A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a local TV station about Annika for National Donate Life month to promote organ donation awareness. The questions asked during these interviews are always hard to answer, not only because it's an emotional topic, but also because the answers are always these complicated amalgams of hope and optimism smushed together with worry and sadness. One of the questions the reporter asked was how dealing with liver disease and transplant has changed our lives.
I think about that question often. I guess I've been thinking about it from the moment Annika was diagnosed as a tiny baby. I don't usually think about it in terms of Big Answers. It's usually just something small that sets me off, and I think, "Oh. This is what has become of my life."
Last week, Jörg took Annika on the 2 1/2 hour drive up to Chicago to see her doctors. In addition to the encephalopathy, Annika began having trouble keeping anything down. (I'm happy to say that she has finally learned how to vomit into a bowl, rather than burrowing her face into my chest and heaving straight down into the strong and supportive material of my sports bra, where it would pool uncomfortably between my breasts.) As Frankie and I stood at the window waving good-bye, I felt the familiar tug watching them go, seeing how small Annika looked, her head just visible above the window thanks to the extra lift of her booster seat, her eyes so big in her little face. Annika waved at us, her hand cupped in the traditional wave of the beauty queen, and I wondered who had taught her to wave like that, or if she just came upon it naturally, as if pageantry was just an inborn impulse for my little exhibitionist.
Feeling that usual sadness at watching her go, wondering what the doctors might find or say about her future, I remembered a phone conversation I had had nearly a year ago. My friend called to tell me that she had to cancel a tentative playdate we had scheduled for the next day.
"We're in Chicago," she explained, apologetically.
Fear clutched my heart. "Oh, no! Is everyone alright?"
I've got to give my friend credit. She didn't seem taken aback at all by the panic clearly sounding in my voice.
"Yes, we're all fine. We just came up for the day and we were having so much fun we decided to stay the night."
I kicked myself mentally, remembering that, yes, most people around here frequently take day trips to Chicago, just for fun. I couldn't believe how strongly that feeling had overtaken me: that feeling that sudden, unexpected trips to Chicago must signal a crisis of some sort. It was such a strong reflex that my normally rational mind didn't have the chance to remember that Chicago was there for her as a city, a fun city with great buildings and museums and where quite a bit of her family still lived. Not the place with the children's hospital and pediatric gastroenterologists and transplant surgeons.
It made me feel a bit weird.
But it's not always square-peg-round-hole sort of stuff when I think about how liver disease affects our lives. Sometimes the lessons are more subtle.
The night before Anni's trip to Chicago, a huge storm blew through town. It signalled its approach by dousing the sun suddenly in a dramatic gesture of serious weather. I glanced out the back window, noticing all the stuff that needed to be put into the shed before the storm arrived. And just as sudden as the arrival of the storm, Annika leaned over and threw up all over herself, Frankie, me and the sofa where we had all been sitting together. There was no warning, and no time to grab one of the mixing bowls that I had placed all over the house to have ready for emesis emergencies.
So throwing one regretful glance at all the stuff still littering our backyard, I quickly stripped the girls of their clothes and hustled them upstairs for a quick so-you're-covered-in-vomit! bath. I turned on the water then hustled back downstairs to throw the clothes in the washer, then back upstairs to soap them off before the water had even covered their legs. Then I threw them into their pajamas and hustled back downstairs, again, setting them up on the loveseat, the only vomit-free furniture in the living room, threatening an incredibly early bedtime if either of them moved from their perch, while I grabbed a roll of paper towels and went to work on the floor and sofa.
Once I had the goopiest part cleaned up, I threw on my shoes and ran out the back door, arms already outstretched, ready to gather up lawn furniture and all the sand toys that can end up blown several blocks away during a fierce thunderstorm, dotting our neighbors' lawns like brightly-colored candy wrappers emptied from a piñata. I threw the cover on the grill just as the first drops of rain began plopping fatly down.
I ran inside and the girls and I sat backwards on the loveseat, facing out the bay window, watching the storm bear down furiously. The wind began whipping the tree branches wildly, flipping up the leaves so their grayish undersides waved wildly at us like some secret S.O.S. signal. Finally the gusts were so strong that the trees were bending nearly perpindicular to the ground with the force of it.
For anyone who has bought a house in a newer development, you know that trees are a much-coveted landscape feature. When we bought our house, we had two Ash trees. A storm our second summer in the house took out the front yard Ash, but the one in the back had grown tall and round and lovely.
I found myself holding my breath, hoping that our one remaining shade tree would survive the onslaught of the winds (75 m.p.h. we learned from the next day's paper). Watching the way the wind caught in the dense canopy of leaves, I knew that the tree would be faring better if we had only pruned it a bit more regularly. There were weak angles where branches divided too closely, branches that crossed one another, branches that were just too heavy with offshoots in every direction. I whispered a silent apology to the tree for our neglect, promising a prompt appointment with a professional tree pruner if only it could hold up a bit longer. (I have way too many inner conversations with nature for a woman of suburbia. I guess you can take the girl out of the birkenstocks, but you can't take the birkenstocks out of the girl. Or something like that.)
Jörg meanwhile had come home from work and joined our tree vigil. "Whoa! There it goes! There, at the top!" he shouted.
As it turned out, the tree was fine, although I swear it does look a little bent at the top. Unlike many silent bargains made in a moment of crisis, I decided that my promise to the tree needed to be kept, and soon. Except for instead of "professional tree pruner," we went for "really tall guy with a by-pass pruner, hacksaw, and ladder with zero arboreal experience but extreme enthusiasm for orderliness and a firm belief that landscape professionals are probably worth the money but don't fit in the current yearly budget," i.e., Jörg.
I gave Jörg some general guidelines for pruning, and then took off to the side yard where I was planting in some andromeda bushes, figuring I was still in view of the tree decluttering action. I had just gotten the second bush into the ground when I stood up and turned my head to see how things were going with the tree.
And that's when time slowed down.
I sprang to my feet (in slow motion) and opened my mouth (in slow motion) and from the very pit of my stomach came the guttural roar, "N-n-n-n-n-n-n-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!" At the very same moment (in slow motion) a long limb began its graceful arch down to the waiting grass, carrying a large load of precious shade-giving leaves with it. As the limb fell, our backyard neighbor's house, previously hidden behind the curtain of leaves, sprang into full view. And standing there in her own backyard was our neighbor, her face the very mirror of my stunned disbelief. In that supernatural, slow-motion scene, I saw her mouth fall open and I clearly heard her gasp (my hearing apparently sharpened by the stress of the landscape disaster, like those people who suddenly find themselves able to lift cars in a sudden rush of adrenaline.)
You know those awesome acacia trees that stand alone in the middle of the African savannah, the ones that have umbrella-shaped canopies, with leaves only up in their upper reaches, where the giraffes don't even have to bend down to satisfy their munchies? Yup. That's our Ash now. Well, that's our Ash on the left side, where Jörg made that fateful, overly-enthusiastic cut. He offered to even it up and remove a few more branches on the right side, too, but I managed choke out a "No, please, no!" through my tears.
But now, a few days later, I'm getting used to the tree's new shape. I planted some hedge bushes at the side of the yard, and their number of sun-filled hours of the day just increased dramatically. Plus, the grass will certainly grow thicker now. And I most certainly won't have to duck under branches when I'm mowing. The Jolly Green Giant wouldn't have to duck. It's not so bad, really. Like a little touch of exoticism in our own backyard: "Quick! Is it Normal, Illinois? Or the middle of the Masai Mara? Gotcha!"
And, as usual when I'm contemplating nature, I couldn't help but think about how tree pruning is really like the answer I gave to that reporter's question (remember? way up there several scrolls of the page ago? anyone still slogging through all this?) I answered her like this: "You know how whenever you ask a pregnant woman what she wants, a boy or a girl, she always says, 'I don't care as long as the baby's healthy!'? But then the baby is born, and the baby really is healthy and grows up and starts school and does all those normal kid things? And along the way those parents start accumulating expectations and hopes for their child. They save for college; they dream of a medical career or a future world leader or a business genius; they drive their kids to afterschool activities and enrichment programs. Healthy is great and all, but those parents want more. I guess the difference liver disease makes in our lives is that we're still there with the pregnant women saying, 'healthy.' "
That was my answer for her.
I guess I should also have mentioned "happy" as a wish for Anni, but that still leaves a pretty simple list. I know that, at heart, I'm describing what all parents really want, too. All that stuff about Harvard and medical degrees and fortune 500 companies would fall by the wayside for most parents if they could just guarantee their children's happiness. It's just that in our lives the medical stuff is such a constant presence that it's hard to start taking those basic things for granted. In other words, our tree stays constantly pruned, with just the most important branches growing, slowly and with little fanfare, uncrowded by all the little offshoot branches that can distract from the basic structure, the one that holds the tree up when it storms.
It's true, I love my nature metaphors. But I don't want to push this one too far. I know expectations and parental hopes can be great for kids, giving them self-confidence and a blueprint for how to dream and, in turn, expect great things of themselves. All good stuff. And a tree has to grow. You can't just leave it two branches and expect it to flourish. It's also true that pruning can be hard. It's not easy to let go of either those branches or those daydreams. But the result is often a stronger tree (or, at least in our case, a conversation starter for backyard BBQs for years to come). The storms are easier to weather when they're not constantly blowing down unnecessary branches.
If you ask Annika right now what she wants to be when she grows up she will answer, "A zookeeper and a cheerleader!" I don't know how she plans to work both in, but I have seen her attempts at a cartwheel and I'm thinking that we don't need to get her fitted for a pleated polyester miniskirt just yet. But, whatever. It's only my tree that has seen the pruning saw, anyway.
Her little tree can grow as wild as she wants.