A few weeks ago I got a company-wide email inviting me to volunteer across the street at Children’s Mercy for a Mother’s Day card signing campaign for “Mercy Moms” – whose children are patients at the hospital. I immediately blocked my calendar hoping I could make it. When I got to the office today and saw the event on my calendar for this afternoon, a wave of panic came over me. Was I ready to drive into that familiar parking garage with the “friendly” color-coded floors? Could I maintain composure in that lobby, the one I remember walking out so many nights in tears after leaving Layla alone for the night so I could go home, be with Skyler, and get some decent sleep? I hadn’t been back there for maybe 3 years since her follow up visits are at a different location. I see the building from my office window and hear the helicopters transporting critical patients several times a week, but it’s been a safe distance, though not without a shudder and prayer every time I hear the rumble of the helicopter.
Thankfully my work schedule held and I wasn’t able to find an excuse not to go. I circled the familiar garage and found a spot on the Purple Airplane level and made my way through the lobby. I didn’t have to go far before I found the volunteer organizer and was directed to an elevator upstairs, to an area I had only seen maybe once in my time spent there. The volunteers gathered in a meeting room, and a woman told her daughter’s amazing story of beating an aggressive form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I sat next to an older couple who’s son was about to graduate high school, but had spent a lot of time at the hospital in his early life. That couple and I both declined the hospital tours that were being offered; we had all seen enough of it with our children.
We were given sheets of paper with printed messages from supporters who had sent messages through the Mothers Day campaign to hand-write onto the cards donated by Hallmark, and were encouraged to write our own personal messages as well. I probably signed at least 30 cards in my time there. Each and every one of them felt personal to me, even if I was printing someone else’s message. I imagined an exhausted and scared mother, spending her Sunday at the hospital by her child’s side. Maybe even having to leave that night and go home or next door to the Ronald McDonald House without her child. I imagined the lonely mother of a newborn, pumping breastmilk behind a curtain in one of the lactation rooms, dreaming of nursing her baby that is currently being sustained with an IV and feeding tube. I imagined the fear, the lack of control, and the feelings of guilt that she can’t help her child.
“You are stronger than you know.”
“You are an amazing mother.”
“You are not alone.”
“Your love makes a difference.”
“You are inspiring.”
“You are loved.”
As I was leaving I stopped in the lobby bathroom before hitting the road for my commute home. While washing my hands, another woman was washing hers and asked me about my volunteer sticker and what we were doing there. I explained and she said “Oh how nice, I hope I receive one of those cards!” I asked what she was there for, then immediately felt super nosy and awkward, and fumbled an apology with “Both my daughters had heart surgery here so it’s near and dear to my heart so I can’t help but wonder what others are going through.” She said her 3-month-old was awaiting cardiac surgery for ASD, VSD, and bicuspid valve (Layla and Skyler both split those defects). She explained how surgery kept getting postponed due to various setbacks with her son’s health, and that Dr O’brien (also our daughters’ surgeon) would be performing the surgery if the day would ever come. I listened and agreed and encouraged her that she and her baby were in good hands, and it’s so hard, but that she is so strong. I didn’t really know what to do but offer the empathy of someone who had been there, tell her how amazing she was, and remind her to get some fresh air and rest for herself. She was headed back to the Ronald McDonald House that evening, so we both made our way to the Purple Airplane parking level and went our separate ways.
A few minutes into my drive home, my nose itched. I reached up to scratch it and the distinct scent of the hospital hand soap I had used hundreds of times during my girls’ stays filled my nose and brain and sent me straight back to those fearful days as we fought for our girls’ lives. I remembered how dry and raw and sore my knuckles were from so much handwashing. I remembered long days of waiting for the next doctor’s report and watching the heart monitors like a hawk, jumping at every beep. I remembered wondering why we had to go through this, and TWICE! I thought of all the mothers who had come and gone, and those who would be receiving the cards we wrote that day, and of the woman I met in the bathroom with such a similar experience and how I was able to offer her encouragement. I then knew the answer to my questions, and I cried tears of joy the rest of the drive home.
I have found myself in a few situations lately where I’ve had to revisit the some of the most heartbreaking experiences in my life, in order to offer comfort to others who are going through similar things. It’s a strange and bittersweet feeling – like I can have true empathy and offer hope from being on the other side of challenges. And it feels like now there is a new reason for the pain and struggles I went through – that I can draw from those to help others. But I’ve also realized through this how far I’ve come. To be able to go back to those dark places and feel with those who are hurting, but not bring the hurt back with me to stay. I would never wish these experiences on anyone, but I am grateful for the personal growth and wisdom I’ve gained. And despite it all, I know I am right where I am meant to be.