The doctor’s sentences pulse with medical terminology. His voice sounds distant and distorted by the pumping of blood through my ear drums. The room begins to spin. Here comes the familiar onset of a panic attack. During such times, I’m supposed to ground myself with smells, sounds and sights. So I start with the physicality of my son balanced on knees; the brumming sounds he’s making while playing with his toy cars; the scent of camomile shampoo from his fine blond hair. Then I look across at the doctor’s hands: the scrubbed clean cuticles; the manicured nails hugging the fingertip contours – how different from my own.
Suddenly, I’m aware of a gaping silence in the room and sense the doctor’s eyes on me. I raise my gaze to meet the trace of a frown on his brow. He unscrews the lid of his fountain pen, takes a sheet of paper and begins to draw: a heart, four chambers, then another heart with a break in the septum – a three chambered heart. I rearrange my legs so my son can zoom his toy cars along the side of the desk.
Atrial septal defect.
Significant for a toddler.
These hostile words cannot settle: they ricochet like bullets against the steel of my unwelcoming mind. My lexicon of motherhood is already packed and expanded daily with new language for wooden train sets and cartoon characters; filled with phrases for cuddles and kisses; with rhymes and fairy tales and happy endings; with words for new phases of development. There’s no room for the doctor’s unwanted medical words. But finally, painfully, they lodge in place. And with a sinking heart, I realise I’ll need to use them. Regularly. To explain this impossible new reality.
I hear my own voice, shaky and syncopated and crackling through the silence, as though belonging to someone else.
What are the risks? What if we do this? What if we don’t?
And my head swims with the response.
With the possible complications.
With the statistics.
With the information that my boy’s heart is a ticking time-bomb if left alone.
Instinctively, I place my palm over his chest and feel the steady pulse and beat beneath while my own heart is aching.
The room spins again. I breathe deeply and focus on the doctor as he places his pen on the desk and explains how my son’s heart is the size of his tiny fist. Looking down, I register the beauty of the dimples on the back of the chubby little hands. I brush my fingers across the shadow knuckles, feeling a stickiness from the sweets I used earlier as a good-behaviour bribe. Until a few moments ago, I felt guilty about that. It seems ridiculously trivial now.
My eyes travel again to the doctor’s hands. They represent hope and possibility. Necessity. I need him to work his everyday magic: to fix my son’s heart, and to un-break mine.
Biography: Emma McEvoy is a teacher, blogger, podcaster and writer. Her pieces have appeared in various online and print publications including Ellipsis zine, Sundial Magazine, and Five Minute Lit. She lives in the north of England with her husband, two teenage children and her beagle, Lola. On Twitter she’s @corkyorky