"Where did you get your hair from?"
You tug at my hair as you ask the question in our game of hair salon.
“God,” I say.
“Nooooo! Someone else.”
“Is she real or invisible?”
We are imagination queens—you and me. Together we make up elaborate worlds that I can’t keep track of. Today we are eating sunshine. Tomorrow we will be dogs. We will color and paint and consider the possibility of using black instead of pink, but it’s unlikely. Maybe you will invite the girl named ‘princess’ and her sister named ‘queen,’ both dressed in purply pink to our naïve play. Holy sweetness: everything that the world is not.
Apparently, it isn’t until the age of four that children start to differentiate between the real and the imaginary. For right now imaginary Sue making my hair is as real as the kid tattoo that you have been peeling off your belly. The real story that you are only starting to absorb about your life is the part that surrounds your heart defect. You were born with a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot, a condition where four things go wrong in tandem during the formation of the heart in utero. My utero. You had open-heart surgery when you were six-months-old.
“Hey, story angel! Who made your hair?”
“Did I do a good job?”
We have been talking about your check-up for a few days now. Preparing you. Now you lie bravely on the table wearing the white night gown we told you about. Daddy tries to make it fun: “Look it has long sleeves, just like we thought.” You don’t yet know that also part of your story (and mine) is the trek back here every year to have your heart assessed. You just know about this moment and the stuffed animal reward that we have discussed. I can see the possibility of a rainbow unicorn dangling in your mind and jamming the tears back down. I give you a thumbs-up. You give me one back. I mouth the words “I love you.” You nod.
I know this is my time to shine, to be brave and strong and show no fear. I’ve been through heart surgery with you. I’ve seen you filled with tubes. I’ve held your recovering body in my arms, trying to find and comfort the flesh amidst the cables. How hard can a check-up be? I sit on the end of the bed and calmly stroke your leg while the technician begins the echocardiograph of your heart. But my body remembers the pain of this place and I am right back in that first moment when they gave us the news. I could almost throw up. I catch your eyes filling up as the technician shifts your little body on the pillow. You don’t like being touched by a stranger, but you make yourself okay. I try to do the same.
“Don’t cry because your eyes aren’t the color of rainbows!”
“But why aren’t they?”
You run to the mirror.
“What color are they?”
Your heart pumps on the screen. The technician tells you it’s a beautiful heart. I think that’s a nice thing to say, a glorious thing to say and I want her to say it again and again, but at the same time I wish she wouldn’t lie. We wouldn’t be here if it was such a great heart. I want to put that question to the technician, and then ask her about her undoubtedly perfect children. My bitterness is rising. The refrain that “this isn’t fair” returns. I imagine yanking the technician by her swirly chair and shouting mean things, but she’s down to business taking a hundred pictures of your heart and I don’t want to interrupt. One, two, three…She lines up the pictures neatly, squirts a little more gel onto the instrument then runs it across your chest. Click, click…more pictures. She twists your body every which way to get the “right view.” She leans you against a pillow and tilts your head back so your chest is all puffed up. She assures you it doesn’t hurt. I wonder if she really knows.
The morning is interminable until we sit face to face with the doctor and hear the news (there’s always news). He suggests an MRI for you in a couple of months so we can get a more accurate reading on how fast the right ventricle is enlarging. Though they had once speculated that the valve would need replacing around age twenty or thirty, now he suggests maybe fourteen? But an MRI would provide a more accurate reading. I ask him if it was his child if he would do the MRI. He says yes. I ask him if he’s disappointed by these results. He assures us that you can wear goggles in the MRI tunnel and watch a movie, and one of us can even join you in there. Like the old days, I am starting to go numb. I wonder if the tunnel can handle my grief. I can feel everything in me contracting including my own story, which is feeling so small and vulnerable. I would like to rock myself in a corner, somewhere where I can sob deeply without any witnesses. If only I was a receptacle for “news,” a binder, a box, instead of a soft, sinewy mother, the maker of an imperfect heart.
Your surgery was in 2014. That’s also the year of the Ebola heartbreak, the Malaysian airline crash and the year Robin Williams committed suicide. His death sticks with me—this “human dynamo” comedic genius. He was story. A giver of laughs who offered himself up so completely to his characters. I remember Mrs. Doubtfire and Goodwill Hunting and his raunchy comedy special. He said that performing was like having heart surgery on stage—what more could he give? And maybe he gave too much? We can’t know his story anymore. But he obviously carried some kind of deep wound around with him, a destabilizing pain. What? What stories haunted him when he wasn’t making us laugh and cry and feel? I love you, Robin Williams. I am sorry for your trauma, sorry for all of us with our deep pains that can’t be shed. Some things are everlasting.
We take the elevator down and away from the 4th floor of The Hospital For Sick Children. We travel away from that place of doctors trying to muster compassion, and to forget technicians and little white robes and ugly stickers that they put all over your body. When the elevator opens I imagine running to the car. I almost suggest it. Wouldn’t running be the most efficient way out, guys? But you want to meander through the gift shop. A stuffie, right? The perfect stuffie! Of course it’s not until we can find the perfect stuffie and maybe a magic wand that we can finally leave your heart here for a while. For a brief second, I look up and see the stories of those around me. I see the other fearful parents and wish we could all get on our toes and see high and beyond. There’s something above this human overcast, these stories we are living here. Let’s join hands and help each other along. I try to make eye contact with a scared mother and even attempt a smile. She doesn’t smile back.
“Did I know you when you were a kid?” you ask me.
Later when you flush a whole roll of toilet paper down the toilet I ask if it was on purpose or by accident. You say “both.”
There was a woman that carried her baby who would never live to full term so she could donate the organs. Her husband praised her positive attitude, her selfless act. We have been model citizens, too, Violet. Parents of notable strength. I started a checklist of the times we were just as strong. After your surgery, we took you home before you were even completely healed. We told the doctor you could heal better in your own home away from the incessant noise, the constant beeping (oh my god, the beeping) of the hospital setting. We had to wake you up every four hours for alternating doses of ibuprofen and Tylenol (the perfect cocktail for pain), no matter how peacefully you were sleeping. We understood that the best thing for you was to keep the magic liquids flowing inside you despite your shrieks of protest. We agonized over the fluid in the drainage tubes hanging out of your belly, waiting for it to turn from milky white to clear so they would take the tubes out. Not to mention the six weeks leading up to surgery when we fed you doses of iron to make your blood strong. Daddy would cradle you in his arms and try to make the syringe seem enticing. It made me anxious every time. But we did it. We were strong towers. We were mighty. So are you. Look at how you can stand on one leg and close your eyes at the same time! You are amazing, Violet.
Six sessions into therapy I finally acknowledge my trauma. I confess my feelings of inadequacy that I made something flawed. Me, the maker, made a defective product. I am flawed. In this space, my therapist assures me I’m allowed to say these things and speak these narcissistic bits of sadness. I am allowed to speak about my grief whenever I see a pregnant woman walking down the street. I can cry about my failed pregnancy. I can cry for what I lost. I can be weak and cry until I’m dry if I want to because there’s no one watching me. Here I don’t have to be a strong tower. My therapist says I need to make meaning out of this story.
“Hey, story angel, I’m ready for fun. What should we play today?”
“If you want to see me play in the bath with a thousand arms, click next,” you say out of nowhere.
“You’re so funny, little bunny. How do you think of these things? Who made your spectacular imagination?”
“I love you a million,” you say.
“I love you back.”
You plant a big one on my nose.
I miss and kiss your eye.
Rebecca Davey is a filmmaker, writer and producer. She has written and produced several award winning short films and the lauded web series Running With Violet. She is currently working on a book of essays and completing her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Colombia. She lives in Toronto with her husband and daughters.