5th Birthday on the Beach
Another birthday, another letter, and yes you are still amazing, maybe even more so than you were last year, if that’s possible. You’re asleep as I write this and we’re in Spain, having moved here about seven weeks ago. I have no idea at this moment whether you will read this, aged twenty nine, and smile to think of us new and unsure in the country that became your home, or whether you will find it strange to think you once lived here in a place you have no memory of. All I can tell you is this last year was a big one for all of us, moving from somewhere we had lived for four years (almost all your life) and arriving here to start all over again. And I can’t even tell you my darling, how wonderfully well you’ve taken having the rug pulled out from under you like that – how you’ve never complained and never stopped smiling and have gone rushing into school and everything that’s new with all your usual enthusiasm.
But I can’t talk about this year without acknowledging one major milestone you reached. It was probably the biggest thing that’s ever happened to you, and also one that should never have happened at all.
It starts like this: April 27th 2013. Our leaving party. I’m laughing, in the middle of a conversation when I see a friend, stricken, running towards me with you in her arms and I know instantly that a Very Bad Thing is in the offing. I know even before I see that most precious of arms completely, visibly, snapped in two, that the going has gotten tough and it is time for the tough to get going.
Back into town towards the Hospital De Ninos is probably a journey of about twenty minutes, but on this day it takes twenty years, and every moment of the way you, who are still yet to cry, repeat your steady yelped mantra: Ow…ow…ow…ow…ow…. You are so brave, so stoical and yet so obviously in agony that it’s all I can do to stop myself from crying. But I know it isn’t an option – I know that watching me break down in tears would serve nothing but to make your terror complete.
Cut to this: me and you on a wooden bench waiting for the X-ray, and you have entered a Zen state. No more yelling, still no tears. Instead you are quiet, utterly still, blinking slowly and gazing at me with soulful eyes, and we are cradling the arm gingerly between our bodies, guarding it.
“I promise you it’s going to start getting better now,” I tell you. “The worst part is over.”
But I am wrong.
You are brave against all odds while they sandwich your arm between two battered bits of wood for an x-ray while I stand four feet away in an iron apron as if abandoning you to the radiation. Outside, waiting for the result to develop, you even manage to fall asleep. Your system, overwhelmed, simply shuts down. And all this while I am holding in my arms the most precious perfect thing that has ever been mine, and it is broken.
But it is back in the osteopathy department that things really start to get interesting, and by interesting I mean excruciating. The bones, you see, have not just snapped but have then proceeded to slide back over each other. This means that someone is going to have to pull them back into place. Fine, seems straight forward enough, until I learn that all of this will happen with NO pain relief and I am expected to pin you down while they do it.
In the end, though, you don’t need to be pinned down. That’s so not your style anyway. All you need is to have it explained to you that this has to happen, that this is it, this is the real worst moment of the whole thing and after this, I PROMISE, things will start getting better. And so with eyes as wide as oceans and a deep swallowing breath, you ride a tidal wave of agony while doctors twist and manipulate and pummel at that little arm, and set up your steady mantra of ows while staying completely calm, until it is done.
I’ll gloss over the next four weeks, because it would probably just be extremely boring to read my repeated testimonies to your resilience – the way you had to shower with a plastic bag over your cast every night, the way the cast weighed almost as much as the rest of your body put together, the way you never complained, never let it hold you back from doing everything you do, the way you learnt to write and draw and eat with your left hand like it was the most natural thing in the world, the way you never, not once, said it was itchy.
Instead I’ll cut to May 27th, exactly a month after the Very Bad Thing, and exactly a month before we leave Costa Rica for good. This is the day we go to the hospital to get the cast taken off, and I go into it bouncing with enthusiasm and an air of celebration. We get a taxi into town, you and I, giddy like it was Christmas Eve. But what happens is NOTHING like Christmas Eve.
I should add here that I feel so blessed that we had the Hospital de Ninos, the biggest and best childrens’ hospital in Central America, right there on our doorstep and I cannot fault the service we had and the staff we met. The guy who takes the cast off is a perfect example – he does his level best to prevent the terror from seeping into your heart the way it does (showing you the little circular saw he is about to employ and reassuring you that it won’t hurt) but seemingly it is inevitable.
“Are you scared?” I ask you, disorientated, so rarely have I seen fear etched on your face.
You shake your head, an adamant no, but then proceed to quake so hard I can almost hear your bones rattling. But after a bit of high-pitched whirring the cutting is done, and the guy is parting the halves of the cast like someone shucking a corn on the cob, and there is the arm.
It’s your arm alright, but not as we knew it. It’s shriveled and noodle-like and grey; it’s tiny, and it even emits an odd, slightly cheesy odor. And God only knows what it feels like, but I assume it doesn’t feel great since you take one horrified look before cradling it in against your chest and bursting into tears, refusing to let anybody look at (let alone touch) it just as if it was broken all over again.
Maybe it seems odd that getting the cast taken off was more traumatic than having it put on, but there it is; and though I was surprised at first, on reflection it seemed perfectly natural to me. You’re your mother’s daughter and I would have reacted exactly the same way (in fact I did, not so long ago). Just like me, you are fearless at the business end of illness: blood and guts – no problem, excruciating pain – we laugh in the face of it. It’s the atrophy that scares us, the alarming swiftness with which your body starts to fail you, to decay. It’s far too visceral, this ugly reminder of our own mortality, far more horrifying than the fresh brutality of blood and pain, which after all mostly show us just how alive we really are.
I carry you to x-ray just like I did a month previously, but this time you weep sadly against my chest. While we’re waiting we start to integrate the alien arm back into our lives. I convince you to let me touch it and it is cool, lizard-like, utterly limp. I pass my thumb back and forth across it as wads of brown dead skin ball up and drop away; you are actually quite amused and join in until I get a bit too carried away and blood starts to bubble up through the fresh pores.
X-ray done, we wait outside the doctor’s office for a while, mostly because, as is typical with the Costa Rican health service, about thirty other people have the exact same appointment time as us. I’m annoyed about it until I realize the transformation that’s coming over you as you watch all the other kids that are lined up along the wooden benches. Many of them have casts on their arm or leg, or are cradling a little shriveled limb just like you and they are, to a man, saucer-eyed and ashen faced, just like you. But it is the boy on a gurney who really catches your eye, poor little thing that he is, plastered from toe to hip and staring down the barrel of months on crutches.
“I’m so lucky it wasn’t my leg, Mummy,” you whisper, color returning to your lovely cheeks. “That would have been awful.” And I kiss you and we hold hands, and we both begin to feel a hint of Christmas Eve again, because it could have been so much worse, and it wasn’t.
We get the all-clear. The doctor seems slightly bemused by how well your rubbery little arm has knitted itself back together in four short weeks (during which you persisted to bash it about so much the plaster had developed several cracks) and we are assured that the arm will be good as new in a matter of days.
As if you had simply been waiting for this confirmation you start to tentatively use it on the way out of the hospital, and in the shower that night, we slough away at it until its sad unshed layer of skin is gone and there is a brand new arm, pristine and freshly pressed and beautiful as ever, and it is like it none of it ever happened.
And here you are aged five with a great story that you love to tell and an arm that functions perfectly and it is all behind us. And yet inside, deep down, there is a scar, a memory written in your bones. Some doctors say an arm that has been broken and has healed is stronger than it was before. I can see how this could be true. The things we go through have a habit of doing that don’t they – of making us more resilient than we were. You will learn that soon enough, if you haven’t already.
All I know (and this might sound strange) is I feel lucky every day that you broke your arm. A broken limb is right up there in the top ten of best case scenarios when it comes to problems with your health. Sure it hurts like hell…but it heals, it is completely fixable. I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am not going to get to the end of my days without seeing you ill or in pain. I just hope that every time I have to do that I get to see you perfect again the way I did this time, fixed and healed and stronger than you were before. And the good thing is that now I know just how tough you really are. My darling girl, it is quite clear that nothing is ever going to stop you.
Happy fifth birthday.
All my love, as always,