I took my oldest daughter to the American Girl Doll store this weekend to buy a wheelchair.
She has always had a keen and unexplainable interest in all things injured and unfortunate. Her father and I noticed this at a very early age. When asked to choose a bedtime story, she usually opted for the ones where someone ruptured an appendix, broke a leg, or had the chicken pox. She would review the malady with thorough detail and repeatedly quiz the reader on the exact nature of the misfortune. “But how did she fall out of the tree? Like this? What does it feel like to break a bone? Does it hurt more or less than having the stomach flu?… ” Admittedly, her fascination with malaise initially worried me. Was it normal for such a young girl to be so interested in morbidity? Her interest did not seem to come from a worried or sad place, though. She asked her borderline-macabre questions with a genuine eagerness in her expression. Hmmm. I wasn’t sure how to channel or relate to her curiosity.
Though she has always been predisposed to this particular fascination, she has certainly witnessed more than her fair share of unexpected life events in our family. Her father, a warrior of the toughest and most stoic breed, experiences daily physical battles that would challenge those with even the highest pain thresholds. He is a selfless hero who rarely asks for help or attention when dealing with a particularly unkind vascular condition and resulting spinal cord surgery. My daughter has a very obvious soft spot for her daddy and is certainly the most attentive to his discomfort and needs. (I do my best, but I’m no Florence Nightingale.) When we go out, she always waits for him as I chase and corral her busy siblings. She usually encircles his hand in hers and skips gingerly beside him making sure not to upend his walking stick. For as long as she can remember a time before his struggles, she has signed off each evening with, “You’re the best daddy in the whole world and I hope your boo-boo leg feels better today and tomorrow.” Every single night. And if, on the rare occasion, she is tucked into bed by a babysitter, she leaves a note by the front door with this mantra highlighted in magic marker and, sometimes, glitter.
When she was five, her baby sister was diagnosed with cancer. Now that was an unexpected and precarious time for us all, of course. There were many foggy days of doctor’s office visits, hospital stays, wringing of hands, scary operations, and shedding of tears. (Note: We just celebrated two years of remission, so we are in a happy place now.) The twins spent many of those first days shuffling between grandparents, friends, and lovely neighbors and I believe that the uncertainty factor contributed toward my eldest daughter’s growing fixation on disease.
Again, I worried. Until I realized that I didn’t need to.
It was right around the time my daughter was voted by her classmates “Most Likely to Be a Nurse” (she asked, why not doctor?), that I started to understand she uses her interest/fascination/obsession with misfortune for good. She is drawn to the sick not because she is dark, but because she is a light. She is the first to run to her collection of band-aids when her daredevil brother skins his knee in the driveway. She is the first to bring me a cool washcloth when she suspects I have a headache. She is the first to “tweedle” her father’s back when he is having a challenging day. Her pain receptors are always open and she is happy to be of service.
When she opened her American Girl Doll gift certificate on her birthday, she was elated. “ I already know exactly what I’m going to get!” she squealed. “Elizabeth needs a wheelchair!” Whereas I would have asked why in the past, I think I understand my complicated girl a little better these days.