I am about to write what I hope will be the most difficult chapter of this journey to write about (wishful thinking, I am sure). It is hard for me to imagine anything worse than this, and if there is something worse, I don’t want to face it. I’m hoping that by writing about it, it won’t keep thrashing me whenever I think about it (“If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me, threatening the life it belongs to.” Thank you, Anna Nalick).
The worst is this: Why didn’t I take Hudson to the ER at 4AM on Monday morning, rather than 2PM later that day? As I write this, I dread, dread, dread the internal reactions (for I hope no one would be so cruel as to actually respond this way) of all the mothers and fathers, and non-mothers and non-fathers, some of whom will certainly think, “Well, why didn’t she take her to the ER? I would have taken her to the ER.” This is the worst.
Why, after paging the doctor on Sunday, why when the one thing that she said we should be concerned about happened—the fever not responding to medication—why didn’t I pack her in the car that second and take her to the ER? Why, when somewhere inside I knew something was terribly wrong? My mommy instincts had been spot-on during the entire 17 months since Hudson was born. Why, when it mattered the most, did they fail me? I spent agonizing time this morning sobbing and crying out (to no one in particular), “Why didn’t I take her in? Why didn’t I take her in?” This question (and its corollary, “Would it have made any difference?”) lingers in the background of my every waking moment.
My answers? Who knows? Because it was 4AM and I knew the doctor’s office opened at 7, so I figured if I could just get the fever down with a cool bath, we could wait it out until then. Because I was trying not to be an overreactive parent. Because I was only worried about the fever getting too high, not even thinking about what could be causing it, and assuming it was no worse than a really crappy virus that would resolve itself. Because just nine hours before, she was chipper, ate a huge dinner, and seemed like she was on her way to a full recovery from a bug. Because just five hours before, she’d taken the Tylenol, perked up and was chatting in our bed until we decided it was probably time for her to go back to sleep in her own room. Because I mistook her lethargy for being tired from fighting off a fever the night before. Because never, in a million years, ever, ever, would I have dreamed that she was fighting off a rare and frighteningly fatal illness.
When I start to think this way, I try to remind myself that I did take her to the pediatrician as soon as they opened. And the doctor, who had seen Hudson pretty regularly for all the normal daycare illnesses, walked in, saw Hudson lying across my lap, and immediately said, “She is sick.” But even hearing the whole history, including the fever not responding a few hours before, she was ready to send us right back home with more ibuprofen and Tylenol. It was only because I started to cry in the office (again, I knew something was wrong) that she agreed to do a full work-up. And then sent us home to wait. I try to remind myself that the only reason we even ended up in the ER at 2PM when we did was because Hudson was refusing to eat or drink and I was concerned she was getting dehydrated, so I called the doctor again and we decided we should go on to the ER for some fluids. But the doctor assured me they would do no more evaluations because Hudson had had a full work-up already that morning. I try to remind myself that when Hudson left the pediatrician that morning, her white blood cell count was, in the words of the PICU Fellow in charge of our care, “stone cold normal” (meaning it would have been so a few hours earlier at the ER as well).
But even though I know these things, and I know I don’t have a crystal ball, the “what ifs” are still enough to kill a parent. My job was to protect her. My job was to know that something was wrong. My job was to take her to the ER and insist that they figure out what it was. I keep imagining that the ER docs would have been more aggressive, that they’d have seen her slightly swollen eye (a symptom the doctor had said when I called in on Sunday was most likely just related to the same infection, probably an upper respiratory something or other, that was causing the fever), heard about the unresponsive fever, somehow suspected meningitis then, and gotten antibiotics into her 12 hours earlier. And that the antibiotics would have worked then. And then I would have saved her. And then she would be with me now.
Of course, I have no idea whether any of these things is true. And I know there is no point in this kind of thinking. But this is what bereaved parents do. No matter how close they were to, or how far they were from, the catastrophe that befell their children, they wonder what they could have done differently so that their children would still be alive. I know this. So I try most of the time to avoid this kind of thinking. But sometimes the grief just takes me there, and once I’m there, it is hard to climb out. I try to remember what I just read in Elizabeth McCracken’s spellbinding memoir about having her baby die in utero at 41 weeks: “This kind [of thinking] is not so bad, the If I Did One Thing Differently, Then Maybe Everything Would Also Be Different sort, a vague, philosophical itch: yes, if life were different, then life would be different. Such thinking feels like science fiction, stepping on a bug in 20,000 BC and altering the course of history.”
But it doesn’t feel like a vague, philosophical itch or science fiction to me. I was Hudson’s mommy. It was my job to protect her. And the fact that I didn’t, or couldn’t (whichever it is—it doesn’t really matter, does it?) is just the worst.