“It’s going to hurt, mommy!”
“It will. But you can do this.”
She takes a deep breath, then exhales. “I can do it.” The lab tech picks up my daughter’s chubby toddler hand while I hold her arm in place. There’s the prick of a needle, then blood - flowing too fast, as usual. She whimpers and tries to pull away, then, without being prompted, takes another breath, exhales, and relaxes her arm.
I kiss her round cheeks as we wait for the blood draw to finish. My little girl is barely 3 years old, but she already knows how to manage pain and fear.
In the month of May, as we honor military service members, military spouses, and mothers, I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy. They say that most of what you pass on to your children is caught, not taught. And I’ve been wondering what kind of legacy my children will have after growing up in a military family.
We all know military service - especially deployment - affects children in deep ways. But is the impact always negative? Is it possible that life in a military family might also become a source of strength for them one day? I think so.
Five months ago, we rushed my then-two-year-old daughter to the ER when a “just in case” blood test revealed extremely low platelet levels.
After the longest day of my life, she was diagnosed with the Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), a blood disorder characterized by excessive bruising and bleeding. At moderate platelet levels, ITP goes away in 6 to 12 months without treatment. But that day, she was at 9,000 platelets per microliter, in danger of spontaneous internal bleeding.
The hospital treatment worked ... for a while. Her platelets went back up. We went home from the hospital with a list of activities to avoid and a plan for regular blood tests and doctor check-ins. Then the real challenge began.
Five months of vigilance. Constantly checking for new bruises and petechiae (little broken blood vessels under the skin). Agonizing over which falls merited a call to the doctor or even a trip back to the hospital. Cleaning blood out of her favorite sweatshirt, favorite stuffed animal, favorite you name it, because there was never enough gauze after drawing her blood. She’s acting strange - is that normal, tired toddler strange? Or internal bleeding strange?
Five months of guilt. Was I being too vigilant now, or not enough? Was I becoming a helicopter mom? Did the other moms think I was crazy? Why hadn’t I thought to ask the doctor first before taking her to toddler ballet class? (Ballet, of all things!)
Five months of waiting. For phone calls, for emails, for our number to be called in the waiting room. Blood test. Wait. Result. Wait. Repeat. Feeling like a rubber band stretched to the point of snapping, watching her platelets sink lower and lower, waiting for that other shoe to drop.
Then it did.
The small cluster of petechiae on her neck is spreading. I sip my coffee and try to focus on our guests, but I can’t stop checking my daughter’s neck. By the time our company leaves, an hour later, the patch of petechiae has gone from the size of a fingertip to a wide band that covers her entire neck like a scarf.
It’s almost nap time, but we pile into the car and head to the nearest clinic for yet another blood draw. “Whatever is wrong, we can handle it,” I tell myself as I drive. But the tension I’ve been carrying for five months is just on the verge of simmering over. What if, what if, what if?
Finally, the call comes. For once, my gut is right. Her platelets are too low. “She’ll need to be admitted today. Make arrangements, pack your things.”
Back in the car, this time to the hospital. Even though I know from last time that the experience will be hard on all of us, I feel more peace than I have in months, because finally - FINALLY - the waiting is over. No more “what if’s”. Now I can simply deal with the “what.” And as a military spouse, that’s kind of becoming a specialty of mine.
Suffering is a part of life. It’s inevitable - not just in military or first responder service, but everywhere. And hardship doesn’t always seem to have any sort of neat purpose or explanation at all. I’m learning that how you handle suffering is sometimes more important than having a clear-cut answer for why you’re suffering.
That’s one way that I believe military life has made us stronger. We military and first responder spouses know how to endure difficult things, don’t we? We have our strategies, tested and refined in the fire of deployments, night shifts, and endless waiting.
We’re masters at finding silver linings in the darkest clouds. We know how to laugh when our younger selves would have been crying. We know the current pain won’t last forever, and we can be laser focused on the end goal, even when it’s not really anywhere in sight. And we know, deep in our bones, because we’ve experienced it: the struggle only makes us stronger.
I don’t know how this season of living with ITP will affect my daughter in the long term. I hope it doesn’t make her excessively cautious, and I’m working hard to deal with my own anxiety so I don’t inadvertently pass it on to her. Part of me hopes we can put it behind us one day soon and never think about it again.
But deep down, I want one thing for her as a legacy from this season, and from me, her mother the military spouse: The quiet confidence that comes from knowing she can endure anything and come out stronger.
We leave the hospital after a night of treatment and drive home. Once again, they didn’t use enough gauze on her hand when they took the IV out. By the time I get her out of the car, the bleeding has finally stopped, but her small hand is a gruesome mess of bloody gauze, tape, and sodden sweatshirt sleeve.
“NO! Don’t look at it, mommy.”
“Don’t look at my owie. Don’t touch it.”
She stomps past me toward the house, her hand cradled protectively against her body, a fierce glare on her face.
We go inside. I find a clean bandaid and put it on the counter. “We’ll fix your owie later, when you’re ready,” I say, trying to sound like I know what I’m doing, like I’m not completely making this up as I go along.
Half an hour later, my heart nearly stops as she suddenly puts down her toys and pulls the bloody tape and gauze off her hand. She puts it in the garbage, then gets the new bandaid off the counter and puts it on her hand by herself. There’s a huge bruise on her hand, so I know it has to hurt, but she doesn’t make a peep the whole time.
That’s my little threenager. My military kid. My brave, stubborn, beautiful girl, taking care of business on her own terms and without flinching.
I’ll take that legacy.