Before the pandemic hit our doorsteps a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to Seattle and stay with my friend’s family. I wanted to show my exchange student from the Netherlands our sister city. My friend’s cousin, Katie has a daughter Sam. (The names are altered here for privacy.)
I knew immediately there was something different about Sam. As soon as we walked into the door she talked a million words per minute. Did I want to see the rocks she collected today? Would I like to glue the rocks on a paper plate? What kind of rocks do you think they are and so on. I could tell also by the vibe in the room she had worn everyone else out hours earlier. Her step-father retreated to his room, after being polite and hospitable to opening his home. Her mom went about making home-made pizza and serving it to all of us, even though she looked exhausted. I immediately regretted not offering to pick something up on the way to their remote little beach town. The bottle of wine I brought instantly feeling like the wrong choice for the occasion.
We settled down pretty quick to our rooms, Sam tucked in the living room couch giving up her playroom and bedroom for all of us to share. We were instant best buds so there were many goodnight hugs before mom sternly warned of one more visit to the bathroom, or visit her room to see the “big girls” or visit the sink for water.
Up early to catch the ferry we said goodbyes until later that evening. She was to remain home. We had a lovely unexpected rain-free day in Seattle filled with vendors booths, the original Starbucks, seafood and the disgusting gum wall, (or should I say gum road?) We grabbed some salad and bread for an easy pasta night and headed to the house. Sam greeted us with open arms, hugs, and pictures to color for hours. I noticed Sam’s vocabulary extremely advanced for her age. Her mom fixed pasta and told me how after her husband had passed form a sudden condition she had built the house with Habitat for Humanity.
She explained how she actually had helped build the house and some of the houses nearby. To be awarded a House for Humanity, you have to actually help build the house. I couldn’t imagine building a house, grief-stricken and left with five children, two of whom had already moved away and started lives and families of their own. I was immediately impressed looking at each stair as I walked up to it, wondering if she had built the stairs, cut the baseboards and imagined myself with power tools, but there was more to the story.
During dinner, Sam went on to tell me all about getting her make-a-wish granted and how her brother was not so happy to go on a trip. Sam’s brother was 13 and had barely visited us from his bedroom. I assumed, of course, it was because of being a 13-year-old boy. I was confused about how the make-a-wish foundation granted wishes to children that had lost a parent. I remembered at bedtime how she had more meds to take than my 70-year-old patients.
Katie went on to tell me how Sam was born with a congenital heart defect and had a heart transplant as a baby. Her husband had died not long after the transplant surgery. She couldn’t just sit and be in her grief. She would go on and spend many nights in the ER, with what should be a routine ear infection and sit with her daughter in the children’s hospital fighting off what should be a routine cold/flu virus. Though Katie tried to send her daughter to regular school, fighting through the red tape of having the school try and alert her to any illnesses spreading through the school, she eventually had to submit to homeschooling. Sam was already far behind her classmates missing so many days and weeks from school. Her vocabulary now making sense since she spent her days with adults. She told me how Sam was recently playing around in the kitchen and fell on her knee. She had a small gash and Katie put ointment and a band-aid on it going about their day. Days later Sam ended up very ill with an infection just from the cut. Her immune system was extremely delicate to any outside bacteria.
The make-a-wish was for Sam. I felt a little silly for putting it together hours later. Children that survive the first year of a heart transplant can expect the heart to survive between 10 and 15 years. Then they will need another heart transplant.
As I lay down chatting to my friend about the unfairness of what we get dealt with in life, she told me how Katie’s new husband was Katie’s husband’s best friend. I could see how people might have difficulty with that from the outside, possibly criticizing her, but anyone doing so would not know what I know.
No matter what Katie did, she could not bring back her husband. She was left to carry her grief alone, losing the love of her life, her childhood sweetheart, the father of her five children. I do not know what that is like, but I know what losing a part of yourself feels like after losing my daughter. She was then left with the impossible task of caring for her ripped apart family, children going through grief and loss and puberty. Something you cannot take away from your children or fix as a mother. As a mother, our instinct is to protect our children from pain and to watch them ache and heal their scars is almost unbearable.
She was left with a new heart transplanted child. She will struggle daily with wondering if the other shoe will drop, and though I do not know how it feels to have an immune-compromised child, I know what it is like waiting for the other shoe to drop. Worrying about things you cannot control. The fall-out of grief not being over when someone dies and the repercussions of a heart transplant not being over with the surgery. Every decision, every choice she will weigh when it comes to her daughter and her family.
She had a house to build and she built it. She found love and companionship that I believe was a gift. She is a survivor and one of the strongest women I have ever met, though you would never know it. I wanted to share a tiny piece of her story because so many of us have one. Sometimes we have no idea why a mother might freak out over being unable to take her child to school because so many are unvaccinated, why she carries five bottles of hand sanitizer in her purse. Why the women sitting at the park cries uncontrollably. These secret superheroes walk among us every day and I am thankful for getting to know and recognize one.