Outside of the hospital’s enormous revolving doors, Liddy begins to whimper. She’s been to this place countless times in her eighteen months of life. The hospital has become a familiar place, but not a comfortable one.
We pause at the enormous tank of fish in the lobby. “Fishy,” Liddy says softly. “Fishy, come here!” She presses her small hand to the glass and watches the fish dart among the tank’s plastic reeds. But we are running late, and after a moment John nods at the elevators and I steer her away again.
A nurse leads us to a closet-sized room and leaves a pair of tiny, pink hospital pajamas on the bed. John and I drape the gown over eighteen-month-old Liddy, but she swats angrily at the pants.
Along with numerous other complications, Liddy was born with a deep dimple near the base of her spine, which can suggest tethered cord syndrome—a condition that causes nerve damage and scoliosis. An ultrasound of her spine showed something, a haloed white spot, a glare of light. Only an MRI could tell for sure.
We’ve delayed this day for over a year, hoping Liddy would be a candidate for sedation instead of anesthesia, which has a higher risk of complications and means we cannot stay with her for the procedure. I can hardly bear the thought of her little body stilled by anesthesia. But Liddy also has severe reflux. If she is not completely sedated and refluxes while in the MRI machine, she could aspirate spit-up into her lungs.
Like us, Liddy is anxious. John occupies her with round after round of Wheels on the Bus and Open, Shut Them. He holds her baby doll like a marionette, manipulating the plastic arms to turn round and round, round and round.
Liddy alternates between the two of us. She sits in John’s lap and laughs, saying and signing with a touch of her fingertips, “More? More?” Then she quiets and reaches for me, and presses her warm face into my neck. I run my fingers over her plump little arm. She’s had nothing to eat or drink since eleven o’clock last night.
The anesthesiologist is young and serious. He speaks formally about the procedure, and says that I can stay with Liddy until she “falls asleep.” Liddy will cry when he puts the plastic mask over her nose and mouth, he warns me, but says that the crying will help her go to sleep faster.
“If something goes wrong,” I say, keeping my voice even. “Will someone come and tell me?”
He talks about benign reactions, like hives and rashes, but he knows I am worrying about something more serious. “We would come and get you,” he says finally.
Eventually the nurse sweeps in and says, “Say goodbye to Daddy.” Only one of us can accompany her into the MRI suite. Liddy stiffens in my arms as we move, too quickly, away from John and through a set of wide swinging doors.
The room envelops us in gray light and a loud, vacuum-like sound. Liddy begins to sob. She clings to me as I lay her on the white table. I lean my face close to hers: “It’s okay. I know.” The anesthesiologist reaches for the pacifier in her mouth, hesitates, and leaves it in. He presses the plastic mask over her face. Liddy screams and screams, then whimpers, and stills.
“Thank you,” the anesthesiologist says, dismissing me, but Liddy’s small form convulses and I look at him, alarmed. “She’s okay,” he says. “She has the hiccups.”
I let go of Liddy and walk across the dim room toward the door. From the shadows a woman’s voice asks if I am okay. I nod, but I’m crying, and once I get out into the hallway I am lost. Someone points me toward the waiting room, where I find John again.
“How was she?” he asks.
“She cried a lot,” I sigh. “She’s asleep now.”
For a long time, I stand in the hallway and stare at the closed doors of the MRI suite. Then I move back inside the waiting room, sit beside John, and relax against the tension that has held me taut since I woke up this morning, since long before then.
When they wheel her out I hear the wail of her crying and see her tiny, grasping arms reaching up from the bed. I step toward her. “Can I come?”
The anesthesiologist waves us into the recovery room and lets me hold her. “That’s what she needed,” he says when I press her to me. He tells us she tolerated the anesthesia well and shows John how to hold the oxygen mask near her face.
Liddy’s face is swollen with crying, her eyes shining spots of black. She refuses the nurses’ many offers of apple juice.
“And the results of the test?” I ask. “Will we know anything today?”
A grim-faced nurse shakes her head. “They’re reading sixty results a day back there,” she says abruptly. “You’ll get a call from the neurosurgeon.”
The anesthesiologist glances at me and excuses himself. He appears again a moment later with a printout of initial readings from the MRI. Liddy is still crying and it is difficult for me to hear. He holds the paper in front of me and points at the word “Normal” at the bottom of the page.
“Stay here as long as you need,” he says, and squeezes my shoulder.
I sit in a chair holding her as another nurse comes by. This one gently pushes the bed closer and props up my feet. Soon Liddy opens her eyes again, and she is back with us. “Apple sauce?” she asks in a tiny, hoarse voice, mis-remembering the promised juice, and the nurse and I share a smile.
She brings the apple juice for Liddy and also ginger ale with a straw. “Something for Mom,” she says. A small, caring gesture that tells me I’m her patient, too.
Photo by Megan Dempsey