being—oh, man, it was so weird! Like that scene from Alien.
The doctor set the newest member of the human species on Debby’s belly and gave her a slap. She cried her first cry, then stopped crying, clutched her hands into little fists, and stared up, agog and wonderstruck—at me of all people. It was like meeting, for the first time, someone I had always known. “So that was you in there?”
One second earlier, there had been five people in the ultimate inner circle of people I would always know and love. Now there were six. Never had I experienced such an instantaneous exponential transition from I-never-saw-you-before to you-will-always-be-in-my-life.
And the thing about this new emotional VIP—she was helpless. She couldn’t even roll over, much less get to the fridge and make herself a sandwich. She needed me as I had never ever been needed. If I didn’t look out for her, she’d die. A powerful emotion came surging up: from this moment forward, my first priority would have to be ensuring her safety and contentment. Everything else would have to be done with spare time and leftover energy.
Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of everything-else to be done. Debby was running a playwright’s festival; and then later she went out on her own as a freelance grant writer, which meant she could set her own hours, but she did have to hustle. I was working as an editor for HBJ, an educational publisher, which moved its headquarters to Orlando, Florida right around the time Jessy was born. I could have been out of a job, but instead they kept me on to work for them from home as an indentured freelance: my salary would come in regularly, but my schedule was my own. I could work any 60 hours a week I wanted. It was a tremendous vote of confidence in my worth, and I had to live up to it every day.
Life went on, but Jessy was now the bright bulb shining continuously from the middle of it. The light she radiated filled every corner. The vow I felt at the moment of her birth, to keep her safe and shield her from every harm never wavered or weakened.
I remember once we went sledding. I was holding her in my arms. The sled hit a bump and bounced us off: we were in the air and when we landed Jessy would have hit face first except that I made a tunnel of my arms and held her in there loose and safe, as my elbows plowed a furrow into the snow. To her, all we’d done was fly. “Again!” she pleaded. Back then, there was this perfectly tailored red coat she used to wear. Perfectly tailored, but incredibly small. And that was her as well: a perfect little human being, just incredibly small.
Her first doctor, I didn’t care for. Silvernman was a tall, good-looking young guy, and perfectly nice, but way too casual. We’d bring Jessy in because something was wrong, and he’d shine a light in her ear for a couple of seconds and shrug and say, “Well, it’s probably some virus going around. Kids get these things. She might be teething. It’ll probably go away.”
Might? Probably? I didn’t want “might” and “probably” from Jessy’s doctor. I wanted every medical test known to humankind. And what did he mean kids-get-things? What was this nonsense? This wasn’t some generic “kid.” This was the world’s most perfect little human being!
We come now to the spring of 1986. Jessy was more than two and less than three. My employer had decided to put me in charge of one whole level of a giant language arts program, which is edu-speak for grammar and writing. I knew how to write, but “language arts”? This was a beast I’d never met. “Scope and sequence” was the phrase that kept coming up in staff discussion. I could guess what the phrase meant from what the individual words meant, but everyone else owned it as a technical term. I was out of depth. Plus, in this assignment, I had to hire and manage a stable of freelance writers. I had never hired or managed diddly-squat.
Meanwhile, Debby and I had decided to buy a house. Today, in San Francisco, at our income level, that would be a pipe dream. Back then, though, it was still possible if one could only find a sufficiently ramshackle wreck. Which we did. But then I had to put my back into fixing it. All my spare time and leftover energy. I was stressed.
In the middle of all this, Jessy started getting those things kids get. Every week or two, she was down with the sniffles, or a stomach ache, or something. Teething? Probably. We did not, however, have to go with “probably”. The good news was, Silverman had moved away. We had a new doctor now, Jim Schwenke. He was gratifyingly serious about his work. He tapped and prodded and examined before making any pronouncement. He listened solemnly to however long a list of symptoms we wished to detail. She’d had a tantrum yesterday after her nap—did that mean anything? She’d refused her bottle this morning—was that a sign? She’d run into a door last week—could she have brain damage? Schwenke never said, “I have other patients, you know! Could we wrap this up?” He listened till one was done. So when he said, “It’s probably just some virus,” you could trust his judgment.
The one morning, Jessy woke up complaining that her leg was hurting. That day when I took her to pre-school, she was limping. During the day, apparently, she couldn’t sit on her mat. At the end of the day. she was hobbling. On the way home she was whimpering. I tried to comfort her, but what comfort can you give to someone when you yourself are in the grips of icy fear?
And that night, she woke up screaming. Her leg hurt.
We took her to the emergency room, but you know how it is. At that time of night, most of the people in the emergency room, are bleeding or comatose. We’re talking guns and knives, car accidents and drug overdoses. A little girl with a leg that hurt for no obvious reason did not have priority. When they did see us, finally, they just gave us a painkiller, and hollered “Next!”
But fortunately we had our Dr Schwenke. We made it through that awful night and went to see him the next day. He listened and examined: stethoscope, ear scope, all the scopes. And then he gave us his considered expert opinion. She’d had a lot of colds recently, he observed. In kids this age, a cold virus sometimes migrated into a joint. If that’s what was happening, Jessy had, essentially, a cold in the leg, which was nothing to worry about and would clear up on its own in a few days just like a cold in the head.
Then his face grew more somber. On the other hand, he said, these same symptoms sometimes presented in the early stages of childhood arthritis. And that, he confided, was “one of the bad ones.” I still remember sitting there in his office hearing those words. I still remember his face and his voice and the baseboard heater clicking on and off. One of the bad ones. My precious little girl might have one of the bad ones. Dr. Schwenke told us to take her home, get her to rest, and “keep her off her feet for a few days.” In a week we’d see how the symptoms had progressed.
Well, we drove home. I was freaking out but at least the good doctor had given me something proactive, that I could do. I could keep Jessy off her feet. I could make her lie down. I could treat her as ill.
All that week, when she tried to stand up, I was ready. “No, no, honey, lie down. Stay off your feet. I’ll read to you. I’ll tell you a story. I’ll rock you in the rocking chair. I’ll give you a bottle of warm milk. I’ll give you some apple juice.”
Debby has a gift for optimism. When she heard “childhood arthritis is a remote possibility” she heard remote. When I heard the same thing, I heard possibility. For me, all that week, the dread kept building, because Jessy didn’t get better, she kept getting worse. The pain became constant. She couldn’t sleep without being cuddled in her daddy’s lap, on a rocking chair, rocking for hours.
At the end of the week, we took her back to Dr. Schwenke as instructed,. This time he really pulled out all the stops. He took samples, he performed tests, he listened, scoped, examined. Finally he sat us down to deliver the news. “There is nothing wrong with her. She had a cold virus, but that’s gone. You’ve been so diligent about taking good care of her, you’ve convinced her she’s sick, you’ve convince her she’s in pain and can’t walk. What you have to do now, you have to start treating her like someone who’s fine.”
So we tried. God knows we tried. All day every day we ignored her whimpering. When she moaned in pain, I tried to distract her with toys. In the night, when she woke up crying, I dismissed her suffering with a hollow laugh and gave her a bottle, Then, though it killed me, I left her in the crib to shriek.
I still wince at the memory of the day we took her to Holly Park. We had her in a stroller but once we got to the park we made her get out and with a careless casual “Come on, Jess” started walking. She took one step and collapsed. “I can’t waaaalk,” she wailed. “My leg hurts!” And we just said, oh, don’t be silly, and kept walking. And little Jessy dragged herself along behind us on her hands and knees, wailing and stretching her hands out in supplication, pleading for help. Other people gave us baleful looks and a wide berth as we turned our back on the crippled child. I saw outrage and criticism in every eye. What the hell kind of parents were we?
That week I ran into my psychologist friend Liza Ravitz. She said, “What you need is a ritual.”
“Yes, some sort of magic to drive away the bad spirit. You’ll need to invent something she can believe in.”
So we got some candles, and some incense, and some special little biscuits. We wrapped a cloth wrapped around a mystical object. I don’t remember what it was, but it didn’t matter, it was to sacred ever to be unwrapped and gazed upon. We found some fairy dust, too, a powder of some sort that sparkled when it burned. We arranged the apparatus in a “ritually significant” pattern and told Jessy we were going to make her leg well. We built a fire in the fireplace, lit the candles, sipped some sacred liquid, and said some magic words. We had Jessy repeat the words three times with her eyes closed. Then we cast the fairy dust into the fire, watched the sparkles, and sang a song. Finally, we touched the mystical unseen object wrapped in cloth, partook of the biscuits, and blew out the candles. The silence that followed was epic.
Until Jessy shouted joyously, “Again!”
“Oh, no,” we were quick to tell her. The ritual was too deep and powerful to do for fun. It must never be treated as a game.
Jessy was impressed. And then she stood up. The pain was gone. She could walk again. She went back to school the next day and resumed her cheerful little life.
What was my takeaway from all this? Not a belief in the power of magic. Not a new respect for mumbo jumbo. Not at all. What I felt—along with relief and elation, and delight–was a sorrow so sharp it gave me vertigo. I had been so determined to shield my daughter from harm, and in the end the shield I made was itself the harm that came to her. In every other area of my life, I could do better by trying harder. Here, trying harder only made things worse. The sorrow I felt was the knowledge that I had to let my little girl go. I had to let my Jessamyn go into the darkness of the world on her own. Ultimately she was on the same frozen tundra as the rest of us. As I was. As all of us are.