I can get to the Prince Charles children’s hospital in seventeen minutes flat. Sixteen if the traffic lights are in my favour. And if you offered me a million bucks to get there with my eyes closed, I would start looking for our dream home quicker than I could say, Doctor, please tell me what is wrong with my child.
Yesterday as we sat on the edge of our daughter’s hospital bed, Joel told me that when he was a baby, he contracted pneumonia. When Joel’s mother asked the doctors what was going to happen they told her she should stay with Joel at the hospital all night as he might not make it through to morning.
Joel looked at me and said, “Can you imagine how traumatic that would be?”.
What he was really asking was, “Can you imagine if that’s what they’d told us? Can you imagine if they told us Ella might die?”
I could imagine, and yet I couldn’t.
On Saturday, Ella was admitted to children’s emergency on the recommendation of our GP. The word emergency is never a reassuring one, especially when combined with the word hospital, and I know our doctor wasn’t trying to alarm me, but frankly, I was alarmed. For four weeks, Ella had had on and off high fevers and tummy pain, and our doctor was adamant about getting a diagnosis as soon as possible. We made the decision not to vaccinate any of our children, so our doctor was even more anxious to run immediate tests.
It was an ordinary Saturday, Joel leaving for work, asking what time our Christmas party started, making sure I’d call him with what the doctor said, assuming she’d say it was just a virus we’d have to ride out. The next minute, I was asking him to meet me at Prince Charles children’s emergency as soon as he could.
I’ve learned many things in the last 72 hours. First, never Google cancer symptoms in children. Second, never Google cancer symptoms in children at 3 a.m when you’re so sleep deprived you’ve gone and lost your mind — when the only thing between you and your dark thoughts is a pale child sleeping next to you, hooked up to an IV drip. Third, that while Room 13 at Prince Charles children’s hospital is bright and big, full of lovely nurses and littered with quilts from home, favourite books and cartons of apple juice, it is not a place I want my daughter to spend another night in.
That first day, as doctor after doctor spoke with us, withdrew blood from Ella and ran test after test, Joel and I took turns leaving the room so Ella wouldn’t see us cry. She was as distressed as you can imagine, and restraining her while she had blood drawn was like taking the pointy needle and stabbing it directly into our hearts. But the last thing Ella needed was for us to fall apart, too. She needed us to say that everything would be okay, even if we were not sure we believed it ourselves.
I stayed with her the first night, bracing myself for a long night of nurses coming in every hour to monitor her drip and check her temperature. Each time they entered, Ella lost her mind because she was scared they were going to stab at her again. By 11 p.m. she looked up at me and asked when the lady was going to come back to hurt her. By the early hours of the morning, Ella still awake next to me, the nurse entered and I tried my very best to exercise self-restraint and respect for her profession, but by then, I was a pissed off lion guarding her cub. Curtly, I explained to the nurse that I understood she was only doing her job but was there any way she could stop poking and prodding my daughter for at least a few hours so my exhausted, terrified child could get some sleep? There may have been some death-staring, it’s highly likely.
Bless her heart, she gave us two hours alone since Ella was relatively stable, and at 5:30 when she came in and saw Ella was finally sleeping, she whispered to me, Look, I really need to check her again but I’ll give her until 6, okay? I loved her in that moment because I understood what she was risking, and the gift she was giving us.
We had to wait 48 hours for test results to return, and to pass the time, I didn’t know what else to do for my daughter but turn the whole experience into a great adventure. In one of my mad dashes home to get clothes and toothbrushes, I returned with nail polish and movies and a picnic full of her favourite foods. We quickly became the Fun Room, painting the nurse’s toenails, taking silly selfies with everyone, and playing whatever games we could get our hands on.
A long – long – two days later, full of heightened conversations with Joel, calls to and from family members and great juggling acts of having Billy looked after while also being there for Ella, our pediatrician finally walked towards us holding a file in her hands. I noticed she was smiling, and right then, I knew everything would be fine.
She told us that despite initial tests denying it, on further investigation they discovered our daughter had an E. coli infection in her bladder causing recurrent urinary tract infections, something very common in children, especially girls. It was nothing a short course of antibiotics would not fix.
Obviously, we breathed great sighs of relief. We said goodbye to all the nurses, reserving special but unspoken thank-you-for-being-with-us-during-this-ride hugs to Mandy, our favourite nurse. We left Room 13 and went home to celebrate, throwing an impromptu Christmas party in our lounge room. We baked ham and popped bon bons and drank champagne and lit sparklers and we took a quick trip to the see the Christmas lights at our local church. Ella was already a million times better, the routine antibiotics they gave her in hospital already taking effect.
And now we’re home, catching up on sleep, shutting out the world so we can just rest and be together.
There is certainly a very different feel in the air this Christmas, not just for us but a lot of Australians. In one week Sydney, Pakistan and Cairns became not dots on a map, but rips in our heart, and that feeling of hopelessness is only more piercing when we know that these three incidents are a drop in an ocean of more terror happening on our shores and across them, news that never reaches us, news that often remains secret.
We can’t turn away from these bits of horror, and nor should we. But I think now, more than ever, is the time we take the superficiality of Christmas cheer and use it as a chance to reset. Because for those of us lucky enough to still be standing at the end of this unforgiving year, we have a duty to stop and feel it. We have a duty to stop and be thankful for what we have, imperfect as it is, and for the people we have, imperfect as they are.
I am grateful for capable doctors finding diagnoses, for treatments that work, and for living in a country where this is all provided instantly, and for free. (Can you even grasp the privilege of it all?)
I am grateful for children to tuck into bed tonight.
I am grateful for the fingers which type these words, for my safe house in my safe neighborhood, for left over ham in our refrigerator ready to be eaten when we feel the slightest bit hungry.
It’s okay to seek out whomever you call family this holiday season and celebrate the small pleasures of life with them.
It’s okay to eat too much, to get excited by the sight of fairy lights, to drink hot chocolate and make up words to carols you don’t know.
It’s okay to forget the sadness of the world, just for a moment, and feel happiness in spite of it.
It’s okay and it’s important to.
Because it is such a great big awful cliche’ but there are no guarantees in life. None. And it’s important we don’t just KNOW that but LIVE LIKE THAT.
So may we celebrate the littlest of things, and treat them as they holy things they are.
Thank you so much for all your calls and texts and emails and prayers and wishes. The love of our friends and family was so supportive, but the love of strangers — of you here in this tent whom I’ve never meant — was humbling more than I could say. A woman I’d never met left an Instagram comment saying, “I don’t know you Rachel, or your family, but it doesn’t matter. Right now I’m with you, thinking of you and your amazing little girl.” If only we all held each other in our hearts like this, what a glorious world it would be. Thank you. We read every single message and wrapped them around us like blankets. The silver lining in hard times is the net that erects underneath you, full of outstretched hands whispering WE ARE HERE. WE HAVE GOT YOU. I am so grateful for this net. It means everything.
I will try to pop in again before Christmas, but if I don’t get the chance, have the most wonderful of Christmases. And if this time of year means pain and family dysfunction and heartache, stand tall my friends, remember your worth is not defined by how others treat you and repeat continuously NOT MY CIRCUS, NOT MY MONKEYS. And please, don’t hold back on toasting loved ones not with you this year. They are with you. They are.
Catching up on our Photo Dump (theredtent on Instagram if you want to follow the feed).
May love and magic fall upon all of your homes.
From my family to yours, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.