The 5% Girl and a Lesson in Empathy
After spending the last ten days in parental purgatory, we got a call yesterday morning. The huge tumor found in my daughter has been fully removed and after being told the odds were 95% that it would be malignant, Mayo has determined that it is benign. We were very lucky. Only 150-200 people are diagnosed with this type of tumor in the U.S. each year. Random. Like the cells that mutate for no damned reason into something that kills. I haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time for days on end, so getting on the internet seems like a questionable choice. But I’m here to say thanks for all the kind wishes.
I found myself writing in second person over the last week. It’s an unusual POV to pick, but second person puts distance between the reality of life and the compulsive desire to write about it. I was unable to have conversation with people. All words led to I’m so scared and inevitable sobbing. So I tried to find ways to write around the margins of this terrible thing that was my reality, this waiting to see if my beloved child was going to be in the fight of her life or if she got to go home to resume being a teenager, a classical violist, a friend, a classmate. Our girl.
So, like any writer, I start with observations.
Many mornings, I drove home at 5am from the hospital. We’d been sleeping there every night, but in the early morning hours, I was the only one awake and restless. The city streets were clear and I rolled the windows down and felt the crosswind, quiet and cool. She wanted me to get her tennis shoes, even though they wouldn’t fit her swollen feet. I knew I probably shouldn’t be on the road, so I forced myself to focus.
The last mile before home, tears started to leak down my face. By the time I reached the driveway, I was heaving and wailing. Too many hours of saying calming things to her. Too many hours of somber conversation with medical professionals. Too many hours of my husband and I in waiting rooms starting sentences with “I don’t know how we…” Trailing off, because we can only afford to be in that moment.
I thought about what other drivers saw on the way back to the hospital. A blotchy-faced middle-aged woman barely driving at the speed limit in her Prius. They couldn’t know that she was barely fending off terror, that she’d spent the previous day waiting through hours of surgery and recovery of her daughter, that she was in shock and despair. How often had I cussed out drivers, thought the worst of them, assumed that they were this or that?
We’re curiously often incapable of empathy until we find ourselves with the child crying on the plane. Until we have that bad day when everything seems to go wrong. Until we lose a pet, get a bad diagnosis, make a wrong turn. We pass each other in grocery stores, shuffle our feet impatiently at the ATM, cast knowing glances at other bystanders. It’s so much easier to be empathetic in theory than in reality.
Blurry-eyed, I dragged myself through the hospital cafeteria, I looked around at all the families, some comforting themselves with gentle inside jokes, others looking haggard and unseeing. Out of context, I know that I would have seen them differently, perhaps with a hint of judgment or irritation that they were too noisy or unfriendly or inattentive to what they were doing. When we are out in public, we do not know each others’ stories by appearance, and sometimes even by actions. We have to have the imagination and empathy to extrapolate a story. A kinder story.
In the days ahead of unraveling and recouping and processing, I hope that I remember this lesson.