Out of the mouths of babes

April 10, 2013

My Hawaiian experience is proving difficult to articulate in words and more easily shared through actions. Indeed, some persist subconsciously, like my habit of flashing the shaka sign as a way to say “thank you” to kind gestures in traffic. (In many ways, it’s like the opposite of the angry middle-finger salute; try it some time when someone makes room for you to merge ahead of them.) I suppose it’s a lot like the elusiveness of a concise translation for Aloha, but that’s a topic for another post or series yet to come.

On Sunday, I went to help a friend move some furniture. Daniel is transforming his wife’s home-office into a birthing room and nursery for their daughter, expected later this month. After wrestling an antique bookcase together and devouring his thank-you meal, we got to talking about the surreal story of parents kidnapping children from grandparents; how it came to that; the terrifying possibility of state-sponsored kidnapping and how we might react.

I happen to know the grandparents involved, so it has been on my mind ever since I learned about it. The whole scenario – what I know about it, anyway – is deeply troubling. Parents involved in anti-government activities (free speech vs. violence?). Children taken and placed in foster care after the police in a Deep South state found cannabis in their parents’ possession (pointless prohibition vs. child endangerment?). The father assaulting grandma in front of the kids, taking them and tying her up, and then sailing with the two little ones into the Gulf of Mexico in bad weather in a small boat (a whole lot of very bad judgment vs. going to extremes to protect one’s family?).

But I digress again. This was meant to be a light-hearted post. After our heavy conversation, I needed a break. I also knew that Daniel hardly ever gets one. So I asked if I could take his son Alexander to the park, thereby giving my friend some rare time to himself and me some play time with an adorable little kid. (Naturally, Daniel used it to clean the house – an opportunity that most of us single folks take for granted.)

Alexander and I strolled down the sidewalk to a great little neighborhood park. He knew the way like the back of his hand, so I kept goofing around about getting lost and challenging him to distinguish left from right. He has “Go straight!” down pat (the park is on his street), but my unnecessary turns elicited laughter and gesticulation: “Not that way, silly…” [pointing earnestly] “that way!”

Our Sunday afternoon play-date was a blast. After showing me his playground dexterity, we launched into a game of freeze-tag that involved lots of joyful squealing (by him) and childish clowning around (by me). Next, Alexander suggested we play hide-and-seek. “You hide while I count to thirteen,” and without pause he began, “1, 2, 3 … 9, 10, 11. Ready or not here I come!”

What about twelve and thirteen?, I wondered, ducking behind some playground equipment where I could still keep my eyes on him. We took turns hiding and seeking. Whenever it was my turn to seek, I peeked through my hands to watch where he went, then feigned confusion as I looked behind everything except his hiding place until Alexander revealed his whereabouts by laughing hysterically. “Gotcha!”

When I caught him blatantly watching me hide, I called him on it. “You’re cheating. Cover your eyes and start counting again.” And then I thought: Is this how hypocrisy begins, with good intentions and seemingly benign?

Our last round of hide-and-seek ended with Alexander dancing beneath the park’s gazebo, just because it struck him in the moment to dance without a care in the world, except to watch his shadow move. I suppose this is a big reason why I love to spend time with other people’s kids, despite wanting none of my own. Moments of pure bliss and wonder.

Actually, that’s only half true. I also subscribe to the belief that “It takes a village.” If we can’t make time for the kids in our lives and in ourselves, then I think we’re doomed as a society.

I told Alexander’s father that we’d be back by 6pm, so after his dance he climbed back into the stroller and we started wandering back in the same manner as we came. “Which way do I turn?” When he pointed left and said “That way!” I commenced a spin. Squealing with laughter as we came back around, he pointed and exclaimed, “Go straight!” Fair enough.

Like most four-year-olds, Alexander is very observant and likes to comment on the world around him. We spotted lizards and flowers and gazed up at big, beautiful trees that canopied the sidewalk. To a couple of guys working to rehab an old bungalow, we said “Nice work, fellas!”

I spotted a very attractive woman in a bright blue sundress at the far end of the block. She was walking her dog, a cute little pug, in our direction. Taking my cue from Alexander to seize the moment and from Hawaii to spread the love, I prompted him with what I’d say if I had more chutzpah. As we approached I spoke to Alexander, “What do you say?”

“Hello little doggie!”

The woman smiled and said hello back. Then I said to him, “What else?”

“Hello pretty lady!”

Her reaction was priceless, like she was startled by delightful news: “Oh!” and then a blushing, stifled giggle – almost like a hiccup. Her hand rose reflexively to cover her mouth. I didn’t stop or even look her way, just caught the expression from the corner of my eye as we passed by each other. I hope it made her day as much as it made mine.

Kids say the darnedest things.

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Birthday music

November 19, 2012

Six months ago, I dared not consider if this day would come. Happily, family and friends gathered yesterday in Sunnyside to celebrate Kyle’s second birthday, and it was raucous fun.

When Nana, Harabogi and Uncle Andy (my parents and I) arrived a few days before, the party plan was still coming together. Of course there would be cake, but should we serve dinner, too? If so, how much food? What about party favors?

Being a garbage geek, I’m reluctant to purchase a bunch of cheap stuff that will soon become litter, but having young nephews is softening me. Maybe it started as a joke, but Harabogi suggested kazoos and the lightbulb clicked on. Of course!

Jeff and Choi (Dad and Mom) are both musicians and would play “Happy Birthday” at Kyle’s party. What better way to get the other kids involved? Nana and Harabogi walked to the local knick-knack store and returned with two bags of the colorful plastic noisemakers.

On party day, Jeff’s best friend Ryan Pate, a guitarist, joined the musical team. He borrowed Choi’s “baby guitar,” which looked even smaller next to his six and a half foot frame. They warmed up in the apartment with Jeff playing his “piri,” a traditional Korean reed instrument that sounds like a cross between oboe and stiletto to the eardrum, depending on the player’s skill. (When Jeff tried for a high note and nothing audible came out, I figured out why the the neighbor’s dog is so mean.) Actually, the little jam session sounded pretty cool, but it was a good thing Jeff brought the trombone, instead.

Ryan, Jeff and Choi serenade the crowd

Our gang of eight strolled to the party with instruments and a few bags of food and beverages. Our host, the Korean New York Presbyterian Church, is an institution of massive proportions. Their penchant for generosity was expressed in a huge spread of food that dwarfed what we brought. Oodles of noodles were presented in commercial kitchen trays, with reinforcements in a plastic bowl big enough for a bath.

Soon, our little corner of the giant church was filled with good cheer. Friends brought gifts for Kyle and donations for Ronald McDonald House, and I was reminded again of how fortunate our family had been this summer. We feasted and kids laughed and ran about in a herd. Then the music started and all gathered round to dance and play as Ryan, Jeff and Choi entertained.

When it came time for the cake, Jeff had the kids line up for their instruments. I handed out 24 kazoos and immediately the hall buzzed like a hornets’ nest. I wondered where this idea rated on the scale of obnoxious gifts for children. Probably somewhere south of drums and whistles, I was reassured by Dawn, the downstairs neighbor (who knows something about enduring cacophony).

“Happy Birthday,” was a smash hit with a chorus of managed chaos led by trombone and guitar. Choi and Teo helped Kyle blow out the birthday candles. After cake, we unleashed a ka-ZOO of saccharin-stoked animals on the neighborhood. Maybe it’s a good thing these instruments aren’t very durable, after all. Anyway, it was a blast while it lasted.

Happy Birthday, kazoo style

The adventures continue…in Alaska!

August 20, 2012

After two months of daddy duty, I left NYC on July 29 for a brief stop at home in Tampa, then packed my bags and flew to Alaska on August 6. Now I’m visiting friends in Seward who have kids the same ages as Teo and Kyle, so the adventures continue–this time with Evie and Oliver.  Most are chronicled on my travel blog, but I did want to give a shout out directly to my friends in Sunnyside. Or, as Oliver likes to announce in a smiling, singsongy voice: “Hell-loooooooooooo!”

Keeping up my nap-master skills

On my first full day here, Jan took us fishing. (Besides the kids, “us” includes my friends and travel companions, Rick and Ellen.) Oliver rode in Jan’s modern-day papoose and Evie combed the rocky shore for feathers while the big boys tried to snag salmon. When fishing turned into catching, Ellen graciously took over Ollie duty. Evie reeled in her first salmon with help from daddy. Rick and I hauled in a few, too.

Since then, we’ve taken the kids on an awesome Kenai Fjords wildlife cruise and hiked most of the way up Mount Marathon. During the latter, Amy showed off her mountain goat credentials by simultaneously carrying both kids for an uphill portion. (She insisted! I swear the rest of us are not just lazy bums!)

Jan is a fishing addict and I’m starting to develop a habit, too. Despite drizzly and blustery conditions, or perhaps because of them, we decided to try our luck again yesterday. (Jan insists on sending me home with lots of salmon. I’m fine with that.) With her new best friends, Ellen and Rick, gone (heading back home), Evie preferred to stay home and play with mommy, so the boys went fishing together.

Ollie mostly napped, but he must have been good luck. Nobody else on the beach was catching anything, so our six fish made them pretty envious!

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Our lucky day (Hospitality, part 6)

July 27, 2012

[NOTE: It has been a crazy two months. This is the last installment of a series meant to summarize our experiences at various hospitals, including Kyle’s progress, our family’s attempts to keep up with it, and the love and support that kept us sane through it all. It will be easier to follow if you start with part 1.]

Blythedale to Sunnyside,
Friday, July 13

Similar to our experience at LIJ/Cohen, the last days of Kyle’s stay at Blythedale seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. First came the X-ray and subsequent doctor’s order that his brace need only be worn during playtime. Without it, Kyle was able to look down at his toes for the first time in a month and a half–a significant portion of a 19 month-old’s life! A few days later, he was completely liberated from the brace. In its place, Kyle got a padded crash helmet to protect his noggin from the potential consequences of his ever-increasing confidence.

The powers that be deemed Friday, July 13th should be the date of Kyle’s return home from Blythedale Children’s Hospital. They also called for a black cat, a mirror and a ladder to be sent home with him… just kidding. But in all seriousness, the manner in which we were discharged seemed like a cruel joke. We were literally given a day’s notice that Kyle had to leave because insurance would no longer cover his treatment as an inpatient. (And despite the assurances of Blythedale’s social worker, Kyle has yet to receive any followup therapy from Early Intervention.)

Nora’s help at Sunnyside String School was truly indispensable

That same Friday was also the last day of Choi’s summer music camp. Choi’s newest teacher, Nora, really stepped up to make camp possible during what was surely the most chaotic time; indeed, Choi’s first instinct after the accident was to cancel camp altogether.

All of the camp’s the instruments, tables, chairs and other accoutrements had to be packed away in the apartment on the same day that we were trying to clean it up. Luckily, we were able to enlist the help of awesome downstairs neighbors, “Dongai” (Dawn and Guy), who alternately helped with handywork and babysitting Teo.

Choi put Teo down for a nap in the late afternoon. We continued cleaning and packing, and then she left for Blythedale after rush-hour. At 10pm, she returned with Kyle in her arms and Jeff on her heels with armloads of stuff. Teo awoke to the commotion and came out for a big group hug. Kyle seemed delighted to be back home as he poked around the place, laughing and squealing.

Since then, life as Kyle knows it has more or less returned to normal. He and Teo are playing together, resisting naps, making a mess of the house and doing all the things that happy little kids do. We’ve enjoyed hanging out as a family again with friends and neighbors, and making each day into a fun adventure. Among them, we made a long drive for the beach at Montauk and a short walk to where our compost goes.

Everyone is so inspired by pace of Kyle’s recovery, and so are we. What’s most inspiring to me, however, is the depth of love and care in this community. Thank you.

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Charming progress at Blythedale (Hospitality, part 5)

July 27, 2012

[NOTE: It has been a crazy two months. This series is meant to summarize our experiences at various hospitals, including Kyle’s progress, our family’s attempts to keep up with it, and the love and support that kept us sane through it all. It will be easier to follow if you start with part 1.]

Blythedale,
June 4-July 13

With his generally sweet disposition, Kyle was quick to make friends among the Blythedale staff. He made steady progress, too. But there were setbacks. Chief among them were “pressure wounds” (like bedsores) caused by the Minerva jacket’s constant contact with his scalp. They looked frightening and further complicated everything from bathing to sleeping. Kyle had to be positioned on his side to keep pressure off the back of his head while sleeping.

There were scheduling and communication nightmares, as well. We’re grateful for his extraordinary medical treatment, but shocked by how difficult it was for these professionals to coordinate – and keep – appointments. The most aggravating incident involved delays in getting an MRI that was required before his doctors could even consider removing the troublesome Minerva vest.

However, Kyle was oblivious to all of this, focused as he was (by routine, if not by choice) on regaining his strength and agility. “Tenacious” is how at least one of Kyle’s doctors described him to me. “A fighter” and “trooper” were bandied about frequently, too. As his skills improved, I swear he became bored with previous routines. (Perhaps they seemed obsolete in his mind?)

I was there on the day that he took his first steps for the second time. The next day, he chased his physical therapist across the room with lumbering steps, wide eyes and a big, toothy grin. Thereafter, he was rarely content to sit or be held. He wanted to move!

Shortly after getting the MRI that we had to fight for, Kyle upgraded from the Minerva vest (good riddance!) to a “Miami-Jr.” which looks like the kind of brace you see EMTs put on accident victims. It was significantly smaller and lighter, and it allowed him to move more of his trunk. It’s hard to say who was happier: Kyle or his coterie of therapists who could do so much more with him liberated.

Kyle’s impressive recovery picked up more momentum with every reduction in his brace-wearing requirements. He only had the Miami-Jr. for a couple of weeks. When an X-ray showed that his vertebral fractures were healed, the doctor said he only needed the brace during play time. Kyle enjoyed a sprawling nap that afternoon that must have felt like heaven. Less than a week later, the brace was gone completely. In its place, Kyle’s favorite physical therapist gave him a cool retro-looking helmet.

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During my turns with Kyle at Blythedale, we established some fun routines. He had a little push-truck in which he loved to make laps around the floor, waving and blowing kisses at all the cooing nurses. We’d take it outside and park it on the lawn, then play in the grass and shade, him pants-less and both of us barefoot. His confidence grew exponentially as he learned how to fall and get back up gracefully. We shared a lot of laughs this way, and tried to work up enough hunger to stomach Blythedale’s not-always-appetizing dinners.

Feeding was Kyle’s hardest therapy at Blythedale and speech was a close second. It’s not that he couldn’t eat or communicate; rather, Kyle was insistent on doing these things his way. Kudos to therapists Abby (feeding) and Jessica (speech) for their persistence in getting him to meet them halfway. I was frequently struck by how Kyle’s physical gains (thanks to Kathryn and Yinera in occupational and physical therapy) were so obvious, while gauging and improving his cognitive functions required so much more interpretation and intuition.

Blythedale and related adventures (Hospitality, part 4)

July 26, 2012

[NOTE: It has been a crazy two months. This series is meant to summarize our experiences at various hospitals, including Kyle’s progress, our family’s attempts to keep up with it, and the love and support that kept us sane through it all. It will be easier to follow if you start with part 1.]

Blythedale Children’s Hospital,
June 4-July 13

Blythedale is a rehabilitative hospital located upstate in Valhalla, a little town just north of White Plains, NY. It is accessible by mass-transit, using the Harlem line and a bus transfer, but I’m ashamed to admit I never went that way. Driving there usually took about an hour, and it was generally a pleasant ride on the Bronx River Parkway. (Our worst experience was an hour and a half during the tail end of Friday rush hour.) I even found amusement in NYC’s outbound traffic–so long as it was moving–driving Jeff’s little 5-speed Saturn like a go-cart.

Mostly, I was a chauffeur for visiting hours and the changing of the guard. Kyle lucked out and got a large room all to himself, but Blythedale only allowed one family member to sleep overnight in his room, so we worked out a rotation to balance keeping Kyle company and all the rest of us sane.

Kyle and his entourage kept a busy schedule that began when he woke (usually 7am) and ran until bath and bedtime, often as late as 10pm. There were mid-day naps, too, but other waking hours were packed full with exercises of all kinds. Physical, occupational, speech and feeding therapists each took turns with him. Blythedale’s in-house school often brought in musical and theatrical shows that elicited smiles, applause and screams of delight. It was good social time for Kyle and a precious two hours of personal time for whomever was with him.

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Teo came to visit, too, which always seemed to boost both brothers’ spirits. Kyle was forbidden from leaving the hospital grounds, so we all played together on the lawn. And when it was time for Kyle to rest we conjured up other activities for Teo, including a search for Vikings in Valhalla and a trip to the Kensico Dam.

We adults had some spooky adventures at Blythedale while walking the quiet halls at night. While the hospital had recently opened a beautiful new wing, the other half seemed to be in renovation limbo. There were stains on the walls and in the carpet, doorways blocked with opaque plastic and duct tape, and equipment (some medical, some construction) stashed in random corners. This side was only used during daytime activities, but all the lights and many appliances were left on at night. After putting Kyle to bed late one evening, Jeff and Choi wanted to show me around the place. When we got to the old wing, a zombie apocalypse felt imminent. Here are some excerpts from my journal:

…We turned a corner and saw yet another TV on, and a woman slumped in her chair before it. Asleep? Or the undead? We quietly turned around and walked away, passing laundry carts and triage carts, all looking sad and abandoned, haphazardly so. Down another hall, we tried the doors at “Therapy Village.” Locked. Around the corner, another lighted hallway was open. Full of tricked-out wheelchairs and tricycles, as well as scary-looking, body-bending contraptions like medieval racks…

It was a strange juxtaposition of beauty and beastliness at Blythedale. Without a doubt, Therapy Village is full of cool stimulating stuff. My journal continues:

…There is a beautiful wall full of vibrant colors. It starts with sea images (corals, fish, turtles, and the like) and progresses to famous painters, dancers, and other artists (Jeff and Choi recognized jazz musicians like Coltrane and Monk), as well as public intellectuals like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Hemmingway and Salvador Dali. Artwork presumably done by patients is also displayed. All very inspiring…

Before our nocturnal tour was complete, we experienced the kind of zombie-movie scare that makes you check your pants. Though it’s probably not the image they wish to sell, Blythedale could make a “killing” (har-har) selling tickets to their haunted house on Halloween:

…We headed back down the hall, past the creepy contraptions of children’s confinement. After examining an elaborate wheelchair, we turned to leave. Our conversation had been the only break from eery silence until suddenly there was a panicky series of clicks from a mirrored-glass door. Choi gasped and Jeff jumped. I nearly pissed myself before realizing that we just passed in front of the sensor for an automatic door. Being locked, it went haywire. No zombies, but it was definitely time to get out of there.

Eyes wide open, moving on (Hospitality, part 3)

July 23, 2012

[NOTE: It has been a crazy two months. This series is meant to summarize our experiences at various hospitals, including Kyle’s progress, our family’s attempts to keep up with it, and the love and support that kept us sane through it all. It will be easier to follow if you start with part 1.]

From Cohen’s PICU to the regular floor, then to Blythedale
June 1-4

On most weekdays we commuted between Sunnyside and Kyle’s hospital, but sometimes we just had to crash at Ronald McDonald House. Teo’s school was wonderfully understanding and accommodated such changes on short notice. On those days and weekends, Nana and I spent much more time at Kyle’s bedside.

As his swelling went down, the doctors eased Kyle out of sedation. I was alone at his bedside, pulling a 3am-7am shift, when he first opened his eyes. I nearly burst into tears of joy. Kyle just blinked and went back to sleep.

At every check-up after that, doctors and nurses shined a light in his eyes to see if he was “tracking” as they moved it side to side. Though it appeared he was not, it was too early to tell if he had permanent visual impairment. Prognosis for hearing was similarly confounded by the fact that Kyle was still emerging from a week of heavy narcotics.

Kyle remained on morphine and all kinds of other meds to prevent seizures, reduce swelling, help breathing, and so on. He was intubated (pushing oxygen directly into his lungs), had a feeding tube up his nose and a catheter up his urethra, but he could still fill a diaper without assistance. (Hooray for small victories!)

Soon, there was movement on Kyle’s right side, which seemed paralyzed right after surgery. He began with twitches in response to pain: a little kick or curling of toes, a small flap of the arm or flex of fingers. Though they reminded me of shackles, I told myself that his new bed restraints were also a good sign. If nurses worried that Kyle could roll out of bed this week, maybe it wouldn’t be long until he’d be able to walk?

As the sedatives wore off, Kyle’s whimpers were welcomed signs of life. A silent baby is an eerie thing. That quiet is made worse by the other sounds of the PICU: beeps, blips and alarms of the various machines; the Darth Vader sounds from the breathing apparatus; moaning, gagging and crying from other patients. Worst of all is the gurgling sound of suction. All of these things are amplified when your own child (or nephew) is inaudible.

It may well have been the suction, routinely used to clear his airway of mucus, that provoked Kyle’s movement and crying. (It certainly looked and sounded painful.) However, what really precipitated progress was when they took out his feeding tube and he began to nurse a bottle. Though medical staff remained unconvinced, it was pretty clear to the rest of us that we had visual contact. By then I had made my peace with thoughts of Kyle being blind, but it was no less wonderful to watch the intensity of his inquisitive gaze coming back.

Kyle chugged formula with fervor and progressed quickly. He got cranky, like you’d expect from an 18-month old, but he also laughed a lot. He often flashed a charming smile and gestured in ways that reminded me of my late Grampy Lawrence, one of the sweetest persons I have ever known. Personality can be dramatically altered by traumatic brain injury, so it was a relief (though no guarantee) to recognize Kyle’s old happy habits of communication.

There is a downside to the bottle. Nurses told me that Pediasure tends to make kids constipated. I was convinced of that when Kyle produced a solid, presidential-sized “campaign contribution” one night. The nurse and I were both shocked. Kyle was relieved and probably a pound lighter.

The more Kyle ate, the more everything seemed to be set in motion. He moved from PICU to the regular floor on June 1. As Nana noted in Kyle’s journal, “New month. New room…. It is so good to see Kyle drink from the bottle.” Arrangements were soon made for him to be transferred to Blythedale Children’s Hospital for rehab on June 4, two and a half weeks after the accident.

Atypical day made bearable by love (Hospitality, part 2)

July 22, 2012

[NOTE: It has been a crazy two months. This series is meant to summarize our experiences at various hospitals, including Kyle’s progress, our family’s attempts to keep up with it, and the love and support that kept us sane through it all. It will be easier to follow if you start with part 1.]

Cohen’s PICU and RMH,
May 17-June 1

When Kyle’s accident first happened, downstairs neighbors Dawn and Guy immediately and unflinchingly stepped in to take care of Teo. Many others pitched in, too, while Jeff and Choi dealt with doctors and investigators.

It’s hard enough to comprehend the emotional marathon of Kyle’s fall, the flurry of first responders, initial treatment at one hospital (Elmhurst) and then transfer to another (Cohen/LIJ) for emergency brain surgery. I cannot imagine Jeff and Choi also — and separately — facing a homicide detective’s interrogation while awaiting news of Kyle’s condition. At least they knew that so many people had their backs.

“Nana” (my mom, Kyle’s grandmother) and I arrived in NYC on Saturday morning and Jeff picked us up from LaGuardia airport. (Guy also kindly offered, but Jeff needed to retrieve clothes and other essentials, anyway.) At the apartment in Sunnyside, we were greeted by Dawn and then by another close friend, Ma Yan. Hugs and and heartfelt expressions of solidarity helped soothe the shock we all felt.

Malabika and her son Lex soon arrived with Teo. They had taken him to the zoo that day for a morning of fun distractions. He knew Kyle was hurt, but it didn’t dominate his consciousness. He also knew friends, family and neighbors were still dependable parts of life. All said goodbyes and then Jeff drove us to Cohen Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House (RMH).

Uncle Andy with Teo at LIJ’s Ronald McDonald House.

In the chaotic midst of a very long first night, RMH provided a room for Jeff and Choi to crash. Their sympathetic staff continued to accommodate our needs thereafter. Only four people could stay in the room, but that worked out just fine because we arranged to rotate constant bedside time with Kyle and family time with Teo.

Cohen’s PICU and RMH became our surreal weekend retreat, as close as possible to having the whole family together at once. We each took four-hour shifts (more or less–usually more) by Kyle’s side, naps and meals whenever possible, and the rest was playtime with Teo. RMH is basically an enormous indoor-outdoor playground with a hotel and kitchen attached. Nana, Teo and I returned to Sunnyside on school nights so Teo could continue going to “Amazing Magic Beans” with wonderful friends and dependable  teachers.

On a typical weekday, I’d wake Teo and have him help cook breakfast. (Pancakes are popular in this house and Teo stirs the batter well.) We walked to school together, where I was always warmly received by the teachers and sent on my way with high hopes for Kyle’s recovery. Nana and I had the rest of the morning to run errands and tend to our own needs before I picked up Teo and we drove up the Long Island Expressway. This commute became Teo’s nap time. (Mr. Sandman should be the patron saint of car seats.)

After working into the PICU rotation to give Jeff and Choi some time with Teo, and grabbing some grub at RMH, the bedtime routine began with bathing, putting on PJs and brushing teeth. Then Nana, Teo and I would get back in the car and drive to the Sunnyside apartment by moonlight. Most nights, Saint Sandman worked his magic and I just carried a sleeping Teo directly to bed.

Once inside, Nana and I would often find containers of freshly prepared meals that were dropped off by friends and accompanied by kind notes. One night, Guy intercepted us as we climbed the stairs to say he’d been in the apartment earlier to load a delivery from Omaha Steaks into our freezer. It had arrived anonymously, but the love was no less apparent. It reflected the sentiments of an entire neighborhood.

Hospitality, part 1

July 21, 2012

[NOTE: It has been a crazy two months. This series is meant to summarize our experiences at various hospitals, including Kyle’s progress, our family’s attempts to keep up with it, and the love and support that kept us sane through it all. Despite a few frustrations vented, I hope your overall impression is of the sincerest gratitude for our family’s remarkably good fortune. We are acutely aware that it could have gone much differently. Indeed, our hearts go out to the Sunnyside family of Rory Staunton who grieve a terrible loss at the same time.]

Cohen’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and Ronald McDonald House (RMH) at Long Island Jewish Medical Center,
May 17-June 1.

I’m not ready to share post-operation photos yet, but trust me: Kyle looked like a completely different child when I first saw him. His head was bruised and so swollen that it pushed his ears down and out, making him look like an elf. One side of his scalp was shorn (why shave only one side?) and punctuated by staples on a horseshoe-shaped incision. The other side still had his light, curly locks with a hint of auburn color.

Doctors kept him sedated for several days after surgery. No doubt the pain would have been unbearable, otherwise. His eyes were swollen shut with bulging, purple lids. I knew that hidden beneath them were a pair of the most beautiful eyes. They had previously conveyed a deep contentment with every gaze. When would I see them again? Would he see again? At that time, nobody knew. I had only hope.

Jeff and Choi and lots of people around the world prayed intensely for Kyle’s recovery. Immediately after surgery, he was diagnosed as paralyzed on his right side (opposite the left-side brain injury). Damage to the back of his brain suggested possible vision trouble. Fully aware that he beat the odds just by surviving the fall, I braced for a slow and partial recovery.

Kyle with Haraboji and Nana at Socrates Park in early May

My dad (Kyle’s grandfather, aka “Haraboji”), a psychologist who has worked with children after similar injuries, was concerned for Kyle’s future independence. Jeff shared a touching essay by a father adapting to his daughter’s new life after a traumatic accident. By all estimations, the path ahead would be long and difficult, full of little victories and heartbreaking setbacks.

Friends came to visit in droves. So many, in fact, that the PICU staff asked us to exercise restraint. It was hard to watch each new person’s reaction upon their first glimpse of Kyle in this state. Many tears were shed. When I asked Choi how she was coping with this routine, she said that she’d already cried so much that she was out of tears.

All of our material needs were taken care of. It’s hard to imagine getting by without so much help from friends and strangers. RMH provided us with accommodations and meals right next door to the hospital, as well as fantastic playgrounds where Teo could make new friends. We met other families there in similar circumstances. It was a very supportive environment. Several patients were there for surgeries related to a condition called Chiari malformation, including one teenager who has a blog about it: “Screwed on Tight.” (Great title, don’t you think?)

I was also grateful for the coffee pot that was perpetually full (McCafe isn’t half bad) and even more so that Big Macs and fries were nowhere to be found. Instead, volunteers from churches and other community organizations came by daily to prepare fresh meals. Even a statue of the yellow-clad clown was discretely placed in a shady spot far away from the front door. It was all very tasteful and focused on the foundation’s core mission.

Nothing can compare to the outpouring of compassion from friends and neighbors, however. Many made the trip and brought us home-cooked meals and hand-drawn cards. It was wonderful to hang everyone’s artwork on the walls around Kyle’s bed. People also wrote letters of encouragement in the journal that Jeff and Choi kept, each one giving us a nice reprieve from our own thoughts and interpretations of Kyle’s medical status. Nor did the Sunnymoms forget about Teo. His fourth birthday party was a smash hit, something we could not have pulled off alone in these circumstances.

Cards and notes brightened Kyle’s hospital room

 

Food for worms

July 21, 2012

Ever since we learned about a compost collection at the Sunnyside Greenmarket we’ve been saving our vegetable trimmings and coffee grounds, keeping them in a bag in the freezer. This morning while Choi was teaching music lessons, the girls next door (Isabela and Isalia) joined us boys (Jeff, Teo, Kyle and me) in giving back to the cycle of soil.

The Greenmarket is directly across 43rd Street from Jeff and Choi’s apartment. We put Kyle in the stroller and sauntered on down to the last booth, where two volunteers were chopping up fresh trimmings, blending them with dry wood chips, and loading the mixture into a truck for delivery to a nearby farm for composting. Yes, nearby — right around the corner in Astoria!

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While Teo and Isabela joined in the chopping, a volunteer told us how to get there: walk the Steinway Street overpass, turn on Northern Boulevard, look for the hand-written Brooklyn Grange sign, and take the elevator to the roof. So we did just that. It was sunny and there was still enough cool in the air from yesterday’s rainy day (a welcome respite from the recent heat wave) to make it very pleasant.

A private tour was going on, so it was a crap-shoot whether we would be turned away. With four eager children in tow, I was counting on their powers of persuasion in case of resistance. Should Kyle’s magical gaze not be sufficient to gain entry, a trio of little sad faces would be our ace in the hole.

No theatrics were necessary. (I’ve noticed that if you just act like you belong, New Yorkers tend to assume that you do.) When the elevator doors opened, we stepped into pathways of flowers, fruits and vegetables with a 360-degree panorama of the city skyline. An old cistern presided over this awesome view. Chickens were cooped around the corner.

Jeff and I and the kids loved it. Normally a handful, they were like little angels as we strolled the rooftop farm. Isabela, who had recently returned from a Fresh Air Fund summer camp in Fishkill, explained what she had learned there about the composting process. We scanned the horizon in the direction of the apartment and it was easy to find Sunnyside Gardens: just look for all the trees!

Having sufficiently feasted our eyes, we retraced our steps back to the market and thanked the volunteers who told us about the farm. They were just as delighted as we were.