it was the clinic doctor last Christmas when both the kids had ear infections. he looked up from the white-draped table where Posey reclined obligingly. i was wrestling Oscar’s turtleneck back over his head now that it was his sister’s turn. i thought i’d misheard.

what?

it came out more snappish than i’d intended. i am not snappish with doctors. i have occasionally wished in hindsight for more snap, but when it is Christmas Eve and you are the physician kindly humouring my family through the investigation of ear pus and “mommy, it hurts” mere minutes before the pharmacies close for three days, any snap you get from me is just weariness. i promise.

you know she has a heart murmur, right?

my head tilted, as if to accommodate the weight of that tidbit. its meaning registered in stages, internal standup comedy. heart. those are important. but MY children have lung issues, not heart problems. don’t be silly. Finn’s lungs, underdeveloped. Oscar’s asthma. all those visits to pediatric recussitation. i don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no heart murmurs. Posey is my healthy one, my never-once-admitted-to-the-hospital baby. fuck off, heart murmur. what the hell does that MEAN, anyway?

i remember feeling profoundly stupid in that moment, neglectful in my ignorance, as if i’d failed to read the fine print on the instruction manual that had come with my daughter.

is that a big deal? i asked, hesitant.  no, he said. and so i nodded and more or less promptly forgot about it.

when you experience a major medical catastrophe with a child, the kind where doctors start speaking in hushed voices and you feel like you’re probably being superdramatic to ask if it’s bad but they say yes and then the bottom sinks out of your world and everything changes, there are two ways you can go, after.  you can live scared for a very long time. you can fret over coughs and lather with Purell and generally treat the world like a bus waiting to hit the precious ones left to you. which, with all due respect, it kinda is.

or you can build a wall behind which you hide, where so long as nobody ever speaks the words “he probably won’t recover” ever again, you’re golden. untroubled. pretty much everything else sounds petty next to that, after all.

so when you rush an eight-month-old to the hospital in the dead of winter gasping for air and they speed you through to the oxygen tents and then say, oh, probably asthma, you exhale with an almost palpable relief. you have to catch yourself, actually, and stand up straight and ask all the right questions and try not to look so bizarrely grateful. and your brain does take a circuitous loop through the swamps of guilt where you wonder how this prognosis will impact the life of the once-again pink and happy baby in your arms…but your brain does not remain there. it is too busy hightailing it back behind its wall, where inhalers look pretty damn pasty and thin compared to the shopvac wail of the NICU ventilator you still hear in your sleep, sometimes.

obviously, i chose the wall. or it chose me.

Oscar was a relatively sickly baby, by most standards. by the time he was fifteen months old, he’d been hospitalized on six different occasions, in two different countries, and had spent almost a month of nights in neonatal and pediatric wards. he had respiratory issues and colic and a variety of possible allergies. and it exhausted me and worried me, in the sense that i worried whether i was doing right by him with every choice we made about milk and reflux meds and steroids, ad nauseum. but never did i actually, seriously, worry about him. compared to his 2.2 pound brother with the tube forced through his chest wall, Oscar was hearty and breathing pretty fine.

and with her brothers as a baseline, Josephine was the Gerber baby. sure, she had jaundice for a few days at birth, and the cursed colic, and from the time she could roll over showed a terrifying predilection for banging headfirst into anything that could possibly get in her way, but this one, she was healthy. roly-poly. fiesty. sweet as pie and tough as nails.

so the heart murmur news caught me off-guard. but when the clinic doctor and Dr. Google both concurred that it was no big deal, i shrugged and booked the ECG and went along my merry way, behind my Wall of I’ve Heard Worse.

i stayed there through the ECG, which was prompt and painless, and straight through the followup appointment with the pediatric clinic a few months later, because i was so damn chill i forgot to actually take the child to her appointment. as did her father. yes, we got coupons with our Parents of the Year awards.

but i think my wall is crumbling.

we had the followup to the followup today. Posey beetled around the doc’s office in a diaper and socks and pigtails, admonishing the toy blocks to stay put and then shouting, look Mama! i RIDIN’! as she scooted across the linoleum floor on an eight-inch-long plastic schoolbus. she sat, watchful but patient in my lap as this new specialist listened to the mysteries inside of her little chest. he took a long family history, listened some more, checked her pulse at various points throughout her body. and he then lifted his head and i asked, what do you hear? and he said, well, i think we should do more tests.

it’s not a big deal, not in any serious sense: just not the innocent murmur i’d hoped. a thickened muscle, possibly, perhaps with a hole or ventricular septal defect. no immediate risk. possible surgery down the road, if it doesn’t close on its own.

we got to go straight down to xray, then for another ECG. there will be an echocardiogram at some point, later. followups. pediatric cardiologists. not a big deal.

but still a bit of a deal. an uncertain deal.

by virtue of lack of exposure, my armour is slipping. i spent all my pregnancies in and out of the doctor’s office and the big regional specialist hospital, constantly subject to poking and prodding and ultrasounds and blood tests. between Finn’s calamitous birth and two months of hospitalization before Oscar was born and then his many admissions, i was hospital-proofed, inured. not only had i heard the worst, but i never got far from the sharp alcohol tang of the hospital handwash. until Posey. since Posey was born, my only trips to the hospital have been for Oscar’s ear tube surgeries.

i was not ready. when i called my boss to say i’d be late for our lunch meeting, juggling Josephine and a sippy cup and a sheaf of requisitions in my hands, i felt it for the first time in years, that metallic taste of fear.

because here we leap, naked and vulnerable, back into the world of medical machines and systems i am glad for, grateful for, but would far prefer to never see again as long as i live.

***

the doctor asked today, is she fragile? timid? does she get overexerted easily? i laughed.

i do not know much about heart murmurs, would appreciate anything you can tell. so i can bolster up my wall with knowledge, and keep exhorting her to bounce higher.

Posey at the bouncy castle