Feb. 26, 2004. “Can I sleep with you Mommy?” my 8-year-old asks at 11:30 p.m., her face pale. She rounds the corner to my bedroom, dressed in her red and white flannel nightgown.
“Of course you can,” I say, just before she lays another trail of vomit to the bathroom. When she’s done, I tuck her in again, mop up, then tiptoe to call the pediatrician.
“Probably a stomach virus,” the doctor says. But my gut says something else. Nothing to put my finger on, just a sense of unease. So I wait, awake.
A year earlier, my husband left, and I shrank to skin and bones. A year earlier I might have collapsed myself after a day like today. My daughters and I spent all afternoon with the psychologist making custody recommendations; all evening my daughter was sick. Once a high-powered lawyer and self-assured mother, each day I struggle to overcome the avalanche of self-doubt that followed my husband’s affair.
“Mommy, my stomach really hurts,” my daughter moans at 2 a.m.
“Sweetheart, we’re going to the hospital, okay? You can wear your PJ’s. No one will see.” My daughter voices no objection. I steel myself for whatever’s ahead.
Before we leave, I step into my 13-year-old daughter’s room and call her name. No answer, then a few sighs.
“I’m going to the emergency room with your sister, but I’ll double lock the door, okay?”
I place the phone on the pillow next to her. “I’ll get you up in time for the school bus. But call if you need me, okay?”
“Tell my sister I love her,” she says, turning away from the glare of the hall light. I’m nervous leaving her alone, but as a single mother I’m used to triage.
It’s a cold winter morning and pitch dark outside. I drive the few blocks to the emergency room. Inside, a nurse whisks us into the pediatric ward.
Stop being a nervous chaleria. Even now, my husband’s voice echoes in my head.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Sunshine.” Surely a joke. But no, that’s the name emblazoned on the tag clipped to his lapel.
He presses on my daughter’s belly, draws blood, and orders a CT scan. I sing and read to her, coaxing her to drink a glass of barium imaging fluid. When she throws up, we start over. An hour later, I watch an orderly wheel her to radiology. The doors close behind her gurney and my daughter disappears, leaving me alone amid white walls and the smell of antiseptic. In the hush, the demons arise.
Will she become some sort of sacrificial lamb? Is this a test to shock me and my husband back together? Perhaps I’m being punished for my sins, the ones I know about and even those I’m unaware of.
The orderly returns. My daughter is asleep. “It’s definitely appendicitis,” Dr. Sunshine advises.
In a haze, I phone my husband.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he says. Is he lying next to his girlfriend?
My eldest, already showered and dressed when I call, begs to come to the hospital. “You’ve got the qualifier for the state math competition today,” I remind her. She’s captain of the school math team.
“All right,” she says. “But tell my sister I love her.”
When my husband arrives, I tell him they’re waiting for an operating room to open up and that the pediatric surgeon has been called away to her dying mother’s bedside. To me, our daughter’s life hangs in the balance. Dr. Sunshine says not to worry.
My daughter wakes up. “I want to go home. I feel fine,” she says. My husband sits beside her, talks softly, and rubs her hand. I watch from the corner of my eye, willing him to glance my way, for the warmth in his eyes to reflect off our daughter and onto me. He maintains his focus on her.
Nine, 10, 11. The morning passes. Then the afternoon. Approximately 16 hours after being admitted, our daughter is finally wheeled into the operating room.
My husband and I sit. He reads the paper and periodically glances at his phone.
“I need to make a call,” he says, standing up. “You want anything?”
“Sure. A bottle of water and a bag of chips.” So odd, this polite chitchat with my own husband.
I’m left again with white walls, antiseptic and silence.
Hours later, a woman in scrubs walks over to me and my husband.
“Your daughter’s going to be fine,” she says. At first I can’t digest the news; it’s unexpected, like a dream. Like my daughter has just been raised from the dead.
In the recovery room, her eyelids flutter. My husband and I flank her on opposite sides of the bed.
“How are you doing baby girl?” I ask.
“How are you honey?” he wants to know.
Still groggy, she raises her right hand and points her thumb toward the ceiling. His shoulders shake; tears brim on my lower lid. We take our daughter’s hands, a continuous line of connection from my hand to hers and from hers to his.
“When are they going to do the operation?” she asks. My husband and I laugh, then cry, releasing our tension.
“It’s going to be okay,” our daughter says, looking at us in turn.
“The operation’s over,” we say.
For a brief second, I sense an opening. And then my husband’s cellphone rings. And the moment is gone.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” our daughter says. Nurse Penny walks over with a bedpan.
“No way,” our daughter says, sitting up and swinging her legs over the side of the bed. She grabs hold of the bigger-than-she-is IV pole and shuffles to the bathroom.
“I can do it by myself,” she tells Nurse Penny, who’s about to follow her in.
“She’s a strong girl, that daughter of yours,” Nurse Penny says as my daughter shuts the door. Soon she reappears and hobbles back to bed.
“I need to do my homework,” she announces once settled under the covers. Nurse Penny runs off laughing.
“Go get some sleep. I’ll stay tonight,” my husband says. I’ve been up for two days. I feel unexpectedly content leaving.
The house is dark when I arrive home. My 13-year-old is staying at a friend’s; today she led the math team to victory. After showering, I notice the story my youngest wrote about me last year. It’s always tacked to my bulletin board.
A lump catches in my throat when I reach her closing words: Strong, brave, that’s where you’re from. That’s where I’m from too.
Fifteen years later, my daughters continue to light my way. And now that I have reclaimed my life, I hope my courage continues to light theirs.
Beverly Willett is a freelance writer living in Savannah, Ga. She is author of “Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection.”