I knew, at some point, I’d tell my daughters about the brain aneurysm that nearly killed me a few years before they were born. I just didn’t know when. Then I wrote a book about it.
The story of my illness and recovery was about to be very public. There would be interviews on radio and television, articles in newspapers and magazines, readings in bookstores, and people talking to me in front of them about the book and everything in it.
“Very sick.” “In the hospital.” “So scary.” “Almost died.” I was concerned about my nearly four-year-old daughter overhearing, as she certainly would, and stitching snippets together herself. I wanted to have some control over the information she received, not so much to protect her, but to be able to guide her in whatever way she needed in order to understand what had happened to her mom.
We’d had some practice already in difficult question territory. Our approach was to play it straight: answer no more but also no less than the question asked, and follow our daughter’s lead. We’d covered where babies come from (“So the sperm just kind of squirts out?” You got it, kid.) and death was big around our house for a while. “But where is she?” my daughter wanted to know about her namesake, my grandmother, Louise.
The difference with the aneurysm was that she didn’t know there was a question to ask. Though I’ve had multiple surgeries, the scar that runs across the top of my head is buried beneath my hair. I’m blind in one eye, but my eyes track normally. My brain has remapped itself so that I barely notice the deficit, and I move through the world like a fully sighted person. A prosthesis fills the fist-sized hole where a piece of skull, too diseased to save, once was. When my daughter looks at me, she just sees her mom, healthy and whole.
This is amazing to me.
When I was recovering, even after my doctor cleared me for pregnancy, I’d wonder sometimes whether I could, or should, become a mother. Though my doctors insisted otherwise, I felt prone to breakage. I feared having a child and getting sick again, or worse. Moms are supposed to be fearless and strong. In my daughter’s eyes, I was. I didn’t want to take that away from her.
So I brought the subject up carefully. “Do you know what the book I wrote is about?” I asked her one day walking home from the playground. She recited the title and subtitle, “Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home.” I asked her if she knew what the “broken brain” part meant.
“It’s funny!” she said, “It’s not real.”
“Actually,” I told her, “it is.”
I went on, creating as much distance as I could between the present moment and what I was about to tell her:
“Once, a long time ago, before you were born, I got hurt inside my head.”
“You fell down?”
“Yes, I did fall down. Because my brain was hurt.”
“Did you need a Band-aid?”
“Well, you can’t put a Band-aid on your brain. A doctor called a surgeon went inside my brain and fixed the broken part with a tiny clip. And then I was all better.”
Back at home, I brushed back my bangs and for the first time showed her my scar. She ran her finger along it and stroked the strip of skin where the hair doesn’t grow. I don’t have a lot of sensation there, but I felt pressure and tingling where her small finger touched, and her warm breath on my forehead.
“It’s soft,” she said. “And this part is bumpy.”
I thought of my own parents’ bodies — the scar beneath my father’s ear where he’d once had a cyst removed, the ladybug-sized freckle on my mother’s toe — how, when I was a kid, the features of their bodily landscapes marked them as mine. I thrilled at the intimacy of my daughter now discovering more of the landscape of my body. This is the privilege and the burden of being a family, knowing each other in full.
As my daughter grows older, she will likely ask more questions about this thing that happened to me a long time ago. I’ll tell the story multiple times; it will grow and change as she does.
Shortly after that initial conversation, my daughter asked me why I always wear glasses, and never contacts like her dad. I explained that I can see out of only one eye, so it’s important for me to wear glasses in order to protect the eye that works. Again, she thought this was a joke. When I gently insisted it wasn’t, she thought for a second, then said,
“You can borrow one of my eyes.”
“Thanks, but that’s okay,” I said. “I don’t need it.”
“Can you see me, Mama?” she wanted to know.
“Yes, I can see you.”
“All the way?” she asked.
I smiled. “All the way.”
“I see you all the way, too, Mama.”
Fechtor is the author of the bestselling memoir “Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home.”
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