When a child is ill

Last week, just after her tenth birthday, our granddaughter in Toronto was admitted to Sick Kids and ended up having her appendix removed. She was much on our minds these days of surgery and recovery, and I could easily imagine an even stronger and more tender attention by her parents during this time. I couldn’t help remembering her father’s tonsil removal as a boy and how I hovered beside his bed after the operation, nearly bursting with love and concern. 

I heard a story once about Susanna Wesley, mother of ten (living) children, including the famous John and Charles. I don’t recall the source, and for all I know, the story is apocryphal. At any rate, it was something along the lines of her being asked which of her children she loved the most. A foolish question, to be sure, but her answer struck me as true. “The sick child,” she said, “when s/he is ill. The absent child, when s/he is gone.” 

I so totally get that. It’s not that the child is a favourite in comparison to the others, but awareness and yearning and care fastens on to the ill or absent child, wanting everything okay or better for them. So it was after the tonsil operation. So it was the Christmas our oldest was in Europe for Christmas and he hadn’t phoned before we left for a family gathering in Alberta (this was in pre-cell phone days) and although I had two other beloved children to enjoy on that journey, the longing for the missing one was an ache. So it was when we drove away from the Southern Institute of Technology in Calgary where our daughter would study, the separation feeling unbearable to me — our youngest and last! — now gone too. Such particular sensations settle into regular, ongoing affection once the child is better or the child returns or, in the case of them leaving the nest, a simple and eventual adjustment to a new stage. But in the originating period, they’re powerful.

These days, I’ve also been entering into a computer file some memories my mother-in-law set down in a small notebook in 1991, some months before her death, when she was 83. One of them concerned her daughter Helga, who got polio as a child. The daughter lost the use of one leg but she grew up to be a teacher and compassionate leader in her community in Paraguay. Not  surprisingly, however, the mother could not forget those agonizing days of the child’s illness. It was another example of what I’ve noted above.

(My post ends here, but if interested, you can read excerpts of this story, which I’ve translated from German, below. Please note that the context was a pioneer settlement in a difficult environment — the Chaco, Paraguay — with a small and, by current standards, primitive hospital. And a still inexperienced doctor.)


Our Helga…walked by eleven months and had such lovely curly blond hair…. It was 1944. Our Helga would be 2 years in March. In February, there was a report in the Mennoblatt [local paper] about polio [Kinderlaehmung]. The report grabbed me and I thought about it…. On March 6, we wanted to go to church…but our Helga was somewhat feverish so I stayed home with her…. Then she became very sick, her temperature rose very high. I wrapped her in a cold sheet. Her temperature dropped and she wanted out. I set a chair outside and we sat in it together. When the children rounded up the calves I encouraged her to go help. She didn’t want to at first but then she went anyway. I noticed that her right leg moved oddly as she walked. I thought, but she doesn’t have a thorn in her foot…. [Later] I said to [my husband] that I feared our Helga would get polio. He didn’t want me to think such a thing…. She got feverish again. I brought her in her child-cot close to my bed. She slept restlessly and so did I. When she woke in the morning I immediately set her on the table. She stood only on her left foot; when I told her to stand properly, she said, I can’t. I said to [my husband], I’m going to the hospital right now…. I asked the doctor if it was polio and he said, Girls don’t get polio. I don’t know if I was given medicine for her…. On Wednesday I took her to Mrs Derksen [a local woman who’d studied as a nurse in Russia] and when I laid the child down, she immediately said, It’s clear to see it’s polio. The next day I went to the hospital again and when the doctor saw me, he scolded, Don’t you know there’s no consultations today? I swallowed and said, If my child is sick, I come to the doctor. He examined her carefully, took something out of her back, and said it could be meningitis. Meningitis? What does that mean? A disabled child. O dear God, not that. How worried we were.

The doctor gave me a thermometer, told me to measure and write it down three times a day. This was Thursday morning…. She was supposed to have lots of dairy. I still had some raisins, so Marichen [older daughter] made a raisin soup [with milk]. During this time, she [Helga] stiffened and turned herself to the left side, her head tipped back and eyes nearly white. I said to Marichen, Helga isn’t going to need that soup. I went to the other room, knelt and prayed, Take her Lord, I can’t watch the child die. When I returned to her bed, the crisis had passed. That was a hard morning.

When my husband came for lunch, she heard the gate and called, Papa, Papa…. She hung on him. Friday evening I brought Dr. __ the temperatures…. I told him how sick Helga had been. He said to bring her to the hospital the next day for treatment.

I wanted to buy Helga something for her birthday…. I found a little sheep with a lamb. There was not much selection in toys at that time. When I came to the hospital [to see her] she was sleeping. I had to hide behind a wall. I saw [when she woke] how she held the sheep in her hands. She is my child and I’m not allowed to go to her. I’m not allowed to go to her. Oh how that hurt. As I was leaving she spotted me from behind. She called, Mama, Mama, but I was not allowed to turn around. We could only visit her now and then; she would just want to come home. One Sunday when we visited she was frightened whenever [my husband] moved, afraid he would leave. So our child had to lie there four weeks and get hot compresses…

After 4 weeks without success, our child could come home. She was an energetic child, and though disabled [her right leg never functioned or grew and was amputated when she was an adult] she was clear in her mind, and we were grateful for that. Until she was 5, she crawled. I made her a few little pants. A layer of light material on top and stronger material underneath…. Often I had to patch the pants every second or third day, because they wore through from her crawling. [My husband] had some crutches made for her but she didn’t want them. Until he encouraged her by saying, When you can walk with crutches, you can go to the store and buy caramels. We had sweets very seldom. Then she really tried. Susi and Elfriede [older sisters] helped her. It didn’t take long and, Elfriede accompanying her, she went to the store for caramels. She fell once. That was a big victory for us.

She loved to play with the children, and to climb trees. One of the children’s favourite games was Tipp-tipp [like Kick the Can]. She could not run far. So she came into the kitchen, sat down on a sack, looked at me and said, Mama, will I never be able to run? O how that cut.    



14 thoughts on “When a child is ill

  1. Thank you…what a precious story. Brings tears…must be my age! Reminds me to write some family stories…if I can remember. 😉 B.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. I know that feeling of helplessness and panic. Our second daughter, Anita, had severe seizures before the age of two, and we were in Congo. We took her to the clinic and a missionary nurse was finally able to stop the seizures. We had to watch her carefully, as she would get seizures whenever she had a fever and we lived in a malaria prone area. Thank God, no lasting effects!

  3. Very touching story, Dora. Thanks for sharing it. It is so true. Our deepest concern is always for the one who is sick or away.

  4. A lovely read – and most mothers would echo your thoughts about their “sick” or “absent” child. I remember when our 45 year old son was 15 years old, he was involved in a serious road accident and was in a coma for almost a week.
    It was a Sunday evening and I sat by his bedside, praying and reading my Bible. He did survive but now lives thousands of miles away in South America. We last saw him almost 3 years ago when we went to Vietnam where he was living but don’t know if we will ever see him again as he says he will never come back to the U.K.
    I loved the translation from your Mother-in-law’s notebook. We should all write down more stories for future generations to read when we are gone! M xx

  5. You really capture how love for a child changes you…it’s wearing your heart outside your body.
    That translated story is so poignant, and it reminds us to be thankful for vaccines that protect our children from that horrible disease.

    • Thank you Carol. I can still recall getting the first polio vaccine some time mid-50s and the sense that because of it something wonderful had happened for children everywhere.

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