The Writing Mamas Daily Blog

Each day on the Writing Mamas Daily Blog, a different member will write about mothering.

If you're a mom then you've said these words, you've made these observations and you've lived these situations - 24/7.

And for that, you are a goddess.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Life's Most Important Lessons Come from Children

It is flu season, again. My son, Jack, is as sick as he has ever been in all of his four and a half years. Not as intense as when he had RSV as a baby, but in his older age, he fooled me into expecting that every sickness lasts only one day and that none of them confine him to the couch. This is day five of the fever that is burning up his energy and still has him prone.

Sometimes a retired-by-motherhood scientist has more information about disease than the average mom should know. I naively entered the science profession with the hope of minimizing suffering and ultimately reaching the holy grail of defeating a disease; eradicating it from the population. When my kids are sick, I keep going to bad places in my mind discovered in my ex-profession, like pneumonia, drug resistant bacteria, cancer, cancer, cancer. . . 

At my first job in the Bay Area, I signed up to volunteer at the hospital, reading books to children in the ICU. They were the helpless ones from birth to seventeen who had very serious diseases and were forced to stay in a sterilized environment every day. I thought that I would be able to go to their room and smile and read and talk and help them feel not so alone.

I would go to the cupboard where the books were stored and select the ones I wanted to read that day. Then, I would scrub my hands until they were raw, put on a mask over my mouth, and go to their room and give them the choice of selections and read the story.

The first day, in all of my peppy optimism, I went to Darlene’s room. I was warned before I started the program not to ask the names of the patients, not to get too attached, but I asked her name because that is what you do when you meet someone with whom you exchange names. Darlene was a chatty eight-year old and I entered the room with her talking excitedly to the nurse about ghosts. I was a bit surprised that she was speaking about ghosts while fighting to live, but when I later left the room the nurse explained that Darlene was talking about her “phantom” leg; the fact that she still felt her leg even though it was lost to cancer.

I was taken aback that someone so young could speak so candidly about such a topic, without remorse. I figured that she didn’t understand, but was quickly corrected when she explained the whole process how her brain is tricked and that she would get used to it. This was my first insight into the resilience of children. Their viewpoint on life is not mired by all the what-ifs; this is what it is what it is and they deal with it -- often with a smile on their face.

It broke my heart. I felt sad for her, even though she didn’t seem sad herself. I was so mixed up seeing all of those smiling kids who were so sick. It forced me to see life differently. Darlene picked a story that I had never read about -- Humphrey the lost whale. It is a story about beating the odds, surviving when all odds are against you, accepting help when you can, and fighting like crazy to live.

It was a story about Darlene.

Her parents passed me in the hall and thanked me for coming and brightening her day which seemed pretty enlightened to me already. I didn’t seem to do anything for her, but I learned a lot about myself and how tormented I was that bad things do happen to good people, young people, innocent people, all people; and how the young take it so well.

The next week I had a story I thought Darlene would enjoy and went to her room to read it to her. A little boy was in her bed. I know that people don’t check out of that ward healthy in a week. I greeted the little boy, bald from treatment, but smiling. I read him the story, but I did not get his name.

Although I think of Darlene every so often, I had never thought of her parents, until I had kids. My son has heard the story of Humphrey probably a hundred times by now. I am on my fifth day still waiting for his fever to break and he is still smiling at me. I feel sad and helpless and I wonder how Darlene’s parents survived. I hope that my son has incorporated the characteristics of Humphrey and Darlene into his life so that he may always be ready to fight the impossible.

By Jennifer O’Shaughnessy

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Good writing, Jennifer. I always appreciate what you write about your experience as a scientist-parent. This piece is particularly poignant.
...touched my heart thanks for connecting REAL health problems from perceived - or are they really the same?
Thanks, Jennifer. I felt the pang of a tear welling up inside as I read it. Even though it was sad I like reading something that makes me FEEL my emotions. It brought me back to my visits to a children's hospital. Like you, I felt that the parents seemed to be experiencing the most acute emotional pain. It was hard to imagine their pain not being a parent myself at the time. I got the smallest glimpse of it when I brought my toddler with pneumonia to the ER to get a chest xray. He had only a handful of words at the time (ball, mama, dada...). When they took him out of my arms to take him into a private x-ray room, he summoned up a new word...."Help" It broke my heart!
Beautiful piece. Thanks for writing it.
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