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What to Bring to the Hospital for a Child's Surgery

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hospital bag

If you are ever the person I was, packing a car to drive to the hospital for your daughter’s 17th time under general anesthesia (this time, to move her aorta away from her esophagus), you will need to bring many things with you. Take notes. I know exactly what you will need, if you are ever the person I was.

First of all, you need clothes for you. You need soft pants and a roomy shirt to sleep in on an uncomfortable set of cushions by the window — cushions whose ill-suitedness for restful sleep you will not notice as you sink, delirious with exhaustion, in and out of a black slumber 20 times a night. You need thick socks and slip-on shoes so you can perch on the edge of the bed and then jump off quickly to skitter across the room and grab the emesis basin, the phone, the nurse’s call button. You need more hooded sweatshirts than you would have predicted. You will be far colder than one would expect.

You do not need clothes for your daughter. Though you may have thought ahead to the incisions and the need for button-down as opposed to pull-over pajamas, you have somehow forgotten the snaking tubes and lines and leads and wires that would need to be disconnected to manage something as complicated as sleeves. She will only need hospital gowns. The pajama bottoms, while a nice touch, are only an impediment to quick bathroom trips, of which there will be many.

Perhaps, just bring her some socks.

You need only one book, no matter how long you think you’ll be staying. In fact, you only need 12 pages of a book. You’ll only ever read those 12 pages. Far better are repetitive, mindless electronic games on your phone, there only to break the tedium of the same animated movie on repeat day after day, soothing the floating consciousness of your daughter but bringing you to the edge of hysteria. Bring a charger and a long cord.

You can bring books for your daughter if you care about the facade they create that her education and intellect is anywhere on your list of priorities. They are heavy, though, and in her haze of alternating morphine and shocking pain, she will never choose to read them. You can bring your own movies and know the drone of sound with the light and color of something other than hospital monitors will be all she can absorb for several days. You will watch these movies out of one eye while watching her with the other. Bring headache medicine and a water bottle.

Bring your steadiest, most practical friend. Say yes to her offers: to ride to the hospital with you at dawn, to bring muffins, to shield you from other drama, to distract other visitors. Let her pretend with you that the chairs in the waiting room are beautiful, that you need to photograph them, that they would look great in your older daughter’s room, that yes, wow, these chairs! Talk to her from next to her and do not look her in the eye, but know that if you did, and if you started to crumble, she would not break. Buy her a large drink and, hours later, a sandwich.

Only bring pieces of your husband. All of him there would be too frightening; you have no choice but to bring all of yourself, but if you bring his fear and his history and the image of him holding your daughter when she was a newborn, flat across his forearm like a football, grinning and singing in her ear — it will be too much. He will have to bring that himself. You can only carry so much.

You will need to bring more family than that. Whether you would prefer it or not is meaningless, and in the end, you will be glad they are there. They will bring all the things you cannot carry: a stiff upper lip, and a good attitude, and the presence of mind to place a meal in your hands while you wait and say you really do need to eat this, you’re no use to her if you’re running on empty. They will fill the visitor’s fridge with snacks for you before they leave. You will eat them all week, and feel grateful.

Be sure to bring a camera, maudlin as it may seem. When it is over, when she is home and months have passed and she is beginning to forget, you can look at the pictures. You can see her terrible strained smile, see the tangled hair that did come smooth again, see the balloons that are now flattened in a forgotten basket.  We were there, you’ll say to yourself then. We made it.

But before that, of course, don’t forget to bring everything there is to bring of your daughter. Bring her body, miraculous nearly everywhere but one twisted place. Bring her memories and her history and her essence. Bring her love, her trust. Bring her sweetness, her spirit, her humor. Bring her as a whole being, and as the broken pieces of her fuse slowly, cracks visible, remind yourself and her that she is not the feeling of torn muscle and spasms. She is not the fire rising in her chest when she breathes. She is not the stupor of drugs and the sticky heat of bandages. She is your daughter: alive.

That’s what you should bring, if you are ever me.

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Originally published: May 3, 2016
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