Monday I took my fourth trip to Children’s Hospital in Boston with my son James. It was time to take his cast off. He had surgery three weeks ago to repair some damage he did to his hand a few years ago. We’ve had a few challenging moments with his right hand in a cast but he has adapted remarkably well. He has learned to use his left hand to eat, write, and of course play video games. I can’t imagine an adult coping this well without his or her dominant hand for this long. He rarely complained about pain or itchiness and managed to do almost everything he would normally do. The biggest challenge was trying to keep him from going full-speed and damaging himself again. Or damaging someone else—that cast made a pretty effective weapon.
I love Children’s Hospital. Fear and sadness could so easily take over a hospital for children—there are so many kids with really serious conditions. But every kid is treated like a regular kid. No one stares at the little girl who has obviously lost her hair to chemo. No one makes a fuss over the boy with visible scars on his face. Everything is normal there. Maybe the definition of normal becomes much broader when you’re dealing with sick kids.
When adults at Children’s engaged James in a conversation they would ask him about his age, his grade, whether he liked Sponge Bob or if he liked sports. Everywhere else we go people ask him about his cast. The closest anyone at Children’s came was when they asked if blue was his favorite color—since his cast, his shirt, and his stuffed monkey are all blue. I’m not faulting folks for asking. They’re curious and concerned about seeing a little boy in a cast and James doesn’t seem to mind. But I would imagine that someone whose child had some visible long-term condition would get really tired of explaining it to strangers.
Yesterday afternoon I was helping James do exercises the occupational therapist prescribed for him. It’s painful and slow. But if he wants to regain full motion in his finger it has to be done. He catches his breath as he bends each joint and holds it down for ten seconds. He gets a little teary eyed. “Don’t hold your breath Buddy,” I tell him, remembering the things I know from years of yoga. “Take a deep breath when we bend your finger.” We move through the three joints twice. “Do you want to just do two more and take a break?” I ask him.
“How many do we have to do?”
“No. Let’s just do it.”
It hurts but he keeps going. He knows there are times he can play me with his sad eyes and pouty lips. This time he knows I can’t let him stop. Giving him a break is all I can offer. Without the exercises his finger won’t be any better than it was before the surgery. James knows I can’t give in. He gets it and he’s willing to work through the discomfort to get better. I am so impressed with his determination.
A part of me wants to let him stop. That part of me that nursed him countless times at 3am, the part that crawls into his bed when he has a bad dream, the part that has read Good-night Moon hundreds of times, the part that has sung “Sweet Baby James” thousands of times. That part of me wants to tell him it’s okay to stop and make him a cup of hot chocolate instead. The Tough Mama inside me has to tell that part of me to go sit in a corner while I do my job. The tough Mama (or Papa) is the part of our parenting brain that makes our kids get vaccinated, eat his vegetables and take nasty tasting medicine. It is the same part that makes him do his homework when he’s had a tough day or takes away privileges when he’s done something wrong. I hate being Tough Mama. But I know I have to be her sometimes.
James hurt his fingers six years ago. Just his fingers. They’re going to get better but it’s going to take some work. When I helped him with his therapy I was thinking about all the parents of patients at Children’s Hospital—the parents whose kids are dealing with problems much larger than a couple of fingers. The Tough Mama part of them must be huge. I don’t know how they do it. I know the short answer is, “What choice do I have?” But still, you do it. You tell the sweet-nurturing part of yourself to go find something else to do while you do what you have to do to make your baby well. I tip my hat to you Tough Mamas and Papas out there. You have my eternal respect and nightly prayers.