Grandchild in the Emergency Room

When a grandbaby is sick, not knowing is the hardest thing

By Adair Lara and Anne Lamott

Some Assembly Required © 2012 by Anne Lamott

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Twenty years ago, writer Anne Lamott had a baby, her son Sam, and published a journal of her first year as a single mother in the best-selling memoir, Operating Instructions. Now Sam has grown up and he and his on-again off-again girlfriend Amy have had a baby son themselves. His name is Jax.

Jax has a grandmother, thirsting like all grandmothers for time with the baby, and, like a writer, taking notes for a sequel to Operating Instructions called Some Assembly Required. Anne, like all of us grandmothers, wants to get her mitts on the baby as much as she can. “This is the one fly in the grandma ointment,” she writes “[is] the total love addiction—the highest highs, and then withdrawal, craving, scheming to get another fix. All I do is wait for another chance to be with the baby. He has basically ruined my life. I begin to think about Jax the moment I wake up, wondering what he can do now that he couldn’t do yesterday. But it is not my fault—we’re wired to be delighted, obsessed; we’re engineered that way."

In the following excerpt from Some Assembly Required, the parents take the baby to the emergency room and Anne tries not to call.

Grandchild in the ER

There was a message from Amy that Jax seemed to be having trouble breathing.

I texted back that they needed to take him to the emergency room. Amy texted that she’d take him to their doctor tomorrow when his office opened. I replied that it might be best to take him to the ER today.

Then I called, and said it offhandedly: Take him to the g*****n ER.

They did. When I didn’t hear from them for a few hours, I naturally assumed Jax was in the ICU, after thoracic surgery, or hooked up to a heart-lung machine. Amy finally called to say there was no cell-phone reception in the ER. Jax did have croup, and was being given all the stuff I used to give Sam when he got asthma during a head cold—major meds like albuterol and steroids. Jax was doing fine, but the doctors wanted to watch him for a while. Amy made it clear that she would call when she could; there was no point in my calling, because there was no reception.

I was flooded with relief. But after I got off the phone, I wanted to jump up and down and shout, “Croup croup croup! I was right!” Because I’m human and a mother. And now a grandmother. Those parts are so hard, the real flies in the ointment.

Then I had to wait for hours till I heard from them again. I kept gently reminding myself that they would call when they could, that there was no reception; that Jax was fine; that Jesus was right there in the ER with them, overseeing things with His gentle love. Then I remembered that He was with me, too, and loved me with my tentacles and schadenfreude just as much as He loves perfect Jax, which to me is the central mystery of my faith. So I stretched out on the couch with the dogs, the cat, and all the sections of the Times I hadn’t read yet, and that is what grace looked like for a few hours.

At nine I began cracking under the strain of not hearing, so I called a friend whose kid has a brain tumor. She said I should try to stay out of the obsession and fear, because that morass is not helpful to live in. It’s like that joke about wrestling with pigs—you get hurt and dirty, while the pigs love it.

But what is the alternative? I asked.

“Well, you know,” she said. “God and prayer. Faith.”

“Oh!” I said, smiting my forehead. “Right.”

I managed not to call Amy or Sam. I practiced releasing them to grow and find their own way. I did not become a voice that either of them would need to argue with or resist. Instead, they should listen to their son’s breathing improve, and to the voices of doctors and nurses. What a concept. And I was doing pretty well, until nine-thirty, when I cracked, and called the ER. A nurse told me that Jax had just been discharged, and they were all headed home. “Oh, that’s great,” I said. “Pretty much what I expected.”

Pretty much, except for the trach, and the iron lung.

Sam called not long after, to tell me that this great old doctor had said Jax was fine—he prescribed lots of medicine in case Jax got worse or had the same symptoms in the future. The doctor told them to keep an eye on Jax, and to see the pediatrician in the morning. “Mom, we both appreciate how calm you stayed through this,” Sam said. “And how you didn’t bother us at the hospital. It was kind of amazing.”

“Oh”—I laughed—“not a big deal.”

Excerpted from Some Assembly Required © 2012 by Anne Lamott.

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