Recently, a group of us had a conversation about how far back our memories went.
“Do you have memories from when you were two or three?” my husband asked me.
“Yes, but they are mostly traumatic,” I said. I was sort of joking, mainly for the benefit of the people around us, but let’s put some emphasis on the sort of.
As much as I hate to type it, and as much as they don’t reflect the much more diverse experience of my childhood, my clearest, earliest memories all involve sickness: wheeling my little pink suitcase down the stairs en route to a surgery at age two; standing in my crib in murky pre-dawn light, crying because everything hurt; the many-week stay in a hospital isolation ward in nursery school.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful childhood—parents who loved and advocated for me; older brothers who supported me; friends and family who worked around illness. When I could, we traveled to exciting places. I spent summers on Cape Cod, where I saw my cousins and grandparents every day and I could start to recover from the infections that ravaged me during the school year. I was fortunate to attend good schools and had a wide range of extracurricular experiences. This isn’t to say illness wasn’t ever-present, because it was, but it did not overwhelm or define these other experiences.
But my earliest memories are not the ones the pictures in photo albums portray. They are not the birthday parties at Papa Gino’s or the play dates or the Christmas mornings we lined up for pictures. They are vivid and visceral: the smell of rubbing alcohol as the IV nurse prepped my ankle since my arms were all used up; the harsh white sunlight of my room in isolation; the smell of the artificial strawberry flavor they used in my anesthesia mask over and over, a smell that to this day causes me to dry heave immediately.
This has been on my mind lately, as we prepare for the arrival of our long-awaited child. People often ask me if I have a preference for a girl or a boy.
“As close to full term as possible,” I give as my sole preference (mainly because when I say “alive” people look at me strangely.)
“As long as it’s healthy,” they will counter, and I nod my head.
(1. I don’t really like to use the word “it” in this context but it’s a common saying. 2. We actually tried to find out the gender last week, figuring we might have enough surprises to contend with during this pregnancy, but the baby had other plans that involved tightly pressing his or her legs together the whole time. Baby 1, parents 0.)
“As long as it’s healthy.”
It’s the universal comment people make, and with good reason.
Of course, of course I want my child to be healthy. I might not be able to give him or her many of the things that I had—for example, it’s far too early to consider siblings but it’s complicated terrain. But if he or she could grow up healthy, it would mean the world to me. Like any parent, if I could spare him or her my experiences and if I could avoid the heartache I know my mother went through watching it unfold for her child, I would be so grateful for both of us.
I know my most serious condition (PCD) will not be passed on to our child. Beyond that, we’re in the same boat all parents are: we hope for the best. We won’t give in to worrying about the what-if’s until someone tells us we need to. I joke often that my husband is made of hearty Midwestern stock and it’s true—his family members are literally some of the healthiest people I’ve ever seen, the type of healthy I didn’t even know existed until I met them.
“At least we’ve got that going for us,” I’ll say.
But sometimes, “as long as it’s healthy” gives me pause. Perhaps it’s because I over-think things or perhaps my tendency to be a bit contrary is exacerbated by pregnancy hormones or what, but sometimes the phrase gets old. Because this thing is, I wasn’t born healthy. In fact, several weeks premature and with collapsed lungs and pneumonia is pretty much the opposite of healthy. But I’m here, and living a full life, and have many positive experiences that outweigh the illness ones. I have no regrets.
So I smile and nod when people say this, as it is something I want so much for my child. But as I can attest to from my own life and from watching members of my family, we never know what curveballs will come our way. While health is my greatest wish, if something comes up I take comfort in knowing I have a lot of experience in illness and advocacy I can put to good use for our child. And I will be able to tell him or her that it is okay, that he or she might struggle more than others but that this life will be a wonderful one.