Missy lay back in the emergency room bed, exhausted. After the day she’d had, neither Heather nor I could blame her.
Too much crying. Too much pain. Missy had been done with this long before her medical team had, and that meant she turned into 97 pounds of pint-sized stubborn. The vomiting hadn’t helped, nor had the “I gotta go potty-o” trips that repeatedly produced nothing.
We’d had to come, though. Abdominal pain can’t be ignored. Especially the sort that transforms a face into a living mask of hurt, a tragedy mask wrapped in wordless agony.
So here we were, and here we stayed for the longest five hours on Earth. Heather and I had been this route before – in fact, with my wife’s many chronic illnesses, Heather was something of an emergency room veteran.
But not with Missy. Never for Missy.
In more than six years of caring for our developmentally disabled ward, we had never once had to bring her to the ER. Colds, yes. Bugs, sure. But never anything that needed more than bed rest, patience, and a quiet reminder of “Don’t pull your hair, Missy.”
We could feel the difference now.
At the best of times, Missy is a quiet person. She isn’t non-verbal – in fact, she’s “chattier” than she used to be – but even so, her use of words tends to be pretty sparing. In those moments, translation tends to rely on facial expression, body language, and a glossary of common phrases, filtered through the context of the moment. (For example, “book” can mean an actual book or it can mean her ever-present, filled-past-the-brim purse.)
The three of us communicate well. But when the moment of pain hit, Missy didn’t have the words to explain it. And that’s scary, on both sides of the conversation.
No one likes being helpless. And few things are more helpless than to see someone you love in pain, without being able to do anything about it.
We all know that one, don’t we? Whether it’s a night in the hospital with a relative in pain, or a headline that screams of disaster visiting friends and family across the country, it opens the same doors. That desperate need to help that can’t find resolution, however hard we try.
And when the person involved can do so little to help themselves – the very old, the very young, the disabled – it only gets magnified.
Yes, this is part of how we know we’re human. This is the heart showing that it can feel need, empathize with pain, and spur us beyond ourselves. It’s how we know the depth of our bonds, as a family and a species.
But when all that potential has nowhere to go, it hurts. You find ways to help, but they never seem enough. Maybe they are. Maybe even our smallest gestures mean something on the other side of the divide. I hope so.
It finally seemed to for Missy.
Blood tests. An X-ray. A CT scan. And in the end, some good news – no appendicitis, no bowel obstruction, none of the worst possibilities that Heather and I had been fearing. The meds were helping her through, the pain was receding. Everyone could go home.
We didn’t have final answers today. For now, those could wait. For now, it was enough to be together, to have been together. To have “normal” back, however fragile it might be.
No, you can never do enough.
But sometimes you can do enough for now.