Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tiger Beat

I’ve introduced myself—and been introduced—many different ways. I’ve been described as “the wife,” “the mother,” “the prosecutor,” “the photographer,” “the writer,” “the troop leader,” “the utility person,” “the ‘room mom’,” “the girlfriend,” “the mother of the bride,” “the award winner,” "the Hot Dog Fairy," “the driver,” and “the cocktail waitress.”

But this time, I was at the bedside of one of my children at an enormous university hospital, and when the specialist walked in, trailing a couple of medical students behind, I stuck my hand out for a handshake in greeting, and announced my status so there would be no mistake.

“Hi, I’m Mary. I’m the mother tiger.”

I don’t know why it took me so long. It’s not like with four kids I’ve had any shortage of opportunities waiting for test results to come back, or X-rays to be analyzed, or abdomens to be palpated, or medical gurus to be consulted. The title comes with the territory.

There’s something so primal, and visceral, and imperative about sitting guard at your child’s bedside when something’s gone wrong. All the medical professionals and fancy hospital technology and state-of-the-art monitoring are no substitute reassurance for parking yourself next to your cub to hold off the dangers lurking beyond in the dark forest. Danger can come from the things we can see (Man, that must have hurt when he hit that mogul!!) and sometimes from the things we can’t—microbes and antibodies and viruses and prions and environmental toxins and the dealer pushing baggies of crack in the shadows around the corner.

When we become parents, we are captives and keepers all in one. I remember standing beside the crib of this child as he slept, only a few days old. In the silent room, with the lights dimmed, I was hit by a tidal wave of emotion and hormones, thinking “I adore you. I worship you. I would die to protect you.” That was eighteen years ago. I still feel the same way.

Years ago I read an essay about parenting by Michael Kelly, the late Atlantic Monthly editor-at-large and Washington Post columnist who was killed in Iraq in 2003, and it has always stayed with me. Long before his death, he’d written a light-hearted yet poignant piece about parenting and what he called “the look,” that silly combination of worship and rapture that crosses our faces when we gaze at our kids when they’re not looking, regardless of the age of our offspring, or even their personal grooming habits.

I clipped it out of the paper to save, but running true to form, I can’t put my finger on the yellowing piece of newsprint that’s kicked around one dresser or desk drawer or another since then. I’d have loved to be able to quote some of it.

Suffice it to say that it captured, far more eloquently that I ever could, that universal surge of pride and protection and tenderness that comes with bringing the next generation into the world. I think the only thing he left out was that feral “mother tiger” thing. The certainty that anything that threatens the cub has to make it across a vast and vigilant expanse of claws and teeth first.

It came into play a couple of times during this last hospital stretch, and turned out to be good for a laugh or two…and, I think, some actual results. Or at least a little validation.

Before the specialist came in for the consult, we’d been handed off to a “hospitalist” to oversee the case during the stay at the hospital. Now this particular physician may have done very well in medical school…but still came up a bit short on people skills. Not very good at taming tigers either. Brusque, unsmiling, not terribly familiar with our situation, and dismissive of my questions and concerns to the point of rudeness.

“Hmmm,” the doc countered as she shot down one point after another. “And you have no medical training…” What could I say? Guilty as charged…and yet still vigorously challenging some fundamental underlying assumptions. So sue me. I aced high school logic, and this didn’t seem all that much different.

An unhappy doctor finally left the room, still not cracking a smile. The patient and I collectively exhaled in relief. “Geez, what a @#%$&!!” we concluded. I explained the dynamic that had just occurred with as precise an analogy as I could summon.

“Honey, what you just saw could be called ‘the clash of the middle-aged Alpha females.”

I’d like to report that I’d engaged in this Alpha-female test of wills while stylishly decked out in spike heels…but the fact of the matter was that I’d slept in my sweats on an excruciatingly short hospital sofa the night before, and had had to beg a nurse for a spare toothbrush. I felt like road kill…but with claws.

Vindication came, however, a couple of hours later when the specialist came in and sorted things out. Jovial, quick-witted, astute and experienced, he deftly poked and prodded, quickly sketched the outlines of the medical mystery that had landed us there in the first place, and suggested a course of medication I’d already suggested, and had rejected, by Dr. Grumpy.

“So,” he asked brightly as he gathered his notes and medical students. “Does this make the mother tiger happy?”

“Purr….” I replied.

My cub has returned to the forest, as he should, and I’ve resumed my usual routine of too many things to do in too little time. But I still get to laugh at the way things played out.

If there's one lesson to be had from this long and arduous day, it's this and it's simple. When the chips are down, put your money on the tiger.

1 comment:

Jennifer Fink said...

Never, ever bet against a Mom. :)

My favorite line in this essay: "When we become parents, we are captives and keepers all in one."