I could tell you a million sad stories about a million hard things that happen to kids. And their families. Well, maybe not a million. But eleven years worth. I could tell you about horrible, awful things. Worse than you can imagine. Worse than you’ve seen on TV. It would alter your mood. And change the vibe of your get-together, if I’m honest. I know better. I won’t do that. I will listen to you talk of work stories. And I will let you insert hard things for me to hear like “you have such a fun job” or “I could never work in a children’s hospital” or “I don’t know how you do it.”
It really would not be fair to follow up your bad day at work story with one of mine. That’s because when it comes to sad stories, I’ve got a hand full of spades. Every single time. Pretty soon you just won’t want to play with me anymore. You won’t ask about work. It will be the elephant in the room, the one in the corner making herself a drink. Don’t worry, its okay. I get it. I do understand. It’s hard for me, too, walking into the hospital on some gorgeous happy sunny days. You never know what you’re walking into. You never know how hard your hands will be squeezed. Or how many times your heart will be flipped upside down. How many screams or cries you will hear. Or how hard it will be to hold back the tears building a sad castle inside. You never know how many times you will need to go to the bathroom. Or how many times you will just have to keep holding it. Or if you will eat anything other than a donut and cheez-its. It’s an unpredictable environment, to say the least.
But, it’s not all ace of spades sad trumping stories. Or none of us would do it. There are victorious, fist pumping small miracles happening. All around. I could also tell you of some of the most inspiring stories. The times where I’ve witnessed love in it’s purest, most raw and unconditional form. When I’ve held back both happy and sad tears as I left the room to go grab a warm blanket. Or a glass of water for a parent. I can attempt to describe to you the thrill of working on a team where each member excels in different roles but most have mutual respect and adoration for each other. And every member has the same goal: to help make things better in both gigantic life-saving ways and the seemingly small, dignity reviving ways. We all show up and hope to help kids and families overcome. We aspire to make the world inside a kid’s hospital better.
If I could see that you truly wanted to listen, I would highlight all the joys and all of the many pains. The frustrations. And the necessary humor. Definitely the life-changing moments. The many heroes and heroines. You would hear all about the kids who proudly shouted “I did it!” after completing something really scary and painful. And excruciatingly hard. I wouldn’t forget to tell you of the time where I witnessed a teenage brother sit on the bed and comfort his younger sister in the most inspiring, compassionate way. A way that reminded me of my big brother. Or the time where I stood beside a father who held on so tightly to his daughter’s head and hand, never letting go, as she screamed in pain and begged him to hold her. I think she was begging him to make it stop. To rescue her. But he couldn’t do that, so he did what he could. He held onto her through the hurt.
I would need to tell you of the innocent, gigantic-hearted children who say things like, “I want to stay at your house” or “do you want to go to Worlds of Fun with us?” And of the painful, heartbreaking realizations that tumble out of kids’ mouths like… “He was just a kid. And he died.” I would have to boast about the littlest interpreters who carry the weight of speaking English at the doctor and Spanish at home. Who speak for their mother or father, all the while trying to play and just be a kid. Just a few weeks ago, one sweet seven year old boy fumbled and told me, “I got lost in a word.” How perfect. I knew exactly what he meant.
I get lost in words too. Especially when I try to explain what working in a hospital is like. Most people have a hard time listening. So I stop talking. I recognize that maybe you just wanted to hear something less heavy. More happy. Lighthearted.
Unfortunately, I think I can usually trump any sad story you tell. That doesn’t mean I should. Or that I want to. I usually won’t. I try to hide what I hold in my hands. And in my heart. Unless I know that you carry a hand of spades too. I will not unravel in front of you. I will hold my cards tightly. To my chest. You will never know of the faces, the sounds, the room number. The smells. The horror. The memory triggers. I know I can’t tell you about this. If I told you about it, you may not understand. You would wonder how I can talk without sobbing. You would think I’m some sort of sick human being. You may think I just don’t feel anymore. Or that I’m insensitive, maybe calloused. Burnt out perhaps. You may say something like “I just don’t know how you do it…..how you don’t cry.” You forgot to ask me the question. You assumed that this work doesn’t affect me. Maybe not like you imagine it would affect you. You forgot to ask,
“Do you ever cry?”
Because, if you asked this, I would answer, “Yes.” Exhale. “Yes, I do cry.” Not in front of you though. Not right here. Not right now.
I cry as I turn my back to you, quick tears that never exit. I cry in the halls and bathrooms at work. Bent over using the cheapest toilet paper or paper towels to wipe them away. Or in my office. I cry at home in my kitchen into a dish towel or on the tread mill into my t-shirt. I cry in my bedroom into my pillow when my kids are sleeping or getting ready for school. Just because I can stand in this room or tell a story without crying doesn’t mean I don’t feel the utter sense of loss and pain and unfairness that you felt upon first imagining it. I’m only human. I’m actually a lot like you.
We all have different strengths. And different capacities. Limits. Gifts. Yet, we all have weaknesses. Vulnerabilities. Every single last one of us. There is a completely different language that takes years and years to recognize and learn. A language we will never fully understand. And the more time you spend around this unspoken language, the more deeply you feel. In happy or sad moments. It’s the language of hurt. The language of pain. The language of unexpected life-altering circumstances. It’s too difficult to try and understand in a moment. In a conversation. In a day. It’s much too complicated. It often feels foreign, uncomfortable. You just can’t fathom the all-encompassing, overwhelming and sometimes heart-stopping beautiful feelings that accompany holding these cards. So, I will nod. Put on my best poker face. And most likely I will never let you truly know what it feels like to work in a children’s hospital. It’s easier for me to just hold my cards closely, tightly, right up next to my beating heart.