We have hours to kill between the hearing test and the follow-up appointment with the ear, nose and throat specialist. Five months after my first grader's tube surgery, she hears perfectly (albeit selectively), so this will be a routine visit with the doctor. What isn't routine is the gap between appointments they didn't tell me we would need sleeping bags and a toothbrush.
I'm peeved they won't just squeeze us into the morning schedule so we can get in and get out. I have a million things I should be doing, and we all know the actual appointment with the doctor will last about thirty seconds. But no matter how nicely I ask, the schedule cannot be changed because the computer says it can't. It may as well be etched in Greek on the outside of the building.
So lunch it is. The nurse directs us down the hall to the cafeteria that serves the medical complex, where we cross the main lobby of the children's hospital. We know we're on the right track because she said we'd pass a statue of Big Bird, and here it is.
There, sitting next to Big Bird in a well-worn wheelchair, is a boy of about four. His bright eyes dance under a baseball cap resting atop his thick, curly hair. He's dressed in soft sweats, surrounded by bags of toys and helium balloons.
His face is happy and eager, but profoundly disfigured. He wears a shiny, plastic mask designed to keep his skin intact as it heals from what must have been a horrible fire.
I take a big breath and hope my daughter doesn't say something loud or insensitive. We walk within two feet of his chair, but even after we pass, she doesn't say a word. I sense she's thinking about him, so I ask, “Did you notice that boy wearing the mask? It looks like he was burned in a big fire and he's going home now. I'll bet he's really brave.”
We talk about fire safety as we amble toward the lunchroom. It's a crowded, busy place and before we know it, we're swept into the line, deciding what to eat and where to sit.
I'm munching my chicken salad, but I can't stop thinking about that little boy. The suffering displayed behind the mask is unspeakable, and the fact that he sits in the lobby with his mom waiting to go home is a testament to his heroic determination and her incalculable love. She must be grateful for every breath he takes.
Suddenly, I'm glad for the time with my six-year-old to eat a leisurely lunch and await an uneventful visit with the doctor. I'm so blessed it's embarrassing.
Most days, I don't remember this. I'm too busy lecturing about unmade beds, towels on the bathroom floor, toys on the driveway, and dishes in the sink. My kids are expensive and exhausting and they talk to me through the bathroom door, which is really annoying.
But being annoyed is a luxury I take for granted.
My daughter and I finish our lunches and clean our table, moving together in a familiar rhythm. As usual, her hand slips easily into mine as we stroll down the long corridor toward the doctor's suite. Back in the lobby, Big Bird towers from his pedestal, but the little boy and his mom have moved closer to the door. His hat and mask are off. He looks like he's getting tired.
We're just about to take the corner when the mom leans across the wheelchair, tickles her son's tummy and gives him a big snuggle. “I love you so much!” she says. Her voice is pure joy.
I know just how she feels. I squeeze my daughter's hand, and we head off to spend an hour together with nothing to do but live gratefully.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She also has worked in marketing and public relations positions in corporate and agency settings. Mostly, she spends a lot of time in her mini-van, where the real work of parenting actually happens. Learn more about Marybeth and her column at www.marybethhicks.com.)