I held Stella tight as she sat in my lap, her breathing labored. I’d noticed that morning that she was pursing her lips and pushing the air out of them every few minutes, like she couldn’t get her little lungs to do the thing they normally do. I try to keep my kids out of the doctor’s office, but this seemed like one of those times when it was justified. The doctor moved the stethoscope around her back methodically, listening and looking up and to the left as if she might find her diagnosis written in the air near the ceiling.
Stella was patient, subdued by the sickness and fascinated by getting to be inside of one of her frequent fantasy games (though usually she is the doctor and I am the patient with some very serious, very inscrutable disease). It is one of my favorite games, of course, because it means I get to lie down.
In any case, the doctor pushed back with her feet and rolled herself in front of us, next to the monitor in which, I presumed, Stella’s medical history (aka my biggest source of anxiety and reason for gratitude) existed in little bytes. Then she said: “Well, it doesn’t sound great. We could send her to get an x-ray, or we could wait and see how this thing progresses.”
“Okay,” I said. Waiting for her to tell me the verdict.
“What is your feeling about it?”
I was sort of stunned silent. My feeling? This doctor looked like she could be my fraternal twin--long brown hair, about 40, mustard colored tights and a mini-skirt on under her white coat, not your typical authoritative figure, but still...the white coat. The medical degree hanging on the wall. The stethoscope and the monitor. Wasn’t she supposed to be an oracle of my daughter’s health? Weren’t my feelings irrelevant in this setting?
“Well, I guess I would like more information about what you heard when you listened to her lungs,” I finally said, rising to the occasion.
“It definitely sounds like she’d got something going on in there. It’s a bit worse on one side than the other. It could be viral. It could be bacterial. We won’t know unless we wait it out or get an x-ray,” she explained. “But you know her best. What do you think?”
Stella played with the new My Little Pony sticker on her Nalgene water bottle and pursed her lips, pushing the air out. “I think we should get an x-ray,” I said. “She’s had plenty of colds, but I’ve never seen her breathe like that.”
The doctor nodded and then started typing away, making the order and sent us over to the basement of the hospital where we would befriend an old man in a wheelchair and his wife, who didn’t know what day it was but offered Stella a band-aid all the same. The radiologist’s late mom had been Estella, so he was especially excited to meet my indefatigable, labored breather. She got to wear a “shield” over her little belly, which was very exciting (superhero-type shit), and so many people in official looking medical uniforms told her what a brave kid she was. In other words, it was a really good day...other than the pneumonia, of course.
When we got home that afternoon, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the doctor had done in that room. She had seen my mother’s intuition as instrumental, authoritative even beyond or at least in equal relationship with her white coat and many years of training. I realize that I’ve never even had a doctor that made me feel like the authority or go-to intuit on my own body, much less my daughters’ bodies. Even though I am, as I have written about before, the “keeper” of their bodies--the one who has fed and healed and snuggled and adored and, okay, obsessed over their bodies more than any other person on earth.
My dad still has his first car--a ‘55 Chevy Bel Air convertible. It’s a whale of a thing--mint green and yellow with fuzzy green dice hanging from the mirror. He’s driven it for so long that the stick shift has basically molded to his movement. On the rare occasion that my mom has tried to drive it, it’s like she can’t quite get it into gear because they don’t have the same almost 60-year long tactile connection--the car and her. It seems straight-forward, shifting gears, but it’s not; he’s worn a path internal to the car that matches his particular musculature.
I realize that I know my girls’ bodies, and their function or dysfunction, like my dad knows his car. Sixty years worth of noticing and touching and repairing packed into six years. Micro-movements and moments that add up to a vast and profound authority. Mostly unacknowledged in medical settings. Until now.
This shouldn’t be so striking, so unusual. And yet, it is. I think more often mothers are treated like hypochondriacs, and I’m sure we can be, but having my knowing dignified in that office actually made my anxiety dissipate. The fact that she saw my authority made me own it. I felt less out of control and catastrophic. My daughter is sick. Together we will figure out why, and move toward solving it.
I don’t have to extract medicine out of this person, who holds all the power and discernment. I don’t have to convince her of anything. I just have to tell her what I notice and see what she notices, and together we will navigate our way back to Stella, taking “nature pees” in the lawn and making sour lemonade for the neighbors and generally driving everyone crazy, but making it all palpable via her undeniable cuteness.
It was so small. One little question. And yet it changed my relationship to my own anxiety and my own authority, and it felt like a bit of a coup within the history of the medical establishment--two young(ish) women, both moms, determining what is valid information for decision-making on our own terms, together. It makes me wonder, particularly in this moment of pandemics and panic, how we might know our own bodies and talk about them in official rooms in ways that give us the best chance of coming together, rather than breaking apart.
This morning I dropped Stella off at preschool and she told her friends about her shield. My girl is, no doubt, some kind of marshmallow-cheeked, giggling, stumbling kind of superhero, but so is that woman in the white coat whose superpower is a disarming, healing question.