Dear Lily June,
Today, you received your six-month shots. Your parents get you those vaccinations because we love you, because we’ve chosen to put our faith into those medical professionals who have determined an appropriate timeline of immunizations, because we care about the world around us and don’t want to contribute to the decrease in herd immunity. You, my darling dear, seem healthy, but others aren’t so lucky. For a child with cancer or a grandparent with a compromised immune system, the world has become an even scarier place. A place where one person’s cough could be another’s pertussis; a place where one’s personal choice could impact countless others’ physical health.
We choose not to believe that, in immunizing you against polio and pertussis, measles, mumps and rubella, etc., we put you at risk for autism. We find it hard to dismiss the testimonies of doctors for the testimonies of actors. And yet. We admit our ignorance: We do not know enough to know whether we’re making the right decision. A layman encountering the jargon of actual peer-reviewed medical journals will not necessarily understand what they’re reading any more than a concerned parent who stumbles into a discussion board populated by other concerned parents will know whether or not what they’re reading is gospel or hearsay. To take a Henry James quote completely out of context to serve my own purposes,
“We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have…”
We also choose to believe that, even if the link between vaccinations and autism were explicit and substantiated by years worth of study, we would not trade your physical health for a lack of developmental challenges. We have not experienced autism (that we know of). We cannot begin to understand the complex lives and struggles of the parents of autistic children. But when I look at images of those who have been permanently scarred or harmed by polio, images like the one below…
…of an absolutely beautiful little girl whose life has been changed by polio forever, and who, in another time, or another country, or another life, could be you, I know we don’t really have a choice.
We know that autism is a reality in our world. My own mental health issues make its possibility a constant preoccupation in my mind. Will she? Won’t she? I wonder obsessively. And yet, I choose to believe that even if–even under the extraordinarily unlikely circumstance that–somehow, protecting your body changed the way you function, put you on “that spectrum,” I would love you and find ways to meet you where you are.
There is so much I don’t know, medically, and can’t prevent, maternally, but I know this much is true: For every child who struggles and succeeds in this world with autism, there is a proud parent behind him/her, taking joy in delight in his/her abilities regardless of what artificial stages society has chosen to accept as “norms.” There are extraordinary talents in everyone, like this boy–who just happens to have autism–who is so adorable laying next to the toys he has painstakingly arranged as a part of his condition.
So why, Lily, do I worry? Why, after leaving you in the loving care of your grandmother and your father to wrestle with yet another bout of post-vaccination fever, do I sit here in a panic, gnawing the skin off my fingers in a habit I only just now, just learned is called dermatophagia? (Of all the things you inherit from your mother’s side of the family, leave this one alone. Your Grandpa Edward and I have swallowed enough thumb skin for entire generations.)
I worry, in part, because I am a worrier by nature–that’s part of my personality. In part, I gnaw at my knuckles because I have diagnosed and chronic anxiety–that’s part of my own medical and mental history. But in part, my panic is through the roof because there is so much to being a parent I cannot control–that’s part of reality. I can’t hug a fever out of you, though I will certainly give you the recommended dosage of Tylenol if that’s all I can do. I can’t take the pain of those shots for you; I have to listen to you cry and know I have made the hard choice millions of parents have made before me: sacrificing their own comfort for the greater good of their child. I would take a bullet for you, Lily, but I cannot take how difficult today–or tonight–or tomorrow may be.
But I can, as I have done the last two times you got your shots, hold you while the fever burns through you and the shots take their effect. I can tell you I love you for as long as my lungs have breath in them to exhale the words. I can bite my thumbs raw while you suck your thumbs soaked, because sometimes, comfort comes through pain, and other times, through pleasure. I think, little Lily, though I am still learning and growing, that this must be the truth of parenting: That sometimes, the pain and the pleasure are wrapped together in the same blanket as a sweating, screaming baby who is a miracle. And a monster. And is sacred. And is scared. And is scary. And is loved.
I can’t help but worry; you can’t help but cry. Tonight, you and I will speak to each other across these incomprehensible languages of love, and there will be no words that I can give you to make the tiny pin-prick of pain heal faster. And someday, you may live through larger challenges, and the pain may open into a laceration, or a wound, or a gash, or a fracture, or a heartbreak and whatever I’ve done to try and prevent it won’t be enough, and you will hurt, and ache, and puke, and bleed, and stumble, and fall, and rise, and soar, and heal.
Know that my heart–and my thumbs–ache for every decision your father and I have made, and will make, for you. Know that, when it comes time for you to make these decisions for yourself, I will hold up two bloody stumps of a thumbs up, and I will worry for, and I will trust, and I will clutch at, and I will release, and I will nag, and I will believe in, and I will support you. You’re still so young, and so vulnerable, that every fever feels like it lasts forever. Every twenty-four hours of temperature taking is torturous. But bring on tonight, my dear. Even working in the dark, as we do, your parents have done what we can. We have given what we have. The rest is up to you.
- “Fingertips of a dermatophagia sufferer”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fingertips_of_a_dermatophagia_sufferer.jpg#/media/File:Fingertips_of_a_dermatophagia_sufferer.jpg
- “Polio sequelle” by Photo Credit:Content Providers(s): CDC – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #5578.Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polio_sequelle.jpg#/media/File:Polio_sequelle.jpg
- “Autistic-sweetiepie-boy-with-ducksinarow” by The original uploader was Andwhatsnext at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Autistic-sweetiepie-boy-with-ducksinarow.jpg#/media/File:Autistic-sweetiepie-boy-with-ducksinarow.jpg