Water Bending

Water Bending

By Chris Fredrick

SU 13 Water Bending ArtAnna fully reclines in the bathtub. Her body and face glide below the surface and her dark tendrils of hair spread out, softly filling the space. She smiles up at me from underwater. “Did my hair do the sunflower?” she asks expectantly, her hair now a sleek stripe along her back. I laugh and nod as we settle in for our daily ritual. I wrap the towel around her preteen body and sit on the edge of the tub holding the Stonyfield Farm yogurt container. But first, I turn on the portable DVD player we’ve nicknamed Little Movie.

Today we are watching an episode from the Nickelodeon series “Avatar, The Last Airbender.” Again. We’ve watched the full series twice before, but Anna’s audience at 9 isn’t what it was at 7, or 5. And, we are both big fans of Katara, the show’s female lead. We learn in the first episode that water bending isn’t magic, it is “an ancient art unique to [their] culture,” and what it means is that Katara can move water without touching it.

When Anna was just two weeks old, she had a large pimple on her face. We were at my dad’s for brunch, and Grandma interrupted a conversation to yell across the room, “Chris! Why does Anna have that thing on her face?” I cringed. I was insulted, or maybe just embarrassed. Anna was my baby girl. She was gorgeous and perfect, and I didn’t want to acknowledge the interloper that I already sensed was ominous.

The following week, to my great relief, the doctor said it was just baby acne and that it “would clear up in a month or two.” It was no longer a single pimple; her face had changed rapidly and now pimples completely covered both cheeks, giving her face a pink, sandpapery texture with some patches elevated to a glossy sheen. I asked again at her two-month and four-month appointments. At the four-month visit, the doctor said, “Well, it doesn’t look like baby acne anymore, it’s probably just eczema.” Just eczema, I thought. Just—just—eczema. It sounded minor and common. It would go away.

I don’t wonder now why she cried so much and had such a hard time sleeping, but at the time I was looking for other reasons. This, after all, was just eczema. I am also embarrassed to say that I didn’t want to take pictures of her when her face was red and sore. It seemed to ebb and flow, so I would wait until her face was clear—and then snap a bunch of shots, changing her clothes and location so it seemed like the pictures were taken more naturally. “Bathe her frequently and apply cream,” I was vaguely directed.

Watching our Little Movie, we are both absorbed in the story. In this episode, both Katara and Avatar Aang learn from a water-bending master in Katara’s sister tribe. They need to be able to “bend water,” to use any avail- able water in stylized kung-fu fighting. The enemy is the Fire Nation—the people who can bend fire. I pour water over Anna while she watches, pausing the show while she submerges, and glancing occasionally at the stopwatch. Katara’s smooth motions direct the responding water and Anna imitates them, dancing her hands on the water’s surface.

By the time Anna was nine months old, I was religiously and doggedly bathing her. But that December 23rd, I noticed a ping-pong ball-sized lump on her collarbone. Panicking, I drove to Anna’s daycare to ask if anything may have happened. I recalled with a sting how she had cried out as I buckled her car seat. A slight fever—how many days had it been? One? Two? I had ignored it because that’s what happens with teething … right?

The next day she had an X-ray that confirmed no broken bones, but an MRI showed an abscess in her lymph node. She had surgery the following morning, her first Christmas, to drain the abscess. After being hospitalized for five days and on strong antibiotics, the skin on her face was once again as clear as it had been during her first two weeks of life. The consensus among the attending physicians was that she had likely scratched an open patch of eczema on the inside of her left elbow. A staph infection had then entered the bloodstream but had been trapped by the lymph node. She would be fine.

We maintained the bath routine we knew, and I tried to think of creative ways to keep her happy. The biggest logistical challenge was keeping her from streaking around the house when I was trying to get the cream on her squirmy little body. She would run away or cry if I restrained her. I was often on edge, and sometimes joined her in tears. “We are in this together,” I confided to her, my 18-month-old. “It is sad for me, too.” Certainly, any place outside our soaking rite, hitting was a strict “no-no.” But many nights, in the small, sweaty bathroom, I let her pound on my legs with her tiny fists while I restrained her and applied the globs. I don’t blame you, I thought. I would hit me, too. This is how the Little Movie was initiated into our club.

In addition to the water-bending tribes, there are other nations that have bending powers. The Air Nomads are air benders, of which Aang is the only survivor. The Earth Kingdom has many earth benders. Of all the elements, though, water is the only one with healing properties, and fire is the most dangerous and the hardest to control. Anna alternates between dunking her head and receiving my Big Gulp pours. She doesn’t flinch when I pour the water; she simply lifts her head to meet it. The water runs as a river, bending around the contours of her face. I watch her cheeks as I pour, and I can see the red drain away. I imagine the healing as the water cools the flames.

When Anna was two, she stopped sleeping through the night and would be up, sometimes for several hours, incessantly scratching. I rocked her, rubbing her arms or legs or back–wherever she was scratching. It was around this time she also starting having problems with her hands. They were so itchy that she would scrape them on furniture or carpeting, trying to get more leverage but tearing off sections of epidermis, revealing raw red patches and what looked like tiny white pearls.

Our allergist gave us new tricks. I was logging daily in a notebook— exactly what body parts (or parts of body parts) were flaring and how I was treating them—so I could perhaps look back and find patterns. The Notebook gave me very few answers, but it did help me identify some of Anna’s more elusive, though inconsistent, enemies. Some of the troublemakers seemed to include: the neighbor’s black lab, the month of April, and the wind.

When Anna turned three, she had worked her way through the allergist’s ideas and had even done a stint on anti-depressants to help us all sleep. She was then referred to the outpatient program at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado. During the week we were there, she received a more specific diagnosis: chronic atopic dermatitis. A symptom of this condition is that her skin does not have natural antibiotics, so if her skin is “open,” then it is open wide to infection. The “tapioca pudding” on her hands was diagnosed as dyshidrotic eczema, which was described as stubborn. Her atopic dermatitis, being chronic, was described as debilitating. These words made it into The Notebook in large print, boxed for emphasis.

While at National Jewish, I was trained by nurses as I bathed Anna. I was timed and critiqued. “You missed the top of the toes.” “You missed the eyelids.” “You need to apply that cream as if you were frosting a cake.” At the hospital, I felt relieved when I saw how much better Anna’s skin looked compared to other patients’, followed quickly by a hot flash of guilt. These babies, some seven, eight months old and some as old as Anna were all mummy-wrapped head to toe. Unrecognizable in their wet wraps, they wore bows of pink or blue on their heads. They were little cupcakes toddling through the hospital’s hallways.

Once she comes out of the chest-deep tub, I have three minutes to seal her skin in a combination of ointments and creams. Any reddish patches will get triamcinolone .025% cream, or .01% ointment depending on how stubborn the blotches have been. Her hands will get fluticasone, but only if she hasn’t had it more than three days in a row. These were the everyday sorts of applications, without the complications that would come with infections, scalp patches, molluscum, travelling, illness, stress, or head lice. The application is done as a patchwork quilt—the medicated ointments are not covered with non-medicated, but every centimeter must be covered, and all within three minutes.

By age four, Anna was a much happier child. Twice a day we soaked and sealed her skin as I had been trained. The full process takes over an hour from start to finish, so it took approximately 16 hours a week. The results were astounding, and it was then that our family came to know the real Anna. We had thought of her as high strung, hard to please, and crabby. But now, a new being emerged. She was compassionate, intelligent, and hilarious.

The stopwatch is crossing the 18-minute mark. I pause the Little Movie and move it to the counter while Anna shampoos her hair. Research shows the soak should be longer than 20—but shorter than 30—minutes. If we are outside that window, we aren’t helping and may make matters worse. When she gets out of the tub, her hair is wrapped up high off her face and ears so I can get the cream into every crevice.

Anna knows that she has sensitive skin. “Does anyone else have sensitive skin?” she asks.

“Lots of people have sensitive skin.” I am thinking now of the other cupcakes.

“Not as sensitive as mine. Mine is the sensitivest.” Anna has a large handful of cream that she is using to apply a base layer to her trunk—she has been finger painting “a rabbit holding a carrot” on her belly at this point in our routine. It started on Easter, over a year ago.

As I use the final Q-tip to check her ears, we are done—until tomorrow. And as long as we maintain our vigilance, we will keep the flares at bay. But the face of our enemy changes. I keep adding new hazards to The Notebook: swimming lessons, night- gowns, hand sanitizers, sweat. Now that she’s nine, I brace myself for what will be around the corner. She knows that when all the other girls are lined up for face paint, she needs to find something else, but how soon will she want to wear makeup? How soon before she is invited to a sleepover?

Tomorrow, as today, she will sit in water as deep as the tub allows. The towel will shroud her, and I will pour the water as she gently closes and then opens her eyes. I will bend the water as it flows over her forehead, over her cheeks, willing it to reach and heal every centimeter of skin, every part of her. We will both watch the next challenges that Katara will conquer, another courageous girl, another master of water.

Author’s Note: Tonight, Anna is filling her own bathtub for the first time. She is nearly self- sufficient with her routine. We still love The Last Airbender, but we’ve moved on to TV episodes of “Once Upon a Time” and “Burn Notice” and we’ve started playing Washcloth Basketball, where I shoot the washcloth to her over the shower curtain rod “rim.” And she still pauses to finger paint the rabbit on her belly.

Chris Fredrick spent 20 years writing technical documentation, marketing pieces, training, and (in darker moments) website code. An avid runner and mother of two, she initiated a creative writing sabbatical in the summer of 2012. Chris is currently working on a book chronicling her husband’s life–his childhood in Vietnam and his escape to the US after the fall of Saigon. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama. Read more of her work at: chrisfredrick.wordpress.com.

Illustration by Jane Heinrichs

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.