By Jaclyn Dwyer
“The worry‘s going to kill us,” says the Husband.
“But if all we have to do is worry,” chides the Mother, “every day for a hundred years, it‘ll be easy. It‘ll be nothing. I‘ll take all the worry in the world, if it wards off the thing itself.“‘
—From “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Cannonical Babbling in Peed Onk“
My daughter is splashing in the kitchen sink when I notice her left leg twisting around like a bulb loose in a socket. Her body was folded in half like an umbrella stroller in the womb, which can lead to hip dislocation, which is what I think I’m seeing right now.
Shortly after my daughter was born, she was diagnosed with developmental hip dysplasia, not uncommon for breech babies. For weeks after her birth, every time we lay her flat, her legs flung straight up into the air like a cartoon character stepping on a rake. At first we stretched her legs until she could lie flat on her back, but even then her hip sockets clicked when she kicked. Her legs felt loose in their joints, but in time that went away, until now.
I rub the washcloth over her back, and her left leg flops inward. Her knees fan out to make a circle of her legs. Now seven months old, baby fat crimps in uneven dimples around each thigh. Her knee breaks the circle and plops in the middle like some unpopular goose. I tell myself the stainless steel is slippery and that’s what’s making her leg twist this way. Her knee swishes inside again. I turn it out. I right it again and again until I drop the washcloth and scream, “There’s something wrong with her leg.”
Usually, my husband tells me I’m worrying over nothing. “You’re being such a mom,” he’ll say, as if a mom is a bad thing to be. He gets up to see what I’m talking about, not because he’s worried about her but because he’s worried about me.
“Tell me I’m not crazy,” I say. “Do you see it?”
He claps his hand to the small of my back and looks down into the sink like an impatient diviner reading tea leaves. Our daughter shoves the washcloth into her mouth and sucks.
He dips his hand wrist-deep into the water to lift her leg, which slithers out of his grip.
“It’s loose or something. It doesn’t move like the other one,” I say.
“I see what you mean,” he says. “We’re going back to the doctor next week. Let’s try not to worry about it until then.”
When I was in elementary school, I collected worry dolls. They were tightly wound lengths of string no bigger than a fingertip knotted around a paper face. You were supposed to put them under your pillow to ease your troubles. I kept mine in a tiny wooden box along with a lip gloss and a folded love note. After a while, the dolls ended up in my junk drawer among orphaned rubber bands and paper clips. Having them, I never worried any less.
Orthopedics is not a bad part of the Children’s Clinic. A library of picture books greets us as we walk into a lobby painted in bold primary colors. Sometimes there are volunteers, high schoolers mostly, stationed in the waiting area to show the kids how to make a flower out of pipe cleaners or string beads onto yarn. There’s a big TV playing a cheerful animated movie. Most of the kids here are wearing a cast on one of their limbs. They’re here for broken bones, a fall from a tree or a skateboard, a pirouette gone wrong on freshly waxed linoleum. Others, it is clear from the shape of them, have chronic illnesses, ongoing problems with bones and joints and movement. We don’t quite fit in either group.
Every few months we make the three-hour drive to have an ultrasound on our daughter’s hips. At our first appointment, the doctor told us hers was a mild case, but by the second appointment, he sent her home in a brace that looked like a big foam diaper that wrapped around her legs and waist with velcro. Worse case scenario, he told us, she may need surgery to correct the joint, but by the time she turned one, all of this should be over.
In the exam room, I pull a typed list from the diaper bag titled “Questions for the Doctor.”
The doctor pulls up her x-ray.
“Is the left leg dislocated?” I ask.
“No. The hip dysplasia looks good.”
My husband ceremoniously throws her brace in the trash the way kids toss their shoes over the power lines to announce summer’s glorious freedom. I consult my list, explain what happened in the bath, how she only uses the right leg to crawl, how her left leg seems looser than the right.
“Well, good eye. You’re a very observant mother,” he says.
I feel like a preschooler who’s just been awarded a gold star.
“But,” he says, “there is a little something I want to show you on the x-ray.”
He points to the hip socket and waves his pen over the ball of her right femur. “You see how on this leg you can see this round ball.” He moves his pen to the left, “This one is kind of fuzzy. The legs aren’t developing the same.”
The right ball in the socket of the joint glows like a bright white cumulus cloud, while the left looms like a hazy cirrus, the threat of a storm about pass through.
“What does that mean?” I ask.
I’ve assigned Lorrie Moore’s story “People Like That are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” many times. In the story, a Mother and her Husband discover something wrong with their Baby and must decide a course of treatment. The Mother spends most of the story sorting through medical terms and procedures as she struggles to come to terms with the Baby’s illness and her role and responsibility as the Mother of a sick Baby. This semester, I’m not teaching that story. This semester, I go back and re-read it, as if I can find answers there.
The baby grabs at my face while I dress her. My husband has nicknamed her “the Lip Ripper.”
“It’s her wrestling name for when she’s taking down opponents on the ropes,” he says to the doctor.
The doctor gives a weak smile and starts to explain what might be wrong. I tug baby fingers away from my mouth and unplug her thumb from my nose. Her hands aren’t anywhere near my ears, but it is hard to listen.
“One of her legs is longer and stronger than the other,” he says. “I think your daughter is normal. A variation of normal. But it could be a sign of hemihypertrophy.” He’s going to send us upstairs for blood work, and they’ll test for a protein associated with this syndrome. He will order an ultrasound, just to check that all of her organs look okay. She’ll need a genetic consult, a follow-up x-ray in two months. Is all of this too much?
I have to put the baby down. I strap her into the stroller, hand her a rattle and sit in one of the plastic chairs. Waterproof furniture, I note, built for accidents, like some kind of cheap patio that can be hosed down at the end of the day.
The doctor leaves us alone in the room with a slip of paper listing the appointments in our future.
My husband turns to me. “Do we need to be tested? What about having more kids? Could they have this thing too?”
I fold the paper in half and in half again until it is a pocket square of procedures. “I don’t know,” I say.
I can only worry about the baby we have.
You can worry a knot, rubbing at the threads until there’s nothing left but a frayed rope that splinters every time you touch it.
Before we head upstairs for the blood test, my husband stretches a fluffy bow over the baby’s head and fastens the shoe strap across the top of her foot. I remember her shoe falling off at Christmas, shiny red Mary Janes. When our family said she looked like a little Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I stood her up on the floor and tried to make her click her heels. She kicked out of one shoe, lost one in the car, tugged one off to chew on when I wasn’t looking. Was it always the left slipping off? I only noted the hassle of having to strap it back on. I make a mental note to notice which shoe falls off first.
The doctor returns with a business card. He writes his cell phone on the back.
“Call me if you have questions,” the doctor says.
How sick do we have to be to get this number? I want to ask, but my husband speaks first.
“Is there any way we can do the ultrasound today?” he asks.
I remind the doctor, “It’s a three-hour drive.”
“She’ll need to fast for the ultrasound, so you can’t do that today.”
“Can we do it when we come back in two months?” my husband asks.
“You don’t want to wait that long,” the doctor says.
It is the first time he sounds concerned.
I want to ask questions, but these new tests and proteins and syndromes aren’t on my typed list. Part of me keeps quiet because I don’t want her to have these things. I came to fix her hips. Her leg is in its socket. My daughter is fine.
To worry originally meant to choke or strangle. I think of those little dolls all bound with string, every one of them strangling someone’s daughter’s fears in her sleep.
The doctor puts his hand on my shoulder as if he sees panic on the list crumpled in my hand like a useless receipt.
He says, “She may grow out of it. Her leg might catch up. I just don’t know.”
He says. “I think your baby is normal. I just have to prove it.”
He says, “I do bones. Hemihypertrophy is a genetic condition. The geneticist will know more than me. I trust her opinion.”
He says, “You can go to a doctor even if you’re not sick.”
He doesn’t say what exactly the tests are supposed to tell us.
A tube of maroon blood snakes out of my baby’s arm. She giggles. All of this is a game to her.
What he doesn’t say is that the protein he’s testing for is a tumor marker.
What he doesn’t say is that when they perform this ultrasound, they’re looking for cancer in my baby, which is why we can’t wait.
I think of the nursery rhyme about the crooked man in the crooked house. It bothers me that I can’t remember how it ends.
A week later, on the day of her ultrasound, my husband pins our daughter’s arms and I restrain her legs on the too-big table while whirling shadows bubble into view on the monitor. Each organ is an oil droplet rising from the USS Arizona and thinning out across the Pacific. We hover over each black spot, each white flash. We have no idea what we are looking for, but we are still afraid of what we might see.
The tech tells us that the radiologist is already here, that we should have the results by tomorrow, Monday at the latest, that she has a baby herself. She understands. She finishes scanning our daughter’s belly and grabs a towel from the cabinet across the room. She lets us wipe her down.
“You can feed her now,” she says, “but I need to flip her to scan the kidneys.”
I take my daughter’s place on the table. The butcher paper crinkles as I lean back and pop her on my breast. Her little head bobs as the tech smears jelly on her lower back and begins to scan, but I can’t see the screen any more.
When the test is over, the tech tells us they don’t need the room so I can stay and nurse as long as I want. I’m still nursing when she comes back in.
“Is there a reason for us to be looking for a mass or tumor?” she asks.
“They’re testing her for hemihypertrophy. Kidney cancer is associated with that? Wilms’ tumors?” I say. Everything I say comes out a question except for the questions I don’t ask: Why did you ask that? What did you see?
Everything I know about the Wilms’ tumor I learned from Lorrie Moore. It is a type of kidney cancer commonly found in children, easily treatable if found early. I know to spell Wilms’ s apostrophe. I know to italicize the s. I know that the Mother is the center of the baby universe, that it is her job to take notes, to document color and consistency and character. As the mother, it is my job to write this down.
By Friday, we still do not have the results. We worry through the weekend, during long walks to the park where we feed my daughter’s legs through the baby swing. Both of us push her, “wheeing” into her face at the crest of each pendulum her body makes.
It takes five days and nearly twenty phone calls to three doctors for my husband to break down and scream into the receiver, “This is my daughter. Why can’t somebody just tell me whether or not she has cancer?”
My parents try to console us.”If it was serious, they probably would have told you by now.”
But, I wonder, is cancer something delivered over the phone? If it is serious, maybe they are waiting to break the news to us in person.
On the sixth day the doctor tells us that the ultrasound is normal. There is a cyst on her spleen, but it is small and probably not cancer. I tell my family, “She does not have cancer,” but in the back of my head I add: She does not have cancer, yet.
The following week we visit the geneticist who prattles to my daughter in baby talk, “Let me take your di-pee off.”
She lays the baby on the table and claps the baby’s hands together. She holds the baby’s arms out straight as if the baby is going to dive. She squeezes my daughter’s legs together and measures them by eye the way hair dressers gather trimmed sections under your chin to see if it is even.
“Her arms are the same length,” she says. She doesn’t mention the legs.
Her baby voice is gone. In its place are big words and syndromes that have proper names. Hemihypertrophy puts our daughter at risk for certain cancers, for Wilms’ tumors. We will need to scan her abdomen and test her blood every few months until she is eight.
“So she has it?” I ask.
The geneticist squeezes her lips together and nods.
“This isn’t a variation of normal? She won’t grow out of it?”
“Probably not,” she says.
I don’t take notes. Later, I will ask my husband, “What did she say?” I will doubt him. “Are you sure that’s what she said?”
I am not a stupid person, but I feel dumb. The geneticist must think I am dumb. I am trying to find a loophole in the diagnosis, a way for my daughter to be normal again.
In Lorrie Moore’s story, after the cancerous kidney is removed, the doctor offers the parents a course of chemo or monitoring through ultrasound. They reject the chemo and choose the monitoring. I re-read the story thinking: We are like you.
For the first time, my husband and I fight over what to do about the baby.
“I think this is all a little silly,” he says. “I feel like I’m getting jerked around by all these doctors.”
“You don’t believe them?”
“If you keep looking for things to be wrong, you’re going to keep finding them.”
“But the doctor said she has something,” I say. Another word for crooked is dishonest. It is important for him to trust the doctors, to believe that what they are saying is true. If something happens that could have been prevented, we will never live it down.
“Plenty of people have one leg longer than the other,” he says.
“But the cancer risks?” I say.
My husband shakes his head. “I worried myself sick for five days over an ultrasound. I can’t spend the next eight years of my life worrying if my kid has cancer.”
“Just tell me you believe the doctors. Tell me that you’ll listen and we’ll do the screenings.”
“For now,” he says, which is good enough, for now.
In bed, my husband curls his body around mine, wedges a leg between my knees where I used to squeeze a pillow. Now, I have him.
“Do you know the nursery rhyme about the crooked man?” I ask. “How does it go?”
“Doesn’t he have a crooked wife and a crooked cat and mouse?” he asks.
I want to trust him, but I can’t.
My husband’s body is a tight wad of string bound up with scraps of clothing, a painted-on face and an even pair of arms thrown into the air as if to say I give up. That’s what it means not to worry, to throw up your arms and say it’s out of my hands.
Later, I google the nursery rhyme and find out that he’s wrong about the wife.
I think of the blood clot the Mother finds in her baby’s diaper in the opening paragraph of Lorrie Moore’s story, how she describes it “like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?” I linger over that question mark, how perfect the simile is, how uncertain the discovery. I remember how angry I felt at the Mother for trying to cast off everything, for her irrational disbelief. Reading and asking: How? Why? When I go back to re-read the story now, I nod along, with each page affirming, Yes. Yes. Yes.
When I teach this story, my students clamor to know: Is this based on the author’s real life? They ask, What happens to the baby? I don’t have answers for them.
At the end of this essay, you might want to know: What happens to the baby? Will she be alright? You want answers, assurance, you want some kind of certainty.
Reader, so do I.
Author’s Note: The geneticist has diagnosed our daughter with isolated hemihyperplasia, an overgrowth disorder characterized by asymmetrical growth. There is an increased incidence of certain childhood cancers in children who have this condition, and so every three to four months we’ll have to take our daughter for a blood test and ultrasound to ensure that she is cancer free. She’ll undergo the screenings until she is eight years old, at which point the cancer risk drops. In some ways the diagnosis has been a blessing. My husband is right. I can’t spend the next eight years worrying about whether or not she will develop cancer. Instead, I’m just enjoying being her mother every day as she learns to clap and wave and boogie to whatever music’s playing at the moment.
Jaclyn Dwyer has published stories and poems in Ploughshares, The Pinch, Prairie Schooner, Hayden‘s Ferry Review, The Journal, New Ohio Review, and Witness. Her fiction was named a Special Mention in the 2015 Pushcart Prize Anthology. She is a PhD candidate at Florida State University, where she received a Kingsbury Fellowship.